The Big Red Machine is on a roll. In a 3-1 win over Latvia on Saturday, Russian scoring leader Nikita Kucherov took the steering wheel with a goal and an assist, leaving him with 12 points in total.
Dmitri Orlov and Nikita Gusev added singles. Goalie Andrei Vasilevski won his tournament-leading fourth game as Russia, gunning for its first world title since Minsk 2014, captured its fifth straight victory in front of 9,084 fans at Ondrej Nepela Arena.
“Of course a game like that feels a bit like a play-off game,” said Russia’s Nikita Zadorov. “Latvia has a good team, well-drilled, disciplined. They fought to the end. It was hard work and Vasi (Vasilevski) kept us in it at times. It could have gone the other way today.”
Oskars Cibuļskis replied for the Latvians, who treasure memories of their two Worlds wins over Russia (3-2 in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 2000 and 2-1 in Turku, Finland in 2003). But that old-time history, unfortunately, doesn’t count in the 2019 standings.
Latvian netminder Elvis Merzļikins will face pressure next season when he vies to fill the skates of two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovski as the starter of the Columbus Blue Jackets. This game tested the 25-year-old Riga native’s skills, as Russia outshot Latvia 33-27.
“We had a lot of chances on the power play and we should have scored more,” said Russian captain Ilya Kovalchuk. “Their goalie played great, especially in the first period.”
With six points in five games, the Latvians are on the bubble to make the quarter-finals for the second straight year. They’ll need to collect some points from their last two group games against Sweden on Monday and Norway on Tuesday.
“We gotta win,” said Latvia’s Teddy Bļugers. “Obviously that’s how we’re going to approach every game. Obviously we’re going to focus on the Swedes first and give it everything we have and see where we’re at after that.”
The Russians sit in first place in Group B with 15 points. They’ll face a challenge to their hegemony when they confront 2018 silver medalist Switzerland on Sunday.
The first period between Latvia and Russia featured plenty of hard, physical confrontations, such as when a forechecking Alexander Ovechkin destroyed Cibuļskis behind the Latvian net.
Latvia got a 4-on-3 power play after Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Teddy Bļugers were sent off together for a chippy goalmouth battle, and then Vladislav Gavrikov tripped up Miks Indrašis when he rushed into the Russian zone. With that man advantage, Cibuļskis got some revenge for Ovi’s bodycheck when he gave a Latvia 1-0 lead at 10:28. Set up by Indrašis, he hammered a one-timer from the right faceoff circle over Vasilevski’s glove.
The goal ended Russia’s shutout streak at 192:41. The Russians had previously beaten Austria 5-0, the Czech Republic 3-0, and Italy 10-0. Coach Ilya Vorobyov’s team hadn’t conceded a goal since Jonas Holøs scored with 2:13 left in Norway’s opening 5-2 loss to Russia.
Ronalds Ķēniņš was assessed a four-minute penalty for high-sticking at 12:50 when he cut Ovechkin’s lip in the neutral zone. With billions of rubles of talent on the ice, it seemed inevitable that the Russian power play would tie it up here. Yet Merzļikins stood his ground and the Latvians effectively took away shooting lanes. And when Gusev got wide-open in the left faceoff circle, his one-timer, set up by a deceptive Kucherov’s cross-ice pass, hit the outside of the goalie’s right post.
Outshot 13-5 through 20 minutes, the Latvians couldn’t take anything for granted. After all, they also had a first-period lead against the Czechs that evaporated in a 6-3 loss. “We were in a similar position as in the last game and we knew they were going to make a push,” said Bļugers. “They’ve got a lot of skilled guys.”
It only took 27 seconds for Orlov to make it 1-1 on Russia’s first shot of the second period. The veteran Washington Capitals defenceman fired a rising slap shot from the left side that flew over Merzļikins’ right shoulder.
You simply can’t give Gusev too many opportunities, or the man who had four points in the 4-3 Russian gold medal win over Germany at last year’s Olympics is sure to capitalize. A recent addition to the Vegas Golden Knights, Gusev made it 2-1 on the power play at 3:50. Kucherov flubbed a one-timer that came to Yevgeni Dadonov in the slot, and he pivoted to send the puck to Gusev, who potted his third goal of these Worlds.
The Russian tidal wave was coming on, and the Latvians could barely muster any opportunities. Behind Vasilevski’s cage, Indrašis tried to do his own version of the famous Mikael Granlund “lacrosse goal” against Russia in the 2011 semi-finals, but defenceman Nikita Zaitsev thwarted him peremptorily.
Kucherov gave Russia a 3-1 gap at 12:40 when Artyom Anisimov sent him in behind the Latvian defence and his flubbed shot bounced in off the desperately outstretched stick of Latvian assistant captain Kristaps Sotnieks. The Tampa Bay Lightning star, who led the NHL this season with 128 points, was proving the old adage: “You’ve got to be good to be lucky.”
Moments later, Latvian coach Bob Hartley was outraged when an apparent Orlov elbow to the head of forward Oskars Batņa went unpenalized. Batņa headed off to the dressing room.
