International Ice Hockey Federation

Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished

Latvian U20 team heading to Canada in 2017

Published 25.04.2017 09:17 GMT-4 | Author Chapin Landvogt
Mission accomplished
The Latvian national team celebrates the promotion after earning against Italy the fifth win in its fifth game of the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A. Photo: Andreas Robanser
The Latvian national team came to Vienna, Austria, with its sights set on promotion back into the world’s elite class at the U20 level.

By wrapping up the tournament with their fifth victory in five games at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A, that mission was accomplished! After three years in the Division I the Latvians will return to the top level for the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto, Canada.

However, the 3-0 victory in the last game sure didn’t come easy.

Heading into the last day of play against last place Italy, who came into the game without a point and having been outscored 26 to 5, all Latvia needed was one point against the tournament’s weakest contestant to absolutely ensure promotion. And although it looked like it would be a walk in the park heading in, Italy clearly showed up to crash the party.

“We knew this game was going to be tough, because they were going to sit back on defence and we’d have to find a way to go through them. We had a lot of chances for a goal and couldn’t capitalize, but we knew one would come eventually, so we kept plugging away,” explains Latvian first line forward Haralds Egle, who currently plays his club hockey for the Madison Capitols of the USHL.

The eventual game winner was scored by Egle on a nifty move to put the puck over Italian goalie Hannes Treibenreif’s stick side shoulder. It came just three and a half minutes into the game.

After that, Treibenreif shut the door again and again as Latvia’s waves of attack led to nothing more than frustration. “I know how games like this can be. They’re psychologically tricky. When you shoot a lot and the puck doesn’t go in, the opposition goalie becomes more and more confident. It’s when character becomes very important and that’s what our boys showed,” stated Latvian General Manager Juris Stals, who himself is still an active player after a long international career.

Treibenreif and his teammates did everything necessary to keep them in the game and although Italy only mustered six shots all game long, they missed on two excellent opportunities that resulted from Latvian errors they forced through an effective defensive concept. Eventually, they could no longer hold the fort and Kirils Galoha was able to put a backhand shot in through a crowd in the goal crease with roughly seven minutes to go in the game.

When Italy was awarded a late power play, Coach Erwin Kostner pulled the goalie to get a 6-on-4 advantage. The two-man advantage began with some good puck movement until a shot from the point was blocked by Martins Dzierkals, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, who then dished it off to Rodrigo Abols, who potted his fourth goal of the tournament into an empty net with just 40 seconds left to play.

The joy and relief on the Latvian bench could be felt for the remainder of the game.

“I’m feeling just great. This is finally taking place after my three years of doing this. The third time’s the charm, I guess. Now our many 97-born players can play on the big stage in Canada a year from now,” claimed an elated Rodrigo Abols, who currently plays WHL hockey for the Portland Winterhawks.

It was a sentiment that clearly wasn’t just his own. “This is fantastic. We all knew heading in that we needed at least a point to move up. There was going to be no stopping us. We got the job done and the emotions are really up right now,” concurred forward Filip Buncis.

“This is awesome. Just an incredible feeling. The team really hung in there every game and this is the best feeling ever,” furthered Haralds Egle, whose elation was felt by the whole team, which could be heard cheering and celebrating for a good long time in the locker room after the game. Like several teammates, Egle will no longer be U20-eligible when Latvia heads to Canada next year at this time. “This is my last year, but it’s a great feeling knowing I helped my teammates go up and now will get to enjoy that incredible experience next year.”

For the tournament, the team’s MVP proved to be starting goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks, who put up an outstanding 1.71 goals against average and 94.1 save percentage over four starts. “I think it’s amazing that I was named the team’s MVP. It’s the first time anything like this has happened to me. And I have to think of how my teammates were always blocking shots and moving out bodies. They made my job a lot easier,” explained the elated Kivlenieks.

This game once again went to show how close the teams at this level have closed the gap. There’s no doubt that Latvia was the tournament’s top team, but gaining promotion was no walk in the park at any juncture in playing five gruelling games in just seven days.

“We never really panicked today against Italy. Obviously, that wasn’t the score that we or anyone else was expecting. We went in knowing we can’t underestimate them. They have a strong goalie and he showed that today. They kept things tight in their 2-1 loss to Germany and their goalie faced like 60 some shots, so we knew it could happen again. We wanted to play tight and knew they’d concentrate solely on defence,” stated Abols, who went on to further summarize the challenges of the tournament.

“For me personally, the first two games were the toughest and the most important. I’ve been playing in North America and just getting used to the big ice again was a tough challenge. We started off against Austria and I’m glad we met them when we did. We took away their chances and had a big 6-2 win, which gave us that initial confidence boost. Now we’ve seen how incredibly well they’ve played against Germany and Norway. So that first win was huge. We had a slow start against the Kazakhs, but picked things up as the game went on and never had a doubt that we’d beat them. The game against Norway was incredibly tight, as always. Then we had an all-important game against Germany. We knew what was at stake and took it. We played our most complete game when it mattered most. Now the Italians gave us all we could handle. But we managed to win at every step of the way.”

The Latvian U20 program headed to Vienna, Austria for the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A on a mission. Knowing that no one was going to hand the traditional ice hockey nation promotion into the world’s top class at the U20 level on a plate, the Latvians nevertheless brought an internationally experienced group that had to be considered one of the favourites heading in.

Now there’ll be a whole new challenge for the program, but one the program – and the hockey world – are looking forward to with good reason.

“Latvia is very happy. We feel we belong in the world’s top group and now we’ve gotten back up. It’s a big step for Latvian ice hockey,” explained long-time international and now assistant coach Juris Opulskis. “More than 10 players in this team are 97-born and have the possibility of being on next year’s squad. Our goalie Gustav Grigals, who got the shutout today, was born in 1998 and has a bright future. He’s currently playing in the MHL and he’s a very strong and talented goalie.”

Stals summarized the event and what it means for the Latvian hockey program. “Our boys were the best team in the tournament and they went out and proved it again today. And heck, whether you win 7-0 or 1-0, a win is a win and we got the job done. I’m incredibly proud of these guys.”

“I’ve verified that 12 members of this team are eligible for the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal. That’s a great building block and some of those players were already first line keys in this tournament. But having played well here wasn’t an automatic ticket to the event in Canada. There’s a lot of time, development, and hockey until then. A lot still has to be determined to earn a way into the World Junior Championship line-up next winter.”

With the loss today, Italy has officially been relegated and despite two closer results, only managed to score five goals. Host Austria will look to close the tournament at home with a convincing second place finish tonight at 20:00. For this, they’ll need a victory over Kazakhstan, which is entering the game with five points. An overtime game between Germany and Norway ensured that Germany will finish at least third. Certain at this point is that each of Austria, Germany, Norway, and Kazakhstan will be returning to Division I Group A play next December together with France, which earned promotion to that level.

For Latvia, there’ll be a closing ceremony with medals, then some celebrations tonight followed by a Christmas to remember. The program will closely watch the upcoming IIHF World Junior Championships in Helsinki starting on 26th December.

Then it will go back to work in preparing for the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto beginning next December. With its U20 and U18 teams both back with the world’s elite, 2016 is truly going to be a year to remember for the Latvian ice hockey program.

The rest of the hockey world best consider itself warned.


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