Latvia was just minutes away from leaving the 2023 World Hockey Championship with nothing but good memories. Instead, they left with a bronze medal that felt as good as gold.
It was an unlikely run for Latvia, who had never progressed further than the quarterfinals at any IIHF event, but timely goals and some superlative goaltending from Vancouver Canucks prospect Arturs Silovs brought them to the bronze medal game.
Their opponent was Team USA, who had dominated the tournament in the round-robin stage, going undefeated even against tough opponents like Sweden and Finland. They were just minutes away from going to the gold medal game when Germany staged a comeback, stunning USA in overtime.
The script was similar in the bronze medal game. Matthew Coronato gave Team USA the lead six minutes into the third period and it looked like it would hold, but Latvia would not be denied.
Defenceman Kristians Rubins tied the game with a shot that somehow slipped under the shot block attempt by Conor Garland and found its way inside the post. Then, in overtime, Rubins struck again, this time firing the puck over Garland into the top corner to give Latvia the win in front of a raucous Latvian crowd.
It was an incredible finish to an incredible tournament for Latvia, who defied the odds at every stage. They needed third-period heroics in their final game of the round-robin stage to qualify for the quarterfinals. They needed 40 saves from Silovs against Sweden to make the medal round. They even came achingly close to beating Canada in the semifinal, coming just short of competing for gold.
Through it all, Silovs was the team's last line of defence, coming into the tournament five minutes into their opening game. Silovs only had to make 26 saves in the bronze medal game, as the skaters in front of him sold out to block as many shots as possible. He finished the tournament with a .921 save percentage and proved that he would not be overawed by big moments.
Trading goals in the first period
Latvia proved they wouldn’t be taking a passive approach early on, pressing the attacking and getting on the power play. That’s where the Bukarts brothers combined to open the scoring, with Rihards Bukarts slipping a superb pass through to Roberts Bukarts, who tucked the puck under the bar.
Rocco Grimaldi responded for Team USA, showing tremendous patience with the puck to wait for Silovs to slide just barely too far to send an against-the-grain shot off the post and in.
Bukarts helped Latvia restore the lead, however, with a fantastic drive to the net off a between-the-legs move. Defenceman Janis Jaks alertly jumped up in the play and jammed in the loose puck to make it 2-1 Latvia.
It’s something Latvia has done all tournament off the rush: when there’s space to drive to the net, they don’t hesitate. When there isn’t space, they get the puck behind the defence and forecheck hard.
With Latvia staying disciplined in their system in front of him, Silovs wasn’t called upon to make many ten-bell saves. He made most of his saves look easy, tracking the puck well and staying as disciplined in his save selection as his skaters were in their system.
Even when Silovs had to scramble for a save, he somehow still took the puck in his logo, as he did stopping Coronato on a power play one-timer.
Silovs had some issues with tracking the puck during the tournament, costing him in a couple of early games when, but he’s been locked in the past few games and made a lot of saves look easy because of it, such as this save on a Cutter Gauthier one-timer.
Grimaldi got to Silovs again, however, blasting a one-timer inside the far post on the power play. Some responsibility can be pinned on defenceman Raifs Freibergs, whose task on the penalty kill in that situation is to take away the far side, leaving the short side to Silovs.
Silovs stops Bonino in second and third
After trading goals in the first period, the second was more cagey. Team USA out-shot Latvia 10-to-3 in the second, but Silovs turned every shot aside.
His best stop came on former Canuck and Team USA captain Nick Bonino, as he challenged Bonino well and kept his glove high to take away the net.
Silovs made an even bigger save on Bonino in the third period.
On a Team USA power play, Bonino got an opportunity from the same spot on the ice at the right faceoff circle, but this time tried to go blocker side. Silovs got just enough of the puck to send it off the far post and out.
An unlucky bounce, however, gave Team USA the advantage not long after. All of Latvia’s shot blocks were a net positive, but one backfired.
After a Latvian icing, USA won the faceoff and got a point shot with traffic in front. Jaks blocked the shot but the puck landed at the side of the net for Coronato with Silovs down and out from the initial save attempt and from Jaks landing on his pad.
Rubins plays hero
Latvia refused to die, pouring on more offensive pressure than at any other point in the tournament. They out-shot Team USA 13-to-8 in the third period as they pressed for the equalizer.
With six minutes remaining, defenceman Kristians Rubins — known far more for his defensive game than his offensive one — threaded the puck under Conor Garland’s shin as he attempted to block the shot. The puck skipped off the ice and just inside the far post.
Silovs had to be sharp in the final minutes to get the game to overtime, at which point Rubins cemented his status as a national hero.
Kaspars Daugavins darted up the right side and tried to send a backdoor pass to Dans Locmelis, but it instead deflected back to Rubins. The defenceman showed incredible poise given the situation and waited for the puck to bounce off the ice before rifling it into the top corner.
With that, the celebration was on across all of Latvia.
It was a glorious result for Silovs, who played in all ten of Latvia’s games at the tournament, even if he didn’t start their first game. He was rock solid in Latvia’s net, giving his team a chance to win every game.
No garlands for Garland
Silovs’ fellow Canuck on the other side of the ice, Conor Garland, had to be disappointed.
Garland had a strong tournament, with 8 points in 10 games, but he missed the net on a couple of fantastic scoring chances in the bronze medal game.
Garland also had to watch both the game-tying and game-winning goals fly past his attempted shot blocks, with the first skipping under his shin and the second sailing over his outstretched legs.
That will give Garland and Silovs something to talk about at training camp in September.