For the first time ever, Latvia is heading to the medal round at the World Hockey Championship. In fact, it’s the first time in any IIHF event.
In front of a raucous crowd in Riga, Latvia shocked Sweden in their quarterfinal matchup, defeating the hockey powerhouse 3-1 despite getting out-shot 41-to-15.
With the shots that lopsided, Latvia depended heavily on their young goaltender: Vancouver Canucks prospect Arturs Silovs.
Silovs’ save of the game
Silovs was brilliant in net for Latvia, making 40 saves while somehow remaining cool and calm in the charged atmosphere. It was the sixth-straight win for Silovs at the World Championship and the 40 saves brought him to a .938 save percentage across his seven starts.
The 22-year-old goaltender, with his Canucks blue and green gear clashing with his maroon Latvian jersey, had to be sharp all game, as Sweden kept up a steady barrage of shots. His best save of the game came in the first period, when he robbed Oscar Lindberg.
It looked like Lindberg had the whole net available after a brilliant slap pass by Canucks 2011 7th-round pick Henrik Tommernes, but Silovs somehow stretched his left leg back to get just enough of the puck with his toe to send it off the post and out.
Not long after, Latvia opened the scoring instead. Fourth-line forward Dans Locmelis found a deflected centring pass sitting in front of the net and fired it home for his first goal of the tournament.
Without Silovs’ save on Lindberg, this game could have gone very differently.
A calm performance from Silovs
What was most impressive about Silovs’ heroics is that they didn’t look heroic at all. Silovs positioning and anticipation were dialed in and he made difficult saves look casual and easy. Sweden would put together some crisp and clean puck movement to create a scoring chance only to find that Silovs was already there to calmly take the puck in his logo.
The one moment where Silovs’ calm cracked for a moment was a second-period giveaway, but even then, he coolly got into position and made up for his gaffe with the save.
The second period saw Sweden tilt the ice significantly, out-shooting Latvia 13-to-1. It seemed like Latvia lapsed into play-it-safe mode, as if they could hold a 1-0 lead for 40 minutes.
The constant pressure opened up seams in Latvia’s armour and Timothy Liljegren took advantage. Off of a cycle along the blue line, Liljegren was able to walk up the middle and snipe the puck just over Silovs’ glove.
That was all Sweden could get past Silovs, however, as he shut the door the rest of the way, giving Latvia the confidence to once again push up ice in the third period.
Indrasis gets a glorious game-winner
One-time Canucks camp invitee Miks Indrasis put Latvia back on top with a brilliant goal, undressing Par Lindholm with a between-the-legs move, then shooting back against the grain into the top corner.
Sweden continued to pour on the pressure but Silovs continued to calmly absorb pucks, with some of his best rebound control of the tournament. Where Silovs would sometimes resort to knocking pucks away with his glove earlier, he was cleanly catching them against Sweden and didn’t give them any second-chance opportunities.
With just a one-goal lead, there were some nervous moments, especially after Janis Jaks cleared the puck over the glass for a Swedish power play. The Latvian penalty killers came through, then Jaks made up for his mistake by scoring a power play goal himself after a Liljegren penalty — his point shot leaked through Lars Johansson and trickled over the goal line to give Latvia the improbable two-goal lead.
They didn’t need the cushion but it did relieve the tension in the building, leading to a celebratory atmosphere the rest of the way.
Silovs was the biggest reason that Latvia got past Sweden but he wasn’t named the player of the game. Many teams try to avoid giving the award to the same player twice in a tournament and Silovs had already been named player of the game in his first start against Slovakia — ironically, the only game he’s lost thus far.
Now Latvia will head to the semi-finals on Saturday to face Canada, who beat them 6-0 in their first game of the tournament. That was with Silovs coming in cold five minutes into the game as the backup; will there be a different result with Silovs starting?
At this point, no one can count Latvia out.
Garland, Myers, and Bear all head to medal round
The three other Canucks at the World Championship made their way to the medal round in much less dramatic fashion.
Conor Garland and Team USA continued to cruise through the tournament. The undefeated Americans handled Czechia with ease, out-shooting them 34-to-15 en route to a 3-0 win. Garland was held off the scoresheet but still has 7 points in 8 games.
USA will face Germany, who upset Switzerland in their quarterfinal.
Tyler Myers and Ethan Bear, meanwhile, will move on with Canada after a 4-1 win over Finland in their quarterfinal. It was a steady performance from the young Canadian squad after some hiccups in the round-robin stage.
Canada has the talent to take over the game against Latvia on Saturday but it’s hard to discount the emotional energy Latvia has been playing with in front of their home-country crowd in Riga.