“I’m very proud of my guys,” German head coach Hans Zach said. He had originally defined Germany’s chances of advancing as “1 to 99”. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play all these NHL guys,” Zach added.
Germany will face Canada, Sweden and the Czech Republic in Group C round-robin play beginning Friday. Belarus is the second qualifier to join the “Big 6” nations. After wins over the Ukraine and France, Belarus plays Russia and Finland in Group D.
Goaltender Marc Seliger has been the backbone of Germany’s surprise run, stopping 83 of 86 shots in three games, including 25 saves against Latvia.
Tuesday, his counterpart was veteran NHL netminder Arturs Irbe of the Carolina Hurricanes, who was brought in for the crucial game.
But instead of shying away from the supposed wall in front of the Latvian net, the Germans quickly went after Irbe, beating him twice in the opening minutes.
Just 141 seconds into the game, Tobias Abstreiter of the Kassel Huskies skated into the attack zone, attracted four Latvian defenders and set up wide-open winger Martin Reichel with a nice backhand feed. Reichel of the Nuremberg Ice Tigers, who’s the brother of Toronto Maple Leafs center Robert, deked Irbe to the ice and beat him with a backhander.
Moments later, the Germans dumped the puck deep into the Latvian zone. Klaus Kathan of the Kassel Huskies picked it up in the corner. His blind backhand feed landed right on Len Soccio’s tape. The Hanover Scorpions centerman rifled it home from close distance to double Germany’s lead to 2-0.
"Our hopes of advancing were shattered by a really good team with a capital T," Irbe stated afterwards.
The Latvians got a rare chance to display their outstanding technical skills shortly after. Alexandrs Nizivijs skated around the right face-off circle and fooled a German defenseman. He passed the puck right through the goal crease and Aigars Cipruss converted right on the doorstep to cut Germany’s lead to 2.1 at 4:07 of the first.
The game stayed close until Stefan Ustorf's goal at 2:56 of the middle frame killed any momentum Latvia might have had. Defenseman Oleg Sorokins turned the puck over to Ustorf in front of his own net. The former Washington Capital didn’t hesitate a second and beat Irbe to the glove side with a high wrister from right between the hashmarks.
Ten minutes later, Kathan put the game out of reach at 4-1 on a delayed penalty call. Coming out of the corner, he gunned a rising shot over Irbe's inside shoulder from the left face-off circle. The puck bounced off the middle bar at the back of the net so quickly that it had to reviewed by the video official to prove its validity.
Thereafter, the Germans could fully concentrate on destructive defense, playing a rare 4-1 system with four men back at their own blueline.
"You've got to be realistic," said Ustorf. "Teams like Latvia and Slovakia, they're more skilled than us. They have better offensive powers than we do. So you've got to try to shut them down and take care of your own end first. I thought Latvia played into our hands by their refusal to dump the puck in all night long. We executed our plan very well. It might be a little bit boring to watch, but it's very effective. Obviously I don't expect to win a medal here or anything like that, but we're going to try to play as hard as we can the next three games and have some fun."
Latvia was without NHL All-Star defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who had four assists in Latvia's 6-6 tie with Slovakia on Sunday, but was back with the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.
Germany will bring in three NHL players for the medal round. Forward Marco Sturm of the San Jose Sharks already played in Saturday’s win over Slovakia: “They’ve done a great job. I’m very proud of the guys. Now the fun begins.”
Winger Jochen Hecht of the Edmonton Oilers and goaltender Olaf Kölzig of the Washington Capitals, whose knee injury apparently is not as severe as initially anticipated, will also travel to Salt Lake City. Defenseman Mirko Lüdemann of the Kölner Haie (Cologne) will also join the team, replacing Jörg Mayr, who broke his jaw blocking a shot against the Slovakians.