The Latvian players celebrate Andris Dzerins' 1-0 goal. Photo: Jelena Levsina
Japan battled hard in 3-1 win for hosts
Latvia set up a final with Germany in the Final Olympic Qualification group in Riga winning the three points it wanted in a hard-fought 3-1 win against Japan.
After an easy 8-1 win against Austria, many Latvian fans at Arena Riga probably expected an easy win against Japan, which suffered a 5-0 loss to Germany the day before. They and the Latvian team had to realize quickly that this game would be no cakewalk in the first official game between the two teams since a Latvian 8-2 victory at the 2001 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
“They’re a good hockey team. They play hard. They play man-on-man, which is a little different. They’re really disciplined on ice,” Latvian captain Kaspars Daugavins said while being more critical about his team’s performance.
“We made a lot of childish mistakes and gave them so many opportunities to actually beat us today. We should be ashamed how we played today but we know we can play way better.”
The first period ended scoreless with chances on both sides as Latvia outshot Japan 9-6. The Asians defended their net better and tried to use their speed to score a possible upset.
In the second period the home team came out stronger, shot more often but the Japanese created the better chances especially midway through the period including a Yuki Miuri breakaway and Daisuke Obara given leeway to score but shooting wide the net.
“Obviously playing a team of Latvia’s stature is not easy for Japan but everybody saw a team that stayed together. I’m proud of the guys and we learned at this tournament,” Japan head coach Greg Thomson said.
With 5:04 left in the middle frame the Latvians were cheering but Martins Karsums moved the puck in with his blade in motion and the game continued scoreless. However, not for long. 58 seconds later the spell was broken. After a post shot the puck was sliding between the goal line and Japanese netminder Yutaka Fukufuji. Andris Dzerins reacted the fastest and shot the puck over the line.
At 6:16 during Latvia’s first power play of the period Karsums eventually scored his goal of the night. After a long shot Fukufuji blocked the puck that ended up loose between Ryo Hashimoto’s skates. Again the Latvians reacted the fastest and Karsums made it 2-0 to give his team more confidence after two tough periods.
The Japanese still didn’t give up and came close in the last minutes of the game. After a drop pass from Seiji Takahashi it was Shuhei Kuji, who skated through the zone and beat Latvian goalie Elvis Merzlikins for the first Japanese goal of the tournament with 2:14 left in regulation time.
The Japanese pulled the goalie looking for the second goal but the Latvians defended their lead, Dzerins scored into the empty net and his team can now get ready for the winner-takes-it-all game with Germany on Sunday.
“The main game will be in two days. We better think how we need to start playing. We have to improve everywhere. I don’t think anybody should be happy about this game tonight,” Daugavins said about the Sunday showdown.