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The 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing have arrived and the hockey tournament is getting underway. The tournament underdogs - Latvia returned to the big stage for the first time since 2014.

The Latvians entered the game having played Denmark in their only test game prior to the tournament which didn’t bring much clarity for things to come. Harijs Vitolins kicked the gates open with a surprise straight off the bat - Miks Indrasis, one of the team's leaders didn’t dress for the opening game. Ivars Punnenovs - a man who pulled Latvia into the Olympics would start in goal. Meanwhile, Sweden elected to start SKA’s Lars Johannson in the net to begin the group C battles.

The task at hand? Discipline and capitalization of their own chances - at least so according to Latvian head coach Harijs Vitolins. One of the Swedish leaders Marcus Kruger pointed out that no game against the Latvian side is easy and that a battle between sides would be hard.

After going down 0:3 against Sweden, Latvia demonstrated a fighting spirit and managed to cut the gap to a single goal, sadly it wasn’t enough for them to earn a point in this match as they lost - 2:3 the final score.

‘’It’s the first game and you always expect to win but I’m happy with the overall perfomance of the team. We were more aggressive, we went down 0:3 but still managed to show character and get back into the game. It’s a huge positive, we have to work on our capitalization, take fewer penalties.’’ Coach Vitolins said after the game. ‘’We were alive from the very beginning, we played the body without resistance,’’ he added. ‘’For this game, we made a decision to use players that we believe were ready. No medical issues, just our personal choice. People have to fight for a roster spot and realize their role in the team.’’

Tre Kronor take charge

Anton Lander wasted no time and went straight for the net right off the face-off and the puck just barely stayed out of Punnenovs net with the goalie scrambling to stop the puck. Five minutes in Swedes had a visible on-ice advantage but the Latvian side didn’t give up much room for the opponent to use. A rather close start and all according to the plan of Latvians. Things seemed good until the mid-point of the period when Wallmark used out-of-position Latvian defense to make it 1:0 for Tre Kronor.

The time ran faster once Latvia got down by a goal - the game suddenly had shifted into something different. They were going ahead to try and find something offensively and now Swedes had to rely on defense. Unfortunately, they tried so hard that the first penalty was handed out - Deniss Smirnovs was sent to the box for hooking. Swedes attacked with huge power but only luck saved opponents from going down by two.

Kaspars Daugavins decided that penalty kill practice would be sufficient and so once again Latvia was shorthanded. A joint effort between Ivars Punnenovs and his men killed the penalty so that the former captain could return to the ice and their team was left unharmed. At the end of the period, the yellow-shirted team had taken full control in every department of the game - 1:0 on the scoreboard, while shots on goal showed a 9:3 advantage.

Krastenbergs first goal but Swedes still run away

Cold shower straight away in the second period as many little mistakes led to a goal - an unsuccessful clearance gave the puck away for Anton Lander to finish off the sequence with a goal in an empty Latvian net.

Wallmark gave Latvia hope as he high-sticked Janis Jaks - a double minor giving them a lengthy power-play chance. High tempo man advantage led to quite a few opportunities in which Lars Johansson had one moment where he had to put in effort in order to leave his net untouched. If the goal wasn’t given at least in the game quality there was an improvement by the men in maroon, the puck was controlled more. Swedes managed to hit the post at the mid-point of the game if that would’ve gone it - likely the game would be out of reach.

While Sweden was the better team as the period edged towards the end Latvia started showing even more spark when it looked like a man advantage would be given to them, Swedes were awarded a shot at putting the game away. 14 seconds later Wallmark could once again celebrate as the result on the scoreboard changed - 3:0 in favor of his team. Latvia did manage to get one back – Wallmark was sent to the box for hooking and a power-play goal was scored by Renars Krastenbergs who left Johansson helpless after a near-perfect snipe. A set-up by Lauris Darzins and Uvis Balinskis.

Special teams could continue working - this time Andris Dzerins got sat down in the sin bin giving a shot at the score being increased once again but as the period ended - things stayed intact for Sweden to be up 3:1, shots on goal 18-8.

A comeback unachievable

The question before the final frame was obvious - can Latvia make a comeback or will it be a runaway show for the Swedes? Both started aggressively with Latvians even managing more offensively. On one occasion a Swedish player hit the pads of Punnenovs which caused some rough stuff as his teammates were ready to fight in order to defend their goalie. After an apparent injury, the game was blown dead - while the injured player attempted to change his teammate jumped the gun, and a team penalty was awarded for too many men.

A power-play that was needed was also capitalized upon - in his Team Latvia debut Nikolajs Jelisejevs booked a rebound goal from an assist by his Dinamo Riga teammate and captain Lauris Darzins. A comeback kept brewing and the game tempo only rose. Hard hits, lots of battles between the sides.

Latvia all of a sudden were firing from all ranges as soon as there was a place for a shot. The other team meanwhile, had only counters to answer with. With five minutes remaining the speed dropped but the game itself was still very entertaining. Rodrigo Abols gave Latvia another penalty which the world could’ve lived without sending his men down by a player in a very important moment of the game.

Abols returned to the ice with two minutes left in the third. A comeback still wasn’t unreachable as Latvia once again moved quickly to try and reach an equalizer. A timeout for Vitolins to draw up a play and Punnenovs was pulled for an extra attacker - but it wasn’t enough and Sweden celebrated a 3:2 victory over Latvia.

‘’We have our everything, we played for the victory. In the dressing room, we already know that the battle for medals has already begun and that it’s also our race. Today was just the first part of the marathon, you don’t lose or win anything today. The dream is alive. Overall perfomance was solid and we can look forward to the next match.’’ Team Captain Lauris Darzins looked back at the game. ‘’Everyone was ready, from the first whistle the team was very motivated and inspired. We are confident. Today was a great showing of our capabilities, now we march further.’’ 

PIC: Bruce Bennett / Getty Sport /

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