Latvia needed at least one point in their final game of the round-robin stage of the 2023 World Hockey Championship in order to move on to the quarterfinals for just the second time in the last decade.
Their opponent? The undefeated Swiss. With a mix of NHL stars like, Kevin Fiala and Nico Hischier, and Swiss league veterans, Switzerland had been an unexpected juggernaut at the tournament, winning all six of their games in regulation, including against tough opponents in Canada and Czechia.
A deafening crowd of Latvian hockey fans in Riga added to the moment, as they roared and chanted continuously, seeking to will their home team to the quarterfinals.
The man in between the pipes for Latvia was young Vancouver Canucks prospect Arturs Silovs.
After coming in cold five minutes into Latvia’s game against Canada in relief of Ivars Punnenovs, Silovs has played every minute of the World Championship for Latvia. He won four-straight games heading into the final meeting against Switzerland, giving Latvia a chance to qualify for the quarterfinals.
Latvia was in that position thanks to some help from Kazakhstan, who had stunned Slovakia with a shootout win, leaving Slovakia tied in points with Latvia for fourth place in Group B. Since Slovakia had beaten Latvia 2-1 — Silovs’ only loss of the tournament — they had the tiebreaker. Latvia needed to pass them in points.
A tie in regulation would do it, giving both teams a single point. But that wouldn’t suffice for the pride of the Swiss, who were looking for a perfect round-robin stage — seven regulation wins.
Latvia's early lead and Silovs' best save
Silovs was solid in the first period, stopping all nine shots he faced, then Latvia ignited the crowd with the opening goal early in the second period. One-time Canucks camp invitee Miks Indrasis stole the puck on the forecheck and fed Ralfs Freibergs at the blue line for a point shot that beat Joren van Pottelberghe.
The goal was challenged for goaltender interference, but it was ruled that Rihards Bukarts was pushed into the goaltender and the goal stood.
Fiala responded for Switzerland a few minutes later, as the Los Angeles Kings star sent a shot through three Latvian skaters to beat Silovs, who never had a chance to see the shot coming.
Just 32 seconds later, however, Latvia restored the lead.
Rodrigo Abols, who the Canucks drafted in the seventh round in 2016, has been Latvia’s best forward at the tournament and he got a little bit of luck as he drove to the net down the right wing. He whiffed on the puck, but Van Pottelberghe reacted to the attempted shot, staying elevated in his stance to allow the puck to slide under his pads.
With a 2-1 lead, Silovs came up with his biggest save of the game.
Swiss captain Gaeten Haas got in behind the Latvian defence for a breakaway after a neutral zone turnover but Silovs stretched out his right pad for the toe save.
It was one of 29 saves for Silovs, who never seemed overawed by the moment. With his Latvian teammates selling out for shot blocks in front of him, Silovs had to occasionally deal with some crazily-bouncing pucks but managed to keep the play in front of him and avoided some of the ugly rebounds that had plagued him earlier in the tournament.
Latvia refused to lose
The Swiss came out flying in the third period and Silovs couldn’t keep them fully at bay.
Not that Silovs had much of a chance on either goal. The 2-2 goal pinballed in off the skate of Marco Miranda as Silovs slid across for a Damien Riat one-timer.
Then, with just over six minutes left, Andres Ambühl slid unchecked into the slot and blasted a one-timer from the top of the hashmarks to give Swiss the 3-2 lead.
It seemed like heartbreak was inevitable for Latvia. A loss to Switzerland would leave them agonizingly close to qualifying for the quarterfinals in their home country, coming short on a one-goal loss to Slovakia for the tiebreaker.
Switzerland had been stingy all tournament, yet to give up more than two goals in a game. But just over a minute after Ambühl gave Switzerland the 3-2 lead, Latvia found a third goal.
It was Abols again carrying the puck into the Swiss zone, getting a step on defenceman Andrea Glauser. Abols stared down Van Pellebergh, then slipped a pass to Latvian captain Kaspars Daugavins, who smoothly whipped the puck past Van Pellebergh for the 3-3 goal.
It was pandemonium in Riga, both inside and outside the arena. Latvia held on for the final five minutes, securing the single point they needed to qualify.
A storybook ending in overtime
Latvia wasn't done.
"For me, it was sort of relief, but still you want to win the game, right?" said Silovs about earning the point they needed. "Because if you lose in OT it’s not going to be the best feeling. You always want to win."
A point got Latvia into fourth place in Group B, but an overtime win would tie them in points with Czechia and their round-robin win over Czechia would give them the tiebreaker for third place. That would help them avoid the undefeated Team USA at the top of Group A and give them a slightly more favourable matchup against Sweden.
A power play in overtime gave them the chance they needed. Uvis Janis Balinskis sent a no-look pass to Rudolfs Balcers for the one-timer from the right faceoff circle, giving Latvia their fifth-straight win to round out the round-robin stage.
"It was pure joy," said Silovs.
It was a thrilling performance from Latvia, backstopped by Silovs’ most steady performance yet. In his six starts since coming in against Canada, Silovs has a .927 save percentage.
He’ll need to be even better in the quarterfinals against Sweden, who are unexpectedly led in scoring by another former Canucks draft pick, Henrik Tommernes.
Even if Silovs and Latvia bow out in the quarterfinals, just getting there for the first time since 2018 and in front of their home-country fans is a significant accomplishment.
Anything more is just a bonus.
Tyler Myers scores game-winner over Czechia
It’s been an odd tournament for Tyler Myers, who is one of the few veterans on a young Team Canada. Tasked with playing tough minutes, Myers has largeyl been kept off the scoresheet.
At least, he was until the third period of their final round-robin game against Czechia when he jumped up the right side off an offensive zone faceoff and scored his first goal of the tournament.
That goal stood as the game-winner for Canada over Czechia, allowing them to finish second in Group B after an embarrassing shootout loss to Norway threatened to bump them to third.
Myers was named Canada’s best player in both their games against Norway and Czechia.
The second-place finish means Myers, as well as his Canucks teammate Ethan Bear, will move on to face Finland in the quarterfinals.
Conor Garland cruising with Team USA
While the other Canucks at the World Championship have had their foibles in the round-robin stage, it’s been smooth sailing for Conor Garland and Team USA.
The Americans were undefeated to finish first in Group A, with Sweden providing their toughest test. It took overtime for Team USA to beat Sweden, with Dylan Samberg providing the game-winner.
Before that, Garland helped get the game to overtime with his second goal and seventh point of the tournament, as he spun off Timothy Liljegren in front to chip in a rebound.
Garland is fourth on Team USA with seven points in seven games. They’ll face Czechia in the quarterfinals.