What a game. What a moment.
„Unbelievable!” cried Ralfs Freibergs.
„It’s hard to describe. Amazing!” Dans Lockmeals said.
This is not the first time that Latvia has qualified for the quarterfinals at the IIHF World Championship. This has happened a few times before, most recently in Denmark in 2018. But not at home.
In both 2006 and 2021, the previous two times the World Championship was held in Riga, the Latvians finished fifth in their group outside of the playoffs. In 2006, Latvia beat Norway in their last game, but were already eliminated. In 2021, the Latvians could have progressed with a win in their last game, but fell 2-1 to Germany before an epidemic-controlled crowd of 934.
„Usually for us, the last game is very important, but luck was not on our side,” Lokmeals said. “Today was different. We left everything on ice. We played our hearts out and played for our country. It’s the best feeling ever in my life. „
This time, the Latvians filled the Arena Riga with more than 9,000 fans. It helped when two Swiss goals put them in a tough spot as they neared their break point midway through the third period. They played a great game at that stage but it seemed to slip away from them.
„We have the best fans in the world,” Freibergs said. „When it’s hard, they make it look easy.”
„It means a lot,” said goaltender Arders Siloves, who stopped 28 of 32 Swiss shots in the game after a flurry in the third period left his team’s hopes hanging by a thread. „We’re playing for our home crowd and it’s pressure, but we want to bring joy to this country. We delivered today and made it to the quarter-finals. Nothing could be better, right?”
On Switzerland’s third-period push, Siloves said: „They are a good team, they really have a lot of talent, so we have to be ready for that.”
With top spot in Group B already sewn up, the Swiss rested some of their starters, but they still had some dangerous attacking weapons, including Kevin Fiala and Andres Ambul. Ambuls scored one at 6:14 to give Switzerland its first lead of the game.
„Of course, it hurts,” Siloves said. “You’re leading 2-1, then a lucky bounce and a slap shot off the hash – that’s hard to save, isn’t it? But we got through. That is the most important thing.”
„It was good hockey the whole way, but when it got close at the end we wanted that goal and that one point,” Freibergs said. “When it was 3-2, we didn’t panic. We played well. Right moment, right time, we scored.
For the tying goal at 5:04, Latvia’s two leaders stepped up, Rodrigo Apols feeding 35-year-old captain Kaspars Daugavins on a 2-on-1. Later in overtime, Rudolphs gave Balchers a three-point night after two assists with a one-timer on the power play.
„I think the big goal was the third goal when it tied the game going into overtime,” Balcers said of the Dagavins’ equalizer. In fact, the one point earned was enough to see Latvia through to take the game to overtime.
„Kaspers, you know, he’s seen a lot,” Balcers said of the team captain. „He’s played a lot of hockey over the years and he knows the game and how to step up in big moments. I think the leadership he brings to the team is unreal for us.
Nevertheless, the Latvians did not go into overtime even though they had accomplished their main goal.
„Coach was talking to us about how we were going to score,” Freibergs said. “We had some set plays. We’re not going to give up because we got a point. „
„For me, it was kind of a relief, but you still want to win the game?” Siloves said of the feeling at the end of the third period. „Because it’s not the best feeling when you lose in OT. You always want to win.
On seeing Balcers’ shot hit the back of the net, Siloves said: “Yes, it was nice. It was a lot of fun.
„The fans wanted it,” Freibergs said. “In the country, times are tough…economically. They needed something positive.
They now have a quarter-final game to look forward to. In 2018, the Swedes were Latvia’s quarter-final opponent and it was a very close match, with Sweden winning 3-2 en route to the gold medal. This time?
„We are ready for the challenge,” Siloves said. „We’ll do everything we can to get up for the game and do everything, and then there’s no worries.”
When it was suggested that the Latvian players could have dinner with their fans, a restrained Siloves said: „No, we’d better rest instead. We don’t play in the quarter-finals every year, so we have to be ready.
„Całkowity introwertyk. Nieprzejednany specjalista od sieci. Przyjazny fanatyk bekonu. Student ekstremalnych. Miłośnik piwa. Organizator.”