Latvia won’t get the storybook ending of playing for gold in front of their home-country crowd at the 2023 World Hockey Championship.
But they came achingly close.
Latvia held the lead twice against Canada in their semifinal match-up in front of a roaring Riga crowd but Canada’s young stars came through with two incredibly-skilled goals in the third period to win the game.
Vancouver Canucks prospect Arturs Silovs made 32 saves on 35 shots in the Latvian net in what was a one-goal game until a late empty-net goal sealed the win for Canada. Silovs was stellar for Latvia with little chance on the three goals that got past him.
Silovs sharp in the first period
In Latvia’s first meeting with Canada in the round robin stage, Canada scored two in the opening five minutes on original Latvian starter Ivars Punnenovs, forcing Silovs into the game. Silovs didn’t let that happen this time around, making some sharps saves early, including a challenging stop on Justin Barron as he jumped up the middle.
Silovs’ early saves gave Latvia the chance to open the scoring.
Latvia kept their attack simple. When the opportunity was available, they looked to drive to the net off the rush. When Canada’s defence closed that option down, Latvia got the puck deep, won the puck on the forecheck, then got the puck to the net with traffic in front.
That’s how Boston Bruins draft pick Dans Locmelis got Latvia on the board, getting lost behind Barron and chipping in a Rihards Bukarts rebound.
Latvia and Canada trade goals in penalty-filled second period
After a penalty-free first period, the game grew chippy in the second, with plenty of penalties on both sides. A golden opportunity for Latvia on a minute-long 5-on-3 was wasted when they couldn’t get a single shot on net, but Canada couldn’t score on their power plays either, with Latvia’s penalty killers completely shutting down the cross-seam pass.
Silovs continued to be sharp, squeezing a Michael Carcone shot with his elbow to deny the AHL’s leading scorer the tying goal.
But Silovs couldn’t keep Canada off the board forever. Canada fired 16 shots on goal during the second period but Silovs could only stop 15 of them.
There was little Silovs could do about Samuel Blais’ tying goal, as the defenceman hit a bouncing puck with the hosel of his stick — where the shaft meets the blade — giving the goaltender no chance to read the shot and predict where the puck was going.
Latvia quickly restored the lead, however, as Rudolfs Balcers picked off a Mackenzie Weegar pass in the neutral zone, then cut past the flat-footed defenceman before firing a puck just under the glove of Samuel Montembeault.
That gave Latvia the lead going into the third period.
Heartbreak in the third period for Latvia
Latvia’s defence was consistently taking away the middle of the ice, so Jack Quinn got creative and scored from below the goal line. It seemed like Silovs had the post sealed off, but Quinn fired a puck high off Silovs’ mask to bank the puck into the net for the 2-2 tie.
Short of gluing his ear to his shoulder, it’s unclear what Silovs could have done to stop Quinn’s shot, which was clearly intentional.
Still, Latvia was tied with Canada in the third period of a semifinal. If Latvian fans had been told that would happen at the beginning of the tournament, they would have dismissed it as a fantasy.
But then Adam Fantilli — expected to be a top-three pick at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft — ended the fantasy with a brilliant one-on-one goal. He undressed defenceman Raifs Freibergs with a deke under the triangle of his stick, then ripped the puck past Silovs to make it 3-2.
Latvia pressed hard to tie the game but there would be no late-game heroics as in previous games in the tournament. Scott Laughton ended those hopes with a long-distance empty-net goal.
The 32-save performance from Silovs brought his tournament save percentage to .924 and he was unsurprisingly named one of Latvia’s three best players of the tournament along with captain Kaspars Daugavins and former Canucks draft pick Rodrigo Abols.
Latvia’s tournament isn’t over, of course. They’ll move on to play in the bronze-medal match on Sunday and will look to bring home their first-ever medal in IIHF competition. That game will surprisingly be against the previously-undefeated Team USA, who were shocked by Germany in overtime in their semifinal game on Saturday.
Tyler Myers goes for gold for Canada
While Silovs won’t be heading to the gold-medal game, Tyler Myers will. The larger ice surface seems to suit the lanky defenceman, who was solid for Canada in major minutes, playing 22:37 and using his skating and reach to break up Latvian rushes, along with a few patented Myers slides.
Myers has just one point in the tournament but he’s been surprisingly steady for Canada at both ends of the ice, limiting some of the chaos in his game. He could have had another point but Silovs shut the door on two shots, despite seemingly scrambling himself out of position.
It would be nice if Myers could bring some of that steadiness back with him to Vancouver for next season.
Ethan Bear injured
One Canuck will play for gold on Sunday, but likely only one. Ethan Bear was injured late in Canada’s quarterfinal game against Finland when he was slashed by Kasperi Kapanen.
Bear missed the semifinal game against Latvia and is questionable for Sunday’s gold-medal game. That leaves only Myers to play for gold among the four Canucks at the World Championship.
Garland and Team USA stunned by Germany
It seemed certain that Conor Garland and Team USA would face off against Myers and Canada for gold but Germany had other plans.
USA took a 2-0 lead in the first four minutes but Germany battled back to tie the game in the first period.
Garland picked up an assist on the 3-2 goal in the second period, winning a battle in the neutral zone and chipping the puck ahead before Michael Eyssimont tucked the puck in at the side of the net.
But USA couldn’t extend the lead. With just over a minute left in the game and their net empty behind them, Germany stunned USA with the tying goal, as Marcel Noebels banged in a rebound.
That set up a dangerous 3-on-3 overtime, the type of situation where one bad bounce, one mistake, or one moment of brilliance can end the game.
The brilliance came from Frederik Tiffels, as he turned defenceman Lane Hutson inside out, then rifled the puck into top corner over Casey DeSmith.
Latvia’s underdog story came up short of the gold-medal game, but Germany’s will not, as they will face Canada for gold on Sunday.
That leaves Garland and Team USA to face a highly-motivated Latvian squad for bronze. The question is what will win out: can Latvia's emotion and will in front of their fans overcome the exhaustion they must be feeling after such a hard-fought game against Canada? Can Team USA regroup after such a stunning disappointment against Germany?
Either way, one Canuck, either Silovs or Garland, will be coming home with a bronze medal.