Games are played in full because nothing is ever a sure thing until the final buzzer. Yesterday, during the seventh day of play at the World Junior Championship, two teams proved just that. Most have now heard that the United States was defeated by Slovakia. But there was also a relegation round game which could be crucial in determining which countries will be playing in the WJCs next year in Saskatoon and Regina.
Coming into the relegation round game between Germany and Latvia, it was thought that this might be a German blowout. Latvia had failed to win even one game during the preliminary round, and was thought to be bound for relegation to Division 1 next year. Surprisingly, Latvia scored a 7-1 victory over Germany and now, with a win on Monday, could play in Saskatchewan in the 2010 WJCs.
When the game started, it did not look to be headed for a blowout. Latvia had been weak defensively throughout the tournament and been outshot consistently over the last week. Despite those flaws, which continued through the first period, the game was very even. Each team scored an even strength goal, and it looked like this would be a close game. However, in the span of three and a half minutes in the second period, Latvia scored three goals and put the game out of Germany‘s reach.
To celebrate, Latvia’s backup netminder, Raimonds Ermics, threw his hat on to the ice, earning him a two-minute minor penalty and a game misconduct. This may have appeared to be an undisciplined move, however, in the context of Latvia’s entire tournament, it was understandable. The team and its supporters have been some the most enthusiastic and emotional in Ottawa this past week. Although the pure joy that overflowed onto the ice at that point in the game may not have been in keeping with the rules of the game, it was clearly a release from some of the disappointments of the week before. They accomplished something in a tournament in which, quite honestly, they have had difficulty competing.
At that point in the second period, the score was 4-1, and although Germany tried to get back into the game by making a goaltender change, it was to no avail. As a shorthanded goal by Latvia’s Vitalijs Pavlovs 31 seconds later showed, it was Latvia’s day. Roberts Bukarts, who had a hat trick for Latvia, and Daniel Weiss, who scored Germany’s only goal, were named the Players of the Game.
One troubling point about this game. For the second time this week, one of Germany’s players took a dangerous cross checking penalty at the end of the game. In this game, it was David Wolf; in the game against Canada earlier in the week, it was Denis Reul. In both games, the contest was no longer competitive and the hits were gratuitous. As much as Latvia’s show of emotion in the middle of the game was understandable, these penalties are not and must stop before a player is needlessly injured.
In the other, more publicized, surprise game of the tournament, Slovakia defeated the United States by the score of 5-3. This game will be analyzed for quite a long time in the hockey world, but in the end, it was the desire of the Slovaks and a netminder who played the game of his life that won them a place in the semi-finals. The Americans did come out flat in the game, but at less than a minute into the contest, US center Colin Wilson had a breakaway on net. He was tripped by Slovakia‘s Jozef Molnar as he went in on net, and was awarded a penalty shot. American coach, Ron Rolston chose Jordan Schroeder, the team’s leading scorer to take the shot. After Slovakian goaltender Jaroslav Janus made the save, it was all down hill for the Americans. They hit goal post after goal post, and Janus, who was named Player of the Game, stopped almost every puck that came to him. Until the third period, he was absolutely flawless, and even then, when Janus let a puck slip between his legs, he had stopped 44 of 47 shots.
One cannot say the same thing for US netminder Tom McCollum, who was not up to par last night, and has had a mediocre tournament overall. While his team was very unlucky at the other end of the ice, and was really unable to finish when necessary, McCollum was letting in questionable goals into his net. One has to wonder, after McCollum let in his second bad goal, whether backup goaltender Josh Unice should not have seen time between the pipes. In the post-game press conference, Coach Rolston said that he had not even considered it, but one has to wonder why. On the bright side, if there is one for the United States, the defensive pair of Jon Blum and Kevin Shattenkirk works very well on the power play. The two seem to have chemistry and play well together in offensive situations. Blum and Ryan McDonagh, who was named US Player of the Game, are good together as a first pairing. Unfortunately, the pairing of Shattenkirk and Cade Fairchild have not worked since the tournament began and a change should be considered when the United States plays on Sunday in the fifth-place game.
In an interesting but rather anticlimactic game, Russia defeated the Czech Republic 5-1. This was a night where Russia‘s top forward combination of Nikita Filatov, Evgeny Grachev, and Sergei Andronov really showed why they are in the running to be the best forward line in the tournament. While everyone in North America has been focused on the production of the US and Canadian lines, this Russian line has been playing an incredible game. Although Grachev has been a slow starter, and Russia was in the much more competitive Group "B," so the line’s point totals are lower, the line is explosive and can very well match the production of the Canadian and US lines.
Russian netminder Vadim Zhelobnyuk, who was the backup to start the game against Sweden on Wednesday, put in a fine performance last night. Named Player of the Game for Russia, Zhelobnyuk put on a fine performance, stopping 28 of 29 shots, including some excellent Czech scoring chances in the first and second period. It was not until the third period when Russia broke the game open, first with a goal by Filatov, and then on Grachev’s outstanding skate and move on Czech goalie Dominik Furch while shorthanded. Radko Gudas scored the Czech Rupublic’s only goal in the third period, and was named the team’s Player of the Game.