Latvia wins thriller in shootout
by Andrew PODNIEKS|19 MAY 2024
photo: Matt Zambonin/IIHF
Dans Locmelis tied an IIHF Men's World Championship record by scoring two goals in the penalty-shot shootout, the second of which gave Latvia a 3-2 win over Slovakia. The win keeps Latvia's hopes of the playoffs alive. They now have nine points to Slovakia's 12 in the Group B standings.

Locmelis's winner came in the 7th round. He deked Samuel Hlavaj and shot, and the puck snuck through the goalie's equipment and trickled over the goal line.

Both teams have one game remaining in the round robin. Latvia plays the United States on Tuesday afternoon followed by a Slovakia-Sweden tilt. To qualify for the playoffs, Latvia needs to win in regulation and then have Slovakia lose in regulation. Any other combination of results will give Slovakia the final playoff spot.

"We did our best, and our PK was great today, especially in the first period," said defender Kristaps Zile. "That gave us a push, and our goalie was keeping us in the game, which gave us more confidence. But that's not the whole story; we still have to score some goals. If we had lost today, the tournament is over for us. We had to take our chances at the end, but went to the net and scored."

Slovakia's Peter Cehlarik had scored the go-ahead goal with 1:44 remaining to give Slovakia what looked like a victory, but just 24 seconds later Latvia tied it.

Cehlarik's goal was the result of a puck battle behind the net, and Juraj Slafkovsky ended up with the puck in front. He spotted Cehlarik, who made no mistake. But while Slovakia was celebrating, Latvia brought the puck up ice and tied the game on a long shot by Oskars Cibulskis.

"That's hockey," said a dejected Andrej Golian. "Things happen. We need to be tougher in those situations."

Slovakia came out and dominated the first period in a way that clearly indicated how important that fourth playoff spot was. They outshot the Latvians 20-8 and spent much of the period in the offensive end, but try as they might they couldn’t beat Kristers Gudlevskis. Slovakia also had the only three power plays of the period, but they came up empty-handed.

"Our first period was our best of the tournament, but then we took a couple of penalties, but we were still in the game," Golian added. And in the overtime, two more penalties. Our PK did a great job."

To their credit, the Latvians played determined defence and weathered the storm, and then with Ali-like patience their rope-and-dope somehow yielded a late goal. Coming down three-on-two off the rush, Rihards Bukarts got the puck cross-ice to Miks Indrasis. He spotted Ralfs Friebergs alone in front, and Friebergs redirected the pass. Samuel Hlavaj made the save, but the puck bounced off Friebergs and dribbled into the goal at 18:39, giving the Latvians a most improbable lead after the first period.

Latvia used the momentum from that goal to play a much stronger and more confident second, but Slovakia still had plenty of good chances, all turned aside by Gudlevskis. The Latvians also had two of three power plays in the middle 20, which went for naught, and after two periods the score remained a nail-biting 1-0, a playoff spot very much hanging in the balance.

Slovakia came out with renewed purpose in the third and were, finally, rewarded. Pavol Regenda fought off two Latvians behind the goal to get the puck in front to Martin Pospisil, and Pospisil moved to his backhand, waited for Gudlevskis to commit, and then slid the puck into the open side at 2:06 to make it a 1-1 game.

From then on, you could cut the drama with a knife and both teams fought for their playoff lives.