Poland put on a show at the World Hockey Championship! An outsider took points from bronze Latvia

By | May 11, 2024

For the Polish national team, there could not have been a better place for a return to the elite than Ostrava. This harsh industrial city is located very close to the southern border of Poland, where historically the country’s hockey centers are concentrated. Fans who filled the 12,000-seat arena in Katowice for the home World Championship in the first division traveled to the Czech Republic to see the “white-and-reds” play in the hockey elite for the first time in 22 years—and the Poles made up at least half of the audience.

For the Poles, such support was vital, as few specialists knew most of their leaders. The strongest league represented by a national team player is the Czech Extraliga, but Pavel Zigmund, who plays for Litvinov, gets only 8-9 minutes of playtime. This is a very aged team, with an average age close to 31 years, and the youngest defenseman being 29 years old. Overall, it’s not the best portrait for maintaining a residency. The day at the World Championship began with the British troubling the Canadians, although they lost. Despite inevitably losing by shots, the underdogs kept a tight defense for most of the game and kept the opponent out of dangerous areas. Here too, the bronze medalists of the World Championship started more actively, but the Poles played very organized, and the Latvians made most of their shot attempts from the blue line and entering the zone. It was seriously difficult to worry the naturalized American John Murray.

But the Poles became more active. The first power play in the game for them went a long time without moments, but at the end of the two minutes, Merzlikin blocked a shot by Kristan Dzubinsky after a counterattack. Soon, Merzlikin could no longer help: the youngest player of the Polish team, 19-year-old Krzysztof Macias playing in the Canadian Western Junior League, threw the puck to the crease, and the puck changed direction after a ricochet on the crease, disorienting the goalie. The goal seemed to have energized the Latvians, but in reality, they created nothing until the break. Perhaps after the break, the Poles were slightly frightened by their own vigor, or the distant bench helped a more classy team, but from the first shifts of the period, the “white-and-reds” pressed to the goal. The goal came after a long positional attack, when Murray did not move in time in the net, and defender Robert Mamchits joined the attack and hit the empty corner. Very soon, the Latvians could have taken the lead, but the main veteran of this team, Kaspars Daugavins, managed not to score, shooting almost from the goal line.

The Poles held back the Latvian onslaught for several minutes, and then themselves gradually began to create moments. The second Polish goal was somewhat similar to the first: Kamil Walenga threw at the goal, Merzlikin insecurely deflected the puck in front of him, and from the foot of the same Mamchits, the puck went into the goal. As in the first period, it seemed that the Latvians were disconcerted— they only began to devise something when they had the majority at the end of the period, where they greatly broke through the Polish defense, but they could not bring the matter to a proper conclusion. Significantly, in the second period, the Poles still outshot the opponent.

The third period began with a majority for the Poles, in which they were not particularly confident during the match—and the Latvians organized a classy counterattack, after which Rodrigo Abols, the son of the former coach of KHL clubs, equalized the score. The game again moved to Murray’s zone, but the Poles played quite skillfully in defense. After just about five minutes, the defending Poles pressed Ricards Bukarts and launched a counterattack, which Dzubinsky drew, and Macias finished. True, the puck reached him after a ricochet—either the second or third effective one for the Poles.

The Latvians decided to simplify the game after their attempts proved fruitless—a throw from the blue caught the clustered Poles at the boards off guard, and after a fierce scramble in the crease, Daugavins scored a goal, which the referees did not count on the ice and did not approve after a separate review. However, the Latvian staff took a request—and on the third attempt, the puck was confirmed. Notably, the video coach of Latvia, Peteris Groms, whose timely decisions greatly helped “Avangard” in the golden playoffs of 2021, works in the staff.

Two minutes later, Bukarts made up for the puck episode, when he beautifully handled both Murray and the defense. It seemed Poland was crumbling, Murray made several important saves—and the underdogs suddenly equalized the score. Defender Mateusz Bryk shot from the blue, no one blocked Merzlikin, there were no ricochets, but the Latvian goalie did not deflect the shot. Overtime began with a majority for the Poles, but it was uneventful. Already in the “3 on 3” situation, the “white-and-reds” drew a beautiful counterattack, but hit the post—Latvians responded first with their own jarring of the frame, then with a winning goal from Daugavins.

Poland seemed an exotic entry in the top division on the level of South Korea from 2018. But, for example, the Poles managed to score as many goals in this one match as the Koreans did in that World Championship, and only one puck less than the Italians in the 2019 tournament. Even considering that the Poles were helped by ricochets and the strange play of the opposing goalie, they proved themselves an organized team, and the author of the double, Macias, will surely be able to claim a rookie contract in the NHL.

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