Sweden scrapes win
Sweden scrapes win
Elvis stars as Latvia forces OT
A youthful Latvian line-up, ably backstopped by rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins, sprang a surprise in the opening game of the 2016 IIHF World Championship against Sweden.
Despite giving up an early goal against one of the pre-tournament favourites, the Baltic nation showed great resilience – and no little innovation on offence – to stay in the game and snatch a dramatic game-tying goal through Kristaps Sotnieks in the 53rd minute.
The Dinamo Riga defenceman had already seen a couple of chances go begging when he struck on the power play, collecting Mikelis Redlihs’ astute pass into the deep slot and taking advantage of a clear sight of Jacob Markstrom’s net to find the top corner and delight the maroon clad contingent in the Moscow Ice Palace.
It almost got better for the underdog: with five to play and the game in a four-on-four format, Gints Meija stole the puck on his own blue and surged forward, only to be denied a game-winning goal by Markstrom.
But victory finally went to the Tre Kronor in the last minute of overtime when Gustav Nyquist got on the end of a two-man breakaway to convert Alexander Wennberg's pass and finally ended Merlikis' resistance after the goalie made 40 saves in regulation to help his team to a valuable point. Despite the defeat, the outcome was more encouraging for Latvia, a team in transition that was expected to be battling against relegation, rather than a Swedish roster expected to contend for medals.
Although Merzlikins was the talk of the arena after the game, his thoughts were on a potential victory that got away in overtime.
"It hurts to lose that one," he said in the mixed zone. "We were poor in the build up to the [winning] goal. The Swedes showed that they have a good team and it wasn't easy for us, but I still think we deserved to win."
Initially it all seemed very different. Sweden struck early with Jimmie Ericsson opening the scoring in the third minute. Mikael Backlund broke into Latvia’s zone and trod on the puck, only to see the disc squirt on to Ericsson’s stick. A well-placed wrister claimed the first marker of the 2016 IIHF World Championship.
But if the Swedes anticipated a straightforward path to an opening win against one of Group A’s outsiders, they were quickly disabused of that notion. Latvia’s youthful roster played with great spirit and carved out a few clear chances to equalize in the opening stanza. Oskars Cibulskis flashed in a shot from the point that almost snuck through Markstrom’s defences before captain Kaspars Daugavins deked his way into the danger zone but lacked the guile to really test the Tre Kronor goalie.
Then defenceman Sotnieks saw the ice open up in front of him, only for his shot to squirt well wide under the overly-aggressive attentions of Nyquist. The final big chance of the first frame came in the last minute of the period when Miks Indrasis fired the puck into the slot where Gunars Skvorcovs attempted a delicate backhand from right in front of the net. Once again, Markstrom was up to the task.
“Latvia’s a good team,” the shotstopper said. “They play physical, they work hard and they’ve got some good players – a couple from the NHL, a lot from the KHL. You can’t take any team lightly in this competition.
“Gustav got a big goal for us [in overtime]. The first game is always tough but we stepped it up in overtime and we’re happy to get that first win. Of course you’d like to score a lot of goals but we’ll take these win and then try to clean up a lot of stuff after that.”
If Latvia created the openings in the first period, Sweden was determined not to allow a repeat in the middle session. For long periods the game got bogged down in centre ice. The men in yellow largely controlled the game but, even with the benefit of two power plays, failed to carve out clear opportunities for a killer second goal.
Gradually the Latvians, encouraged by the characteristically vocal support of their fans, began to offer more. Another Daugavins effort drew a good pad save from Markstrom. Soon after, a slaloming rush almost took Gints Meija coast to coast before, once again, the goalie put up an impregnable barrier.
Daugavins himself was fairly satisfied with his team's start. "Our game plan was to be patient and I think we did that well," he said. "It sucks to lose in overtime but we earned a point today and that's important for us."
At the start of the third Sweden upped its offence. Nyquist twice drew good saves from Merzlikins, a 22-year-old making his World Championship debut with an assured display. The HC Lugano youngster, a silver medallist in Switzerland's National League this season, remained solid throughout to earn the headlines despite his team's narrow loss.
Par Marts’ team could not find the decisive second goal against the HC Lugano netminder and Merzlikins was rewarded for his 40 saves in regulation as Latvia claimed a point for taking us into overtime.
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