Astana (16:30 msk)
Latvia entered the game having lost two - against Sweden and Finland. Matches were Latvia weren’t favorites but lost both in the final seconds of both situations. Another day of switches prior to the meeting as Harijs Vitolins sent out Janis Kalnins to start in goal, Lauris Darzins was out with an injury giving a shot for Toms Andersons to make his Olympic debut. For Rodrigo Abols this was a monumental game - he assumed the duties of team Captain for the first time at this level.
Slovaks arrived in a similar situation - two lost games against Swede and Finn sides with big differences in results. Although having lost both - Slovakia had shown very good hockey in previous meetings but couldn’t remain consistent, a task that they would want to change.
Three periods of good hockey by Slovakia, some glimpses of hope for Latvia but ultimately the match ended the way it was expected to be - Slovakia managed to end the group stage with the final score of 5:2.
Harijs Vitolins was visibly upset and angry at his team. ‘’We cannot play like this. This was our worst game. People have to take responsibility, I also have to be responsible for this outcome. The game showed that the team wasn’t ready. We lost in battles, we couldn’t move, the decision-making - everything was terrible. Janis Kalnins was the only player that fought from beginning till the end. There are no weak opponents here, if you can’t pull yourself together, there’s no point in being here.’’
The game began with Slovakia playing very active hockey, shooting from all distances at all times whenever there was a chance. Latvia had to show how fast they can adjust to what opponents had to offer and did so well sorting their defense early. A mistake was made as the Baltic state team earned an early power-play - a sluggish one where the opponent looked better thus taking care of the kill. One-sided attacks continued forcing Janis Kalnins to make flashy saves to keep the game in shape.
The woes of losing players continued for the Latvians - Rihards Bukarts took the puck up high and immediately went off to the dressing room while being in a lot of pain.
As the mid-point of the period passed the score was open by Slovakia - Martin Marincin with an easy wrister towards the net that went past Janis Kalnins to make it 1:0. Suddenly out of nowhere, the game was tied - Ronalds Kenins positioned himself well in the middle of the offensive zone and sniped the puck in the net. The goal had sparked the Latvian side as they started playing better - 1:1 after twenty minutes with shots still showing an advantage for Slovaks 10:4.
Even before the second frame got underway Latvia received good news - Rihards Bukarts could return to the game and was back in action although now donning a new shirt and number and a patched-up ear.
The period began with a very dangerous chance at scoring a goal for The Latvians but Patrik Rybar neutralized the situation. The promising start still didn’t bring enough confidence and Janis Jaks got sent to the penalty box to give opponents their first man advantage in the match. Joint efforts allowed the penalty to be killed. The Slovak side continued to attack in an aggressive manner forcing Janis Kalnins to make multiple saves in a short span.
A quick 2-on-1 where after gaining positional advantage allowed Slovakia to score their second of the game - Peter Cehlarik with the goal as he went backhand, forehand, backhand for the goal. Mid-point of the game brought a two-goal lead for them, this time a simple entry in the zone and a quick shot by young Juraj Slafkovsky who raised his goal total. Latvia had little to no chances out there as the period ended - 26:10 in the shot department.
Active hockey by Latvia early on showed that they can still get back into this game - a shot from the blueline and Miks Indrasis stood in front of the net for the re-direct which cut the disadvantage to a single goal. Deniss Smirnovs followed up with a penalty draw handing hope for a tie - yet the man advantage lacked quality but sparked the team that now looked to be flying.
The Latvian hearts were once again broken as Slovakia got their fourth goal of the game. Positional mistakes defensively allowed Peter Zuzin to sneak up to the front of the net to assure that Kalnins would concede another goal and then one more was scored in an empty net. All of the remaining comeback attempts were no good handing Latvia their third loss in a row to end the group stage - 5:2 the final score.
‘’It’s a painful loss. They were better than we were. We have to look through the tape and get ready for the next opponent. There is still time to save the tournament and turn things around. I’m not going to give a deep analysis right now on the spot. Next game - no matter what we have to win.’’ Rihards Bukarts looked back at the game and admitted that he has about 10 stitches on his ear after suffering an injury in the first period of the match.