Finland Drops 3-2 Decision to Latvia
Seasoned followers of Latvia's exploits against top-six opposition know the old narrative only too well. Tradition demands a long spell of brave resistance, out-shot by a factor of around 2-to-1 and a defeat delivered by a heart-breakingly late goal. But Saturday's game with Finland, although settled by a narrow margin and featuring an eye-catching goaltending display, went to an entirely different script.
This time, for long periods, it was Latvia that dominated for long periods before Arturs Kulda put the Baltic state up 3-2 with seven minutes to play. Kulda fired home from the blue line off a pass from the influential Kaspars Daugavins to complete a third-period recovery and seal a shock win.
His strike came less than five minutes after Kristaps Sotnieks hauled Latvia level for a second time with a powerplay goal in the 48th minute. He saw his shot beat the generally impressive Pekka Rinne as Zemgus Girgensons did enough to distract the keeper in the slot.
Finland still had time to lay siege to Edgars Maskalskis in the Latvian goal, setting up a finale which more closely resemebled a traditional Latvia performance. But the best chance, a rebound falling to Jarkko Immonen, was stopped on the line by Sotnieks and Latvia held on for a famous win.
That was no more than the team deserved in a game where both Finnish goals came out of next to nowhere. Indeed Finland's go-ahead goal just after midway came from the team's first shot on target in the entire second period. Tuukka Mantyla's deflection in front of Edgars Maskalskis paid off as Petri Kontiola's effort from the left-hand circle squirmed past an unusually underused Latvian goalie.
Until Daugavins - a tricky forward whose stick-handling was at the heart of much that had been good about his team's play - took a high-sticking penalty the Finns were under the cosh and regularly heading to the sin-bin in this Baltic battle.
And battle was very much the word. Jere Karalahti's juddering hit on Janis Stals after 15 minutes set the tone for a physical clash that saw more than one scuffle break out around Pekka Rinne's goal while the penalty bench was more often occupied than not as a result of a flood of minors.
A lively first period saw the Latvian outsider give as good as it got against a Finland team still working on familiarity after head coach Erkka Westerlund rang the changes from his Sochi bronze-medal roster.
Although the Finns struck first, there was a large element of good fortune in Miika Salomaki's fifth-minute strike. As Latvia's Rodrigo Lavins dithered in front of the net Salomaki pressed the defenceman - but he could hardly have expected a panicky clearance to bounce clean off his skate and find the target.
The second goal of the game also came off a Finnish skate, but this time there was no doubt that the plaudits belonged to Daugavins. The forward showed just why Dynamo Moscow is eager to bring him back to the KHL with a scintillating rush from his own blue line, turning Juuso Hietanen inside out on the face-off spot before whipping in a shot that clipped a defenceman's skate on its way past Pekka Rinne to tie the scores.
But Latvia continued to carve out the better chances, with veteran Aleksandrs Nizivijs working his way into a dangerous position before Kristaps Sotnieks almost got his stick on a tantalising Daugavins pass across the slot and the forward's impressive show continued with another menacing rush that ended with him firing wide from a good position.
The second stanza was one-way traffic early on, with Daugavins in eye-catching form and Rinne performing bravely to keep his goal intact. The goalie's double block after Daugavins got on the end of a neat combination by Guntis Galvins and Miks Indrasis sparked the game's biggest fight, while Indrasis also saw a golden opportunity lose its sparkle in the Nashville Predator's pads. Mantyla's goal threatened to end Latvia's hopes, but a dramatic finale was enough to delight most of the 11,700 crowd which brought a little piece of Riga to Belarus.