RIGA - Latvia's opening match against the Czech Republic on May 5 will be remembered as one of those special "I was there" evenings for those fans fortunate enough to get their hands on a ticket. The capacity crowd inside Riga Arena made so much noise, it could have been the May 21 Final. The talented Czech Republic is certainly one of the world's finest teams and might yet contest that gold medal game later this month.
Such though was the support from Latvia's maroon and white hordes that suddenly, just prior to the start of the game, anything seemed possible for the hosts. The old adage that playing at home is like having an extra man seemed to ring true as Latvia matched their central European opponents in the early stages before taking a shock lead when Aleksejs Sirokovs' shot evaded the Czech keeper and finished in the net. Instead of conceding a sloppy equalizer, a disciplined Latvia reacted to their seventh minute breakthrough with a solid defensive performance. Sergei Naumovs was the star-man, making a dozen saves in the first period before the Czech team regained parity moments before the first buzzer.
Vyborny's equalizer in the 20th minute of the first period should have given the Czechs the psychological edge in the second period, but Latvia battened down the hatches to shut out their talented opponents. The third period was a similar affair with Latvia's keeper, Naumovs, making a number of vital stops to keep the score at 1-1. But for a good save from Hnilicka, the home side could have won it in the final minute; the puck sliding agonizingly past the far post, bringing with it an enormous collective gasp from inside Riga Arena.
Buoyed by their excellent performance against the Czech Republic, Latvia was more than ready to take on Finland. They matched the much-fancied Finns in the early exchanges, and when Tuomo Ruutu was sent off for an atrocious challenge on Mikelis Redlihs they were presented with a two-man advantage in the last five minutes of the first period. Despite laying siege to the Finnish net, Latvia failed to profit from their numerical advantage and ended the first period 0-0. Latvia's inability to take advantage of the five against three exchanges betrayed the team's limitations to the Finns who came out for the second period firing on all cylinders. Jari Viuhkola soon gave the visitors the lead, and when Tribuncovs gifted Tomi Kallio the chance for a one-on-one against the Latvian keeper, the Finn confidently outwitted Naumovs to score his third goal of the tournament.
The crowd sensed there was no way back for the Latvian team, and when Ville Peltonen made it 3-0 mid-way through the third period, it was just a question of how many goals the Finns would add to the scorecard. When Finland scored its jaw-dropping fourth goal, Latvia knew it was over. Aki-Petteri Berg appeared to side-foot the puck into the net, but unbelievably referee Chris Savage ruled Berg's use of the foot as legal 's a decision that even had Latvia's President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga holding her head in her hands in the crowd. Jani Rita rubbed salt in the Latvian wounds with a fifth goal, five minutes before the end.