Australia defeated Latvia in a thrilling 2-1 victory, securing a spot in Tuesday’s bronze medal match.
The win marks the first time Australia has defeated Latvia in international competitions.
Latvia is a proud hockey nation, their men’s team is currently 11th in the world. Its women’s team (29th) is likewise higher than Australia (33rd).
The match was thus a good measuring stick for Australia’s burgeoning women’s hockey program.
Australia would face adversity early, going behind six minutes into the game.
Linda Rulle took possession along the half-wall, cut from the right faceoff circle and wired a perfect shot from between the hash marks into the top-left corner of the goal.
With a mass of bodies screening Olivia Last, the Australian netminder had no chance to make the save. The goal finished off a brilliant forecheck and cycle for Latvia.
When the referees sent Phoebe Roberts to the box for tripping a few minutes later, Australia faced more adversity.
The call was a curious one; although Roberts’ stick went between the Latvian player’s skates, she didn’t trip on the play or seem impeded.
Instead of sitting back and focusing on protecting the goal crease, Australia was aggressive on the penalty kill, denying Latvia easy entry into the offensive zone.
Latvia wasn’t able to move the puck swiftly enough to elude the penalty killers and the penalty ended without any meaningful scoring attempts.
Australia seized the momentum and soon tied up the match with one of the most bizarre goals I have seen in an international tournament.
With Australia changing lines, Elana Holub took the puck over the blueline and floated a harmless-looking shot towards the Latvian net.
However, the puck bounced on the ice and changed direction like a Shane Warne leg-spinner on the last day of an SCG test, going over Jelizaveta Stadnika’s pad and into the net.
In a scary moment, late in the period Latvian defender Madala Saulite lost her balance while keeping the puck in at the blueline and collided with an Australian player.
Saulite fell awkwardly, injuring her right leg, and her teammates helped her off the ice.
The period ended with Australia on a powerplay, and the shots favouring Australia 11-7.
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Saulite returned for the second period, and her return boosted Latvia. Rulle nearly gave Latvia the lead shorthanded, deking through the Australian defence, but was stymied by Last.
Seconds later Courtney Mahoney manufactured a breakaway of her own. However, the puck bobbled as Mahoney tried to deke, and Stadnika made the save.
Both teams exchanged chances, and Sarlote Stale had an excellent scoring chance from the left faceoff circle. Olivia Last swallowed up the chance with no rebound.
What sets Olivia Last apart in the three years that I’ve seen her play at international tournaments, is her rebound control.
Time and again this tournament she either freezes the puck after quality scoring chances to prevent second chance opportunities or deflects the puck out of high-danger areas.
Phoebe Roberts hit the cross-bar later in the period, and Australia enjoyed extended offensive zone time but couldn’t find a way past Stadnika. Australia outshot Latvia again for the period, 14-9.
Latvia was doing an excellent job clearing the front of the net and negating rebound opportunities.
Although Australia was dominating possession and the shot count, Latvia was creating good chances of its own.
On an Australian powerplay, Sarlote Stale manufactured a breakaway and the best scoring chance of the game for Latvia.
Racing in alone on Last, Stale went forehand-backhand across the crease but Last tracked her perfectly, going post-to-post to make the pad save.
From that point on, it was all Australia for the rest of the match. Stadnika had to be excellent to deny Natasha Dube and Courtney Mahoney on the doorstep in quick succession.
A minute later Ebony Brunt found a rebound in the slot, but Stadnika made the save. Just when it seemed like the game would go to overtime and a shootout, Australia took the lead.
Natasha Dube gained the offensive zone and attempted a toe-drag wrist shot but lost control of the puck.
The puck fluttered towards Stadnika, who was about to cover up the puck, but her own defender poked it out of her reach.
Dube reached the puck first and flipped it over the sprawling Latvian netminder and into the net. Australia had their first lead of the game 56:09 into the match.
The Australians continued to push for an insurance goal and frustrate Latvia’s attempts to set up an attack.
With time dwindling down, and the puck in Latvia’s zone, Latvia were unable to pull the goaltender for an extra attacker. It was a textbook display by Australia of how to protect a lead late in a match.
Australia won the shot-share battle 16-5 for the period and 41-21 for the match.
Australia could have easily lost this match if a bounce went against them but they largely controlled the match.
Considering this is the youngest team Australia has ever sent, it’s auspicious for the team’s future success.
Meanwhile, Spain, the only team to beat Australia, remains undefeated. It has run rampant in the champions group, defeating both Great Britain and the Netherlands 4-0.
Australia remains the only team to score on Spain throughout the tournament. While Spain is the clear number one team, Australia has a compelling case to claim to be the second-best team in the tournament.
Although silver is out of reach for Australia, they can finish no lower than fourth and will play the loser of tomorrow morning’s match between Great Britain and the Netherlands for bronze.
The bronze medal match will be a huge challenge for this team and the pressure will be intense for this young team. However, the team is doubtless pleased to have topped Group E and be playing a bronze medal three/four match instead of a five/six match.
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