Baltic Bruisers: Latvia Upsets Swiss, Gets Canada
Ted Nolan has a way of making teams believe.
And he's been an honorary Latvian long enough that its national hockey team of lunch-bucket grinders and grizzled NHL veterans bring his passion to life, shift after shift and game after game.
It finally paid off in the first knockout round of the men's Olympic hockey tournament. Besides the elation of advancing in the bracket by edging Switzerland, 3-1, it served as sweet revenge for the preliminary round goal the Swiss garnered with 7.9 seconds left to deny Latvia a point -- for a regulation tie -- and emerge with a 1-0 victory.
The cruelty of that goal was the fact that it was a deflection from a last-ditch Simon Moser heater. It ricocheted off Latvia defenseman Georgijs Pujacs's skate past goalie Edgars Masalskis, who had stoned the Swiss on their first 38 shots.
Latvia lost the game, but came away with the confidence that Nolan's style of play -- physical, disciplined, and opportunistic -- could keep them in games. After all, Switzerland's hockey program is on the rise; its offense disappeared on the way to Sochi, but with Jonas Hiller in net, the Swiss remain a formidable foe.
This time around, Latvia struck early and made it stand up. Early goals from Oskars Bartulis on a screened shot and Lauris Darzins on the power play gave Nolan's charges command of the tempo, and they never let up. Hard checks, safe passes, and ancient Sandis Ozolins doing his best Paul Coffey imitation -- more of a soccer-style sweeper than a defenseman -- left the Swiss with few real scoring chances. When they arose, journeyman goalie Masalskis was there to snuff them without yielding rebounds. And that was that.
Now comes Canada. No illusions are harbored in this one -- the best odds for Latvia you'll get from Bovada are +2½ at +260 -- but do know Nolan will insist on a full frontal attack for the entire game, regardless of score. It's an attitude that sends NHL GMs for the Pepto-Bismol; it will only heighten concerns for their clubs' players emerging from the Olympics healthy and ready to pursue this season's Stanley Cup. It's not enough that Canada has enough talent stockpiled on its roster to handle a hard game. It's more that when the physicality erupts on any given play, the GMs will see it as a form of Russian roulette.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, the only real rivalry game on the docket looked like a dud at first, as the Czech Republic shot out to a 4-0 lead on former countrymen Slovakia before the latter woke up to make a contest of it. The spark may have been lit by a heat-seeker from Zdeno Chara blasting Jan Laco's goalie stick out of his hand, but Marion Hossa fanned the flame with two quick goals gave the Slovaks a momentum that ultimately was too late, as they fell, 4-3.
The Czechs advance to face the USA, which has been nothing short of impressive in its three matches to date. Quirky roster choices and line/pairing assigments won't do in this one. If the underdogs are going to stand a chance against the Americans, their best players must dominate the ice time and Ondrej Pavelec needs to stand on his head.
After getting rope-a-doped by the Slovaks, Russia will be ready for Finland. The hosts did their usual Globetrotter routine against an overmatched Norway, but when the rubber met the road, their goal haul was still anemic. The final score was 4-0, but it was really 2-0 until the last minute or so. The Finns will enter Wednesday's match with a strong measure of confidence, not least supported by the obviosity that they're a far better squad than Norway.
Meanwhile, Sweden has benefitted by its top seed and must take care of business quickly against an outmanned Slovenia so it can use the rest of the game as a tune-up for Thursday's semi-final. Anze Kopitar & Co made history for themselves by advancing this far. They'll go home happy no matter what. The Swedes intend to go home with a medal.
Here's the schedule for Thursday, with the American broadcast outlets listed:
|Top Seed||Teams||Time (EST)||TV|
|No 1||Sweden v Slovenia||3.00am||NBCSN|
|No 4||Finland v Russia||7.30am||NBCSN|
|No 3||Canada v Latvia||12.00pm||USA|
|No 2||United States v Czech Republic||12.00pm||NBCSN|