By Lucas Aykroyd – IIHF.com
Kristians Rubins scored the late equalizer and the sudden-death winner at 1:22 as Latvia rallied to stun the U.S. 4-3 for the bronze medal at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, Finland – Latvia. It’s the small Baltic nation’s first IIHF medal ever.
“For the big teams like Canada, this is what they do,” said an ecstatic Miks Indrasis. “They win medals all the time. But for us, it’s like a one-time opportunity. This is unreal.”
In overtime, Latvian captain Kaspar Daugavins carried the puck into the U.S. zone and put a backhanded pass off defenceman Lane Hutson’s skate. The puck came to Rubins and he wired it high for a goal that will never be forgotten.
The Latvian party in Tampere is on, and the party in Riga may never end.
“I’m lucky that I’m a hockey player in Latvia because the people there love hockey so much,” said Martins Dzierkals. “To be a hockey player at this time, I have no words.”
Buoyed by incredible fan support at Nokia Arena on Sunday, the Latvians wanted this historic bronze badly. They played with heart and desperation, taking two first-period leads and then tying it up with under six minutes left in regulation time.
The challenge for the Americans was to get up emotionally after failing to end their 90-year Ice Hockey World Championship gold medal drought. The tournament’s highest-scoring team played hard all night, but fell short. It’s a disappointing outcome after going unbeaten in their first eight games.
“Hockey’s a game of inches,” said U.S. assistant captain Alex Tuch. “Anyone can be beaten on any given day and Latvia got it today and they beat us.”
Both sides were coming off tough semi-final losses. The Latvians led Canada 2-1 through 40 minutes, but fell 4-2. The U.S. faced even greater heartbreak, leading Germany 3-2 with under two minutes left but losing 4-3 in sudden-death overtime.
The U.S.’s Rocco Grimaldi stepped up with two goals in the bronze battle. Grimaldi also scored twice when the U.S. beat Sweden 3-1 in the 2013 World Junior final, the 30-year-old forward’s last IIHF experience.
“You could see what this means to them,” Grimaldi said of Latvia. “I think they probably wanted it little more than we did. We said after the first period, we have to want it as much as they do because they’re playing like it was for a gold medal, not just a bronze. I don’t think we matched their intensity for the full 60.”
It was a fine goaltending showdown between Casey DeSmith and Arturs Silovs. The Latvian workhorse played in all 10 of his team’s games and carried his team to the medals day.
The U.S. outshot Latvia 29-25.
This result is Latvia’s best by a country mile. It’s the first time they’ve ever even played for an IIHF medal. Previously at the Ice Hockey World Championships, they peaked at seventh place in their 1997 debut (Finland), as well as in 2004 (Czechia) and 2009 (Switzerland).
From puck drop, the vibe was jacked up with 11,033 spectators going wild.
As the Latvian fans chanted thunderously and pounded drums, the Americans came out hard and physical. The diminutive Grimaldi nearly knocked Rodrigo Abols into the U.S. bench and Conor Garland laid a glancing hit on Rihards Bukarts that left the veteran forward clutching his face in pain.
On the first power play, Latvia opened the scoring at 7:49 with magic from the Bukarts brothers. Rihards, who’d finish with three assists, slipped the puck cross-crease from the goal line and Roberts roofed it past a helpless DeSmith.
Less than two minutes later, Grimaldi struck back with the equalizer. Flying in to take a pass from Scott Perunovich, he got Silovs moving laterally and then fired the puck from the right faceoff circle inside the far post.
At 16:08, Janis Jaks put Latvia up 2-1, following up on a flashy solo drive by Rihards Bukarts to poke a loose puck past DeSmith’s right skate.
Grimaldi tied it up again with a power play one-timer from the left side with 0:57 left in the first period. It tied him with 19-year-old Cutter Gauthier for the U.S. goals lead (seven).
The Latvians brought in the tournament’s best penalty kill (96.5 percent efficiency), and this was the first power play goal they’d conceded since falling 6-0 to Canada on Day One.
In the second period, Silovs held down the fort as shots favoured the U.S. 10-3. It remained loud and crazy, including an ovation for Latvian president Egils Levits, who was in attendance.
“Obviously it’s something special when the president flies in just to watch the game and we can show him this,” said Daugavins.
At 6:19 of the third period, after a faceoff in the Latvian zone and a Dylan Samberg point shot, Matt Coronato snared a loose puck at the side of the net and fired it home for a 3-2 U.S. lead.
The Latvians kept battling, and Kristians Rubins fooled DeSmith with a shot that slipped through Garland’s attempted shot-block at 14:21 to make it 3-3, sending the arena into a frenzy. Abols nearly ended it with an exciting rush off right wing in the dying moments of the third.
“We just had to push to score, you know,” said Dans Locmelis. “We were down but we still believed in each other and that’s the biggest part of our team.”
The Americans will resume their quest for their first Ice Hockey World Championship gold medal since 1933 at the 2024 tournament in Czechia (Prague and Ostrava).
For Latvia, 2023 will always be cherished as a year where they beat the odds on home ice and then in Finland, making their loyal supporters rapturously happy. Their hunger for more medals is sure to rise now too.
“I don’t think we’re going to be coming in aiming for the medals every year,” said Abols. “Small steps are our goal, but I hope this inspires the people who play hockey. And also, the people who have the 9-to-5 jobs who come out and cheer for us. Hopefully, it inspires them to be better every day.”