Canada earns first win at WJC as Latvia applies unexpected pressure

Canada's Zack Ostapchuk (20) and William Dufour (25) celebrate a goal against Latvia during third period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Edmonton on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — One of the tiny quirks unique to an international tournament is how the in-house announcer chimes in at the end of the period to tell the crowd what the score is. In most cases, it’s probably information overkill.

But when a booming voice appeared after 20 minutes and said the count was “Team Latvia 1, Team Canada 1,” it almost served as necessary confirmation for those in attendance that they hadn’t actually missed something and this game between a hockey powerhouse and replacement squad was, in fact, all knotted up.

And while Canada did ultimately correct the situation, beating Latvia 5-2 at Rogers Place on Wednesday night in its first game of this 2022 make-up World Junior Championship, it sure took some doing.

Credit the Latvians — who blocked shots and battled for every puck — for making it hard on Canada. And give a stick tap to the Canadian defencemen, because it was blue-liners Lukas Cormier and Olen Zellweger who notched second-period power-play markers to turn this game from a 1-1 nailbiter halfway through the proceedings to one Canada wrangled control of.

Even then, though, the Latvians pushed hard over the final 20 minutes, outshooting Canada 15-14 in the third frame, scoring a power-play goal to keep things very interesting and refusing to go quietly into the night.

“Hats off to Latvia,” Canadian coach Dave Cameron said. “They know how they have to play. I thought they played a real solid team game, they’re committed to defence, their goalie made some big saves, so hats off to them.”

In terms of crease credit, certainly it starts with Latvian puckstopper Patriks Berzins. Even with his teammates flinging themselves in front of pucks, Berzins made 39 saves with a handful of showstoppers in there. Still, the save of the game — or at least the biggest one in terms of timing — might have come from Canadian Sebastian Cossa.

With the game still tied and his team floundering on a second-period power play, Cossa kicked out the right pad to deny Raimonds Vitolins on a shorthanded breakaway attempt that, had it gone in, might have actually created full-blown panic on the Canuck bench as opposed to the simmering anxiety we saw for the first half of the game.

“It was a big time in the game,” Cossa said. “Just did my job and came up with the save.”

A few minutes later, with Canada back on the man advantage, Cormier took a pass from Joshua Roy and wired home a shot from the top of the circle. “We talked about getting more pucks to the net after the first, so I think [I was just trying] to get it there and I got the bounce,” Cormier said.

Zellweger’s goal — also a point wrister that found the back of the net — came with less than four minutes to go in the second period and was quickly followed up by a beautiful effort from Ridly Greig. The centre was barreling toward the Latvian goal on a partial break while being hounded by Peteris Purmalis from behind. With his left arm tangled up, Greig extended his right arm and managed to flick the puck past Berzins for a one-handed tally.

“It was nasty,” said Roy.

If Greig had any competition for goal of the night, it came from Connor Bedard. The 17-year-old opened the scoring 7:31 into the game, using his patented drag-and-snap motion to whiz the puck past Berzins low on the glove side. Earlier in the shift, Bedard had a look from virtually the same spot in the slot and wired it wide of the goal. Know this about the guy pegged to go No. 1 overall in the 2023 NHL Draft: He’s not going to miss twice.

“Going in [the second time] I kind of knew where I wanted to go and how [the goalie would] react to that shot and it went in,” Bedard said.

When Bedard bent the twine, it still seemed like this game had the potential to be a laugher. Latvia, after all, is only here because Russia is suspended from the competition. But nothing came easily for Canada, which shot itself in the foot with some undisciplined play in the third period. On its second power play of the stanza, with Greig in the box for tripping, Latvia pulled to within two goals when Bogdans Hodass blasted home a point shot past Cossa.

Canada had to kill two more penalties before William Dufour finally snapped home the dagger. In fact, it was Dufour — the Memorial Cup MVP in June — and fellow big-bodied winger Zack Ostapchuk playing on a line centred by Greig that may have been Canada’s best trio of the night. 

“They can hit and they can make plays, they have a lot of skill,” Bedard said. “They’re a big line. It’s huge to kind of get a grind shift and those big hits, it gets the bench up and it definitely helped us.”

In the end, facing an opponent that gave them fits and shaking off the rust that comes with jumping back into high-tempo games in the middle of the off-season, Canada did enough to safely avoid disaster. Their coach certainly wants them to be better Thursday night against Slovakia, but won’t’ be raking anyone over the coals based on how the team opened its tournament.

“I don’t think coaches are ever happy with a game,” Cameron said. “But considering the time of year, considering where we’re at in this tournament, we’ll take it.”

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