CIVIC CENTRE – Latvia secured its spot at next year’s World Junior Championship with a 7-1 win against Kazakhstan in the last relegation round game on Sunday night.
Latvia – Kazakhstan 7-1 (1-0, 1-0, 5-1)
The game finalized the fate of the four teams in the round robin. Germany and Kazakhstan will go down to Division I, while Finland and Latvia earned their way to Saskatoon and Regina in 2010.
"We still don't fully understand what we have achieved," said Latvian head coach Andrejs Maticins. "We only have like 30 players in the country that can play at this level. The fans back home are going crazy now. In Latvia when results are positive we are made heroes and if things are bad we are losers."
In Latvia's previous World Junior appearance (2006), it was relegated, so this is a big step for the small Baltic nation.
Entering the game, there was a chance that Kazakhstan could force a three-way tie in the standings between Latvia, Germany and the Kazakhs, but the Latvians did enough to squelch any thoughts of a Kazakh upset.
"All the games in this tournament were difficult for us," said Kazakh head coach Oleg Bolyakin. "We had 11 underaged players, while other teams only have about four. Furthermore, we had only 15 skaters left today due to injuries. That put a lot of pressure on our defence, which was very young and inexperienced."
Roberts Jekimovs scored the opening goal for Latvia 12:53 into the action in an evenly balanced first period. The Kazakhs had their chances, but hit a crossbar and fumbled a breakaway.
Janis Ozolins doubled Latvia's lead midway through the second period, beating Kazakh netminder Andrei Yankov high to the stick side. Kazakhstan outshot Latvia 24-16 through two, but it didn't matter.
Roberts Bukarts, the hero in Latvia’s 7-1 win against Germany, opened the third period with a shorthanded goal.
The teams closed the game with a combined five tallies coming in the late stages of the game. Artjoms Ogorodnikovs scored twice for Latvia, while Kazakhstan’s Konstantin Savenkov scored his team’s lone goal with five minutes left, cutting in from the boards and roofing one.
Ralfs Freibergs and Roberts Jekimovs also scored power-play goals in the late frenzy.
"If we play together as a team we can stay up next year as well," said Latvian defenceman Kriss Grundmanis.
For the record books, Finland finishes in seventh place and Latvia earns eighth. Germany and Kazakhstan round out the tournament standings in ninth and tenth, respectively.
(Nathan also is a writer for Maineiacs Post to Post and the Maine Hockey Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com)