“We didn’t hear (Hartley yelling at the referees),” said Kovalchuk. “We had so many fans in the arena and they made a terrific noise getting behind our team.”
However, with just over two minutes left in the second period, hulking Russian defenceman Nikita Zadorov was given a two-minute minor and a misconduct for a hit from behind on Rihards Bukarts behind Vasilevski’s net. Next, Nikita Nesterov was caught closing his hand on the puck. That gave Latvia a two-man advantage for half a minute to close the second period.
“I think that Bukarts saw I was coming his way and couldn’t set himself in time,” Zadorov opined. “I was in an awkward situation – I didn’t want to injure anyone, just play hard. The linesman immediately said it would be a 2+10 so I was never worried that I was out of the game.”
To buy time without using up his timeout, Hartley substituted Kristers Gudļevskis for Merzļikins to end the period. Still, the Latvians failed to cash in, and Merzļikins returned between the pipes for the final stanza.
As the clock ticked down, the Latvians couldn’t buy a goal. They pulled Merzļikins for an extra attacker in the dying moments, but Uvis Balinskis’ tripping penalty with 53 seconds voided that chance.
“Today wasn’t the kind of game where we could ease off, but in the end we were able to get through it at a slightly lower tempo,” said Kovalchuk.
Backchecking with zeal, the Russians have conceded just three goals in five games so far. It evokes memories of their stellar defensive effort under coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov in 2012’s run to gold in Stockholm and Helsinki.
Latvian defenceman Ralfs Freibergs served a one-game suspension for an illegal hit on the Czech Republic’s Radko Gudas. Freibergs is eligible to return for Latvia’s next game against Sweden.
08:39 – 🇱🇻 PEN – Bļugers, interference
08:39 – 🇷🇺 PEN – Kuznetsov, roughing
09:35 – 🇷🇺 PEN – Gavrikov, hooking
10:28 – 🇱🇻 PP GOAL – Cibuļskis (Indrašis)
12:50 – 🇱🇻 PEN – Ķēniņš, high sticking double minor
20:27 – 🇷🇺 GOAL – Orlov (Kovalchuk, Plotnikov)
22:54 – 🇱🇻 PEN – Kulda, interference
23:50 – 🇷🇺 PP GOAL – Gusev (Dadonov, Kucherov)
27:20 – 🇱🇻 PEN – Cibuļskis, broken stick
32:40 – 🇷🇺 GOAL – Kucherov (Anisimov)
37:55 – 🇷🇺 PEN – Zadorov, boarding minor + 10 min. misconduct
39:24 – 🇷🇺 PEN – Nesterov, delay of game
59:07 – 🇱🇻 PEN – Balinskis, tripping
W: 🇷🇺 Vasilevski (26-27)
L: 🇱🇻 Merzļikins (30-33), Gudļevskis (0-0)
SHOTS ON GOAL
🇷🇺 13+10+10 = 33
🇱🇻 5+6+16 = 27
🇷🇺 Goaltenders: Alexander Georgiev, Andrei Vasilevski. Defence: Vladislav Gavrikov, Dinar Khafizullin, Nikita Nesterov, Dmitri Orlov, Mikhail Sergachyov, Nikita Zadorov, Nikita Zaitsev. Forwards: Sergei Andronov, Artyom Anisimov, Alexander Barabanov, Yevgeni Dadonov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Gusev, Ilya Kovalchuk (C), Nikita Kucherov, Yevgeni Kuznetsov, Yevgeni Malkin (A), Alexander Ovechkin (A), Sergei Plotnikov, Ivan Telegin.
🇱🇻 Goaltenders: Kristers Gudļevskis, Elvis Merzļikins. Defence: Uvis Balinskis, Oskars Cibuļskis, Jānis Jaks, Artūrs Kulda, Kristaps Sotnieks (A), Kristaps Zīle. Forwards: Rūdolfs Balcers, Oskars Batņa, Māris Bičevskis, Teodors Bļugers, Rihards Bukarts, Roberts Bukarts (A), Lauris Dārziņš (C), Mārtiņš Dzierkals, Emīls Ģēģeris, Miks Indrašis, Ronalds Ķēniņš, Rihards Marenis, Gints Meija.
|🇷🇺 RUSSIA (C)||vs.||LATVIA 🇱🇻
(since 05 May 2019)
|Last Title||13 Apr 2003|
|First IHLC Meeting (RUS vs. LAT)
🇷🇺 RUS 6-1 LAT 🇱🇻 – 03 May 2009 – WC – Bern 🇨🇭
|Previous IHLC Meeting (RUS vs. LAT)
🇷🇺 RUS 6-1 LAT 🇱🇻 – 03 May 2009 – WC – Bern 🇨🇭
|Last IHLC Game
🇷🇺 RUS 10-0 ITA 🇮🇹 – 15 May 2019 – WC – Bratislava 🇸🇰
|Next IHLC Game
🇷🇺 RUS 3-0 SUI 🇨🇭 – 19 May 2019 – WC – Bratislava 🇸🇰