BEST OF FOUR: Getting ready for the upcoming world championship in April, the Latvian squad showed their mettle.
RIGA - A young Latvian ice hockey team has competed with distinction over the past week, winning the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge. The Euro Ice Hockey Challenge is competed for annually between a host nation and three other countries, with both the host nation and countries changing each year. This year Latvia, along with hosts Norway were joined by Ukraine and Italy.
Latvia decided to use the tournament as something of a trial for the up-and-coming world championships in Slovenia beginning in late April. They opted to send a relatively inexperienced side, with Latvians based in the United States not considered for the squad. The majority of the mostly Latvian Dinamo Riga team was also left at home to solely focus on winning at least one of their three remaining regular season games in order to make the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) playoffs.
Latvia had a disappointing start to the tournament last Thursday, losing to Ukraine 2-1. They fell behind in just the third minute and were forced into playing catch up. Their only goal went to Lauris Bajaruns of Liepaja Metalurgs.
Their next game, on Friday, was a vast improvement on their first, making light work of Italy in defeating them 7-1. Kaspars Saulietis (x2) of HPK in Finland plus Roberts Bukarts (x2), Andis Dzerins, Juris Stals, and Gints Meija, all of Dinamo Riga contributed goals in the simple victory.
On the final day’s play on Saturday Latvia was given the chance to win the tournament outright when Italy upset Ukraine in the first match of the day.
Coming up against winless hosts Norway, Latvia was made to work harder than expected in front of a vocal home crowd but eventually emerged as 5-4 winners. Dzerins, Bukarts and Saulietis again contributed goals while another Dinamo Riga player, Janis Andersens, chipped in with two. The score line painted a picture of a closer game than in reality with Norway’s fourth goal coming just sixteen seconds before the end of the game.
It was of little surprise to see the handful of Dinamo Riga players that did turn out for the national team dominating the score sheet, a result of playing on the same lines together and already being familiar with each others style of play. This was also as a result of playing in a higher domestic league than the majority of their teammates.
Latvia’s campaign in Slovenia begins on April 30 when they take on the Czech Republic.