Thanks to a strong third period, Latvia’s national ice hockey team edged Belarus 5-4 in a Feb. 13 game and guaranteed itself a spot in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Latvia’s first game in the Olympics will be against the United States.
Going into the final game of Group B qualifying competition in the Rīga Sports Palace (Rīgas Sporta pils) in Latvia, Belarus was in better position to grab a spot in the Olympics.
Latvia fell behind in the first period when Belarus twice shot the puck past goalkeeper Sergejs Naumovs, but Jānis Sprukts managed to get Latvia on the scoreboard with just a minute and half left, according to results posted on the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Web site. In the second period, Belarus and Latvia quickly exchanged goals with the hometown team’s point coming off the stick of Grigorijs Panteļējevs.
Nearly halfway through the last period, Belarus increased its lead to 4-2. But the last six minutes saw a rally by Latvia. Armands Bērziņš, Sprukts and Aleksandrs Semjonovs added the needed three goals to secure their team’s appearance in next year’s Olympics.
The comeback victory is already being called one of Latvia’s greatest hockey victories, a miracle according to the IIHF—although Latvia’s inept offense for much of the series is a concern.
Latvia’s first match in Turin, according to the IIHF’s Web site, is Feb. 15, 2006, against the United States.
The next 15 months will be busy ones for Latvian hockey. The Latvian women’s national hockey team is ranked 12th in the world and plays in Division I, one level below the top teams. The team failed to qualify for Turin but will play in this year’s Division I championship scheduled for the end of March in Switzerland. The men’s national team goes up against Canada, the United States and Slovenia in an incredibly tough Group B at the 2005 World Championships in Austria at the end of April and early May. The junior men’s under-20 team made it to the top tier earlier this year winning a qualification tournament in Estonia against Slovenia and will play in Vancouver, Canada, at the end of December. And the 2006 World Championships are scheduled for Rīga in May and host nation Latvia is guaranteed a spot. —Andris Straumanis and Viesturs Zariņš
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