Pandora’s box for the Latvian ice hockey team

  • 2016-06-02
  • Victor Shestopalov

The ice hockey world championship has just wrapped up in Moscow, Russia, but it was not successful for Latvia, the Baltics’ traditional ice hockey stronghold.
I bet you didn’t know there are several Ice Hockey World Championships around the globe, four to be exact. They are called divisions. The best teams play in the top one, the rest being scattered among the first, second, and third, accordingly. For example, the Estonian and Lithuanian national teams both make do in the first division, the very next one from the top. In late April they competed in their part of the tournament in Poland and Croatia.

The Estonians and Lithuanians did okay, actually, placing in the middle of the pack and securing their place in the first division — again, the second best group of ice hockey nations in the world. Not joining them there was the main goal of the Latvian national team, which recently took part in the top division of Ice Hockey World Championship in Moscow, Russia. Simply speaking, the team had to finish its group play in any place but last. And they did. Just barely, mind you, but they did.

More so, after the first couple of games with really tough opponents like Sweden (1:2) and Czech (3:4), there was a hint that Latvians could compete for the playoff spot. All they had to do was beat not-over-the-top hockey nations like Denmark and Switzerland. In a pivotal game with the latter opponent (4:5), some of the team’s problems were highlighted very clearly, though. First being the porous defense, which conceded 22 goals over the stretch of 7 group games. That happened despite some of the stellar play from both goaltenders, especially Edgars Masalskis, whom a lot of experts called the best Latvian player during this Moscow championship.

But even really good goaltending can only get you so far in modern hockey. Simply put, it’s really hard to win without some of the smart and aggressive play on the defensive side of the ice. In the Switzerland game another problem was the key factor in Latvia’s loss — penalties. When you make them out of necessity, to prevent an opponent’s score — it is one thing. But to make them in the middle of the ice or in otherwise routine moments, giving your opponent numerous opportunities for power play — that is completely different. Add to this list some of the outright stupid penalties and you’ll get a picture of what happened in this pivotal game against Switzerland.

Fast forward to the start of the second period, when Ralfs Freibergs got himself ejected for aiding the goaltender with the stick. It’s one thing for you or me to not know all of the interpretations of ice hockey rules. But a professional player is supposed to realise that it is illegal for him to pass a lost stick to his teammate, even a goalie. Because, obviously, you can’t play hockey with two sticks in both hands. That’s exactly what happened early the second period of this Swiss game. Freibergs got a penalty, Niederreiter scored the first goal of the game, and Pandora’s box for the Latvian team in this championship was opened really wide.

After the lone victory over the Kazakhstan team (2:1), Latvia lost to Norway (1:3) to close out the group play in seventh place out of eight teams, thus avoiding going down from the top division to first. As well as leaving a lot of questions unanswered about its potential. What could have happened if players were a little more disciplined? By leading the first group stage of the whole tournament in penalty minutes (114 in seven games), Latvians gave their opponents way too many chances to score in power play situations. As well as putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on the goalies.

Another thing that deprived the team of further advancement down the road in Moscow was a lackluster offensive game. Even though on paper coach Leonids Beresnevs had a lot of nucleus and abundance of scoring chances, the goals were hard to come by for team Latvia. All the best Dynamo Riga forwards and NHL players Zemgus Girgensons and Ronalds Kenins couldn’t score more than two times a game. Moreover, Latvians finished second to last in scoring percentage as they converted just 13 out of 184 shots on goal during the whole tournament.

So there you have it: team Latvia looked okay during some of the tougher opponent games and blew itself out when it was supposed to play much, much better. By winning just one game, Latvia repeated its worst performance from the 2002 Championship. Leonidis Bersnevs’ team didn’t get relegated to the lower first division, but at the same time wasn’t really close to making the playoffs either.

Otherwise the rest of the tournament went pretty uneventfully. Home team Russia disappointed the fans by not making the final, but beat team USA in a third place game soundly (7:2). The golden matchup was team Finland against Canada in what turned out to be pretty boring affair. Scoring once in the first period and adding an empty netter, Canada enjoyed the 2:0 victory, thus winning Ice Hockey World Championship for a record 27th time.

Young Finnish forward Patrick Laine was named the Most valuable player of 2016 Ice-hockey world championship. Him and two of his teammates Mikko Koskinen (goaltender) and Mikael Granlund made an all-tournament team, as well as Russians Nikita Zaitsev, Vadim Shipachev and Canadian Mike Matheson. No one from team Latvia got any awards.