The countdown to the World Championships is officially underway for Great Britain, returning to the top Division for the first time since 1994 got their preparation underway with a meeting against KHL side Dinamo Riga.
It’s an unusual route towards an international tournament, Great Britain showed a lot of promise ahead of the tournament in May against a club side that had a lot more team chemistry than the Brits who have all come from different teams in a short space of time to come together and play in front of a packed Skydome in Coventry, that had a surprisingly large number of fans in support of the visitors, making it almost as though it was an away game for Great Britain.
Straight away it was clear that Riga had come to play, icing most of their regular players and using their pace and skill early on to create a lot of zone time for themselves, but not testing Ben Bowns too much as the defense of Great Britain held firm to limit any grade A opportunities early on, and were held to a few tentative chances of their own against Kristers Gudlevskis in the Latvian side’s net.
With GB settling down more into the game and getting better zone entries to get an attack of their own set up, they finally found themselves in prime position to grab an early chance. Luke Ferrara entered the zone and ripped a shot past Gudlevskisand into the back of the net to break the deadlock just before the midway point of the first period. The play could have been completely null and void as well had it not been for a great bit of work at the blueline by Lewis Hook who was dangerously close to putting the entire play offside, but did fantastically to straddle the blueline and stay onside, allowing Ferrara to enter the zone cleanly and get the opening goal.
With a quick tempo and a physical start to the game, Great Britain continued to grow into the game, but Riga had a good chance to pull one back shortly after going a goal behind, but Andris Dzerins elected to go for the shot himself, giving Bowns his first real test but the puck was sent wide of the cage, but it led to an extended period of pressure by Dinamo Riga over the next few passages of play, but defensively the Brits held their own, with Bowns making a couple of key saves, but the work of the men in front of him was great, using their bodies both physically and also to shutdown passing lanes to stop any attempt at a cross crease attempt, with a lot of the chances coming from distance and very little actually making it through to Bowns with a lot of shots sailing wide.
The chances from distance nearly came good with just over five minutes to play in the first period, after winning an offensive zone face off, a shot from Kristaps Sotnieks made its way through to Bowns who recovered well to deny a chance from Rihards Marenis, scrambling across to stop the 25-year-old Latvian international a chance at the back door.
Ciaran Long may be enjoying a great year offensively for the Manchester Storm, but he showed his talents at the other end of the ice, a breakaway for Riga despite Great Britain being on the powerplay was snuffed out by Long who had stormed back to shut down the opportunity, using his body well to break up the chance without taking a penalty on the play, in what eventually ended up being a pretty poor powerplay for GB who rarely tested the net, but kept their 1 – 0 lead heading into the first period break.
Whatever was said in the Riga room after the first period sent the KHL side out with intent, straight away jumping back into their fast and physical style of play, and with an early penalty against X it allowed Great Britain to work on their penalty kill early on which, luckily for Pete Russell, was much better than the powerplay they had late in the first period, surviving a couple of scares thanks to the committed shot blocking by the defense, meaning Ben Bowns didn’t have too much to do, and eventually sent the puck the the other end of the ice with Coventry Blaze forward Ben Lake on a partial breakaway, making a lovely move to slot the puck past the leg of Gudlevskis to cap off his GB debut with a goal to go 2 – 0 up with a shorthanded goal early in the middle stanza.
With Great Britain starting to control the play, they were playing with a lot of confidence, which showed after Ben O’Connor found himself all along in front of net, attempting to shoot with his stick between his legs like in a similar fashion to a penalty shot he scored in the 2015 World Championships against Korea, but couldn’t bury the chance, with GB going onto the powerplay shortly after but despite a much improved showing they couldn’t add to their lead, and as Riga started to get themselves back into the contest, testing the Brits defenders, the buzzer to end the period couldn’t come quick enough, with GB carrying a 2 – 0 lead into the final 20 minutes.
With Riga down by two in the third period, they came out even more physical than they already had been all game long, hitting almost anything that moved and using their big bodies to create turnovers and try and find their way onto the scoresheet, but GB kept their heads and stayed on their game, creating chances of their own but the goaltenders at both ends held firm.
Both sides continued to press and Riga started taking control, getting chance after chance but unable to find a first goal, forcing Head Coach Girts Ankipans to call a timeout, pulling the goalie early on and eventually the visitors break through. With a lot of traffic out in front, captain Lauris Darzins moved in tighter to utilise the screen more, before feeding a great pass right to the tape of Edijs Brahmanis who made no mistake in releasing a quick shot, leaving Ben Bowns with absolutely no chance of stopping it, making it a 2 – 1 game, and straight after the visitors looked very comfortable on the puck, looking very hungry to tie things up.
Great Britain had to put in a hell of a defensive performance as time ticked down with Riga looking dangerous every time they made it across the blueline, but with Gudlevskis on the bench in favour of the extra man again, the puck found the tape of Ben O’Connor who capped off yet another brilliant performance for the national team, calmly firing the puck from his own zone into the yawning cage, make it 3 – 1 with less than 60 seconds to go, and giving Great Britain the victory in their first KHL test, and first of five warm up games, in a fantastic showing which has surely given Pete Russell a bit of a headache, with players like Ciaran Long and Jordan Cownie putting in displays to further cement their bid to make the final squad, while it was an incredible Man of the Match performance by Ben Bowns as the British starter continues his impressive 2018/19 campaign for club and now country.
Great Britain won’t be in action again until April where they’ll play in a three team tournament with Hungary and Italy, before welcoming another KHL side for two games against Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, before they fly out to Slovakia in May to face the some of the best countries on the international stage.