By Andy Potts – IIHF.com
Finland battled past a resolute Latvian rearguard action to maintain its winning start in Beijing. The Leijonat had a hard time solving Janis Kalnins in the Latvian net, with the Baltic nation producing a solid defensive display before falling to a 3-1 loss.
It wasn’t always easy watching, but there was no disputing the workrate and commitment on display at the National Indoor Stadium as Latvia sought to rebound from its opening 2-3 loss to Sweden. Finland, though, secured the win on goals from Valtteri Kemilainen, Leo Komarov and Marko Anttila.
There were a couple of changes for Team Latvia. Kalnins, who played three seasons with Jokerit Helsinki in the KHL, got the start in goal; his insider knowledge of the Finnish game may have given him the nod over Ivars Punnenovs today. Miks Indrasis, a surprise absentee against Sweden, returned to the offence in place of Andris Dzerins and Arturs Kulda slotted into the defensive line.
Finland, too, switched things up from the 6-2 win over Slovakia. The experienced Anttila returned to the team after his spell in isolation, while Toni Rajala was preferred to Niko Ojamaki on the third line. Defenceman Niklas Friman was the other player to make way for Friday’s game.
Latvia suffered an early blow when captain Lauris Darzins collided with Teemu Hartikainen. Darzins fell awkwardly against the edge of the door to the Finnish bench and headed to the locker room for treatment. He did not return to the game.
Despite that loss, the Latvians had plenty to be happy with in the first period. There were few Finnish chances in the opening stanza as Harijs Vitolins’ team defended stoutly. The best opportunity for the Leijonat fell to Iiro Pakarinen, but he had little space to work with in front of Kalnins and fired directly at the goaltender. At the other end, Latvia had a couple of half chances of their own, with Kaspars Daugavins and Martins Dzierkals both sparking anxiety as they looked to stuff the puck home at the back door.
The pattern of play did not much change in the second period. Latvia continued to make things difficult for Finland, while Jukka Jalonen’s well-drilled team struggled to find the creative edge needed to break down a resolute rearguard action.
It wasn’t until late in the frame that chances started to arrive in front of Kalnins. The Vityaz Podolsk partnership of Valtteri Kemilainen and Miro Aaltonen almost unlocked the door, but Aaltonen’s effort at the back door produced a fine sliding save from Kalnins. Then Aaltonen was the sidekick in an odd-man rush which saw Joonas Nattinen flash an effort across the face of the net before Teemu Hartikainen’s dangerous feed across the paint evaded Rajala and went to safety.
In Ufa, where he plays his hockey for Salavat Yulaev, Teemu is known as Hart-gol; today, though, it was Harti-post when he beat Kalnins only to see his effort fly back off the piping. The Latvian goalie looked far better than his unprepossessing stats for Vaxjo Lakers this season, but he was unable to keep the scoreboard blank into the second intermission. With two minutes to play in the middle frame, Kemilainen fired in a shot from the blue line and a crowd of players obscured the goalie’s view as the puck found the net.
Latvia, though, has good form on the power play in this tournament. Against Sweden it converted two out of three, almost clawing back a three-goal deficit in the process. Today, the special teams did the trick again when Renars Krastenbergs’ dish set up Rodrigo Abols for a wicked one-timer that flashed below Harri Sateri’s glove to tie the scores. Abols, whose father Artis is on the Latvian coaching staff, had three goals in qualifying last year; today’s tying effort revived hopes of a first victory over Finland since the 2014 World Championship.
However, the Leijonat regained the lead with five minutes to play. Once again, it took a point shot to unpick the Latvian defence, with Juuso Hietanen letting fly from the right-hand corner and seeing his effort tipped past Kalnins by Leo Komarov. The Estonian-born centre secured his place on the roster when he left New York for St. Petersburg earlier in the season and avoided the NHL embargo in Beijing.
Any hope of Latvia stealing a tie late in the game was extinguished by Anttila when he fired home from the right-hand circle. The Latvian bench challenged the call, hoping for goalie interference from Hannes Bjorninen as the shot came in, but there was no reprieve and Finland coasted through the final moments on the power play to seal the win.