Latvian goaltender Gudlevskis and defencman Sotnieks keep Canada puck out. Photo: AFP/Scanpix
Latvia pulled off an upset at Sochi in men’s hockey on February 18 beating favoured Switzerland 3:1. That set up a David and Goliath battle the next day between Latvia and Canada.
Canada is loaded with NHL stars led by captain and superstar Sidney Crosby. They were expected to cruise by Latvia on their way to the semi-finals. In 15 previous outings against Canada dating back to 1936, Latvia lost all but one, some by huge margins. The exception was a tie back in 1997.
But the match at Sochi played out differently. Latvia gave Canadians watching back home from coast to coast a huge scare as their team barely made it past the upstarts with a late 2:1 victory.
Canada opened with a goal in the first period but Latvia evened the score with a long lead pass by Artūrs Kulda to Lauris Dārziņš who broke in on Canadian goaltender Carey Price to put it up in the top shelf.
It stayed that way until well into the third period with Latvia playing a physical and disciplined game. The defense and spectacular play by 21 year old Latvian goaltender and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Kristers Gudļevskis shut out the Canadians.
By that point Canada was throwing everything they had and Latvia was hanging on weathering the storm. Just under seven minutes from the end, a shot from the point through traffic beat Gudļevskis on the short side.
Latvia had a couple of chances late in the game but in the end Canada survived and now moves on to the semi-finals against the United States. The Swedes take on the Finns in the other semi-final after Finland knocked out Russia earlier in the day.
The star of the Latvia – Canada game was goaltender Kristers Gudļevskis who stopped 55 of 57 shots. Latvia only had 16 against Canada. He became an instant hero. Media outlets across Canada marvelled at his play.
Ironically the head of the Canadian team at Sochi is Steve Yzerman. He is also the general manager at Tampa Bay. A good time for Gudļevskis to impress his boss sitting in the stands!
Zemgus Girgensons, Lauris Dārziņš, Jānis Sprukts, Artūrs Kulda, Oskars Bārtulis and Sandis Ozoliņš all had great games but everyone on the team deserves credit for coming through.
Canadian Ted Nolan, who is an experienced professional and junior coach as well as Latvia’s head coach, has also been a huge factor for Latvia at Sochi. Even though winless in the first three games they came close against higher ranked teams. According to Latvian players, Nolan believed in them and made them believe in themselves. Nolan who is also coach of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres will be back as Latvia’s coach in this year’s IIHF World Championships in May.
Despite the loss, today’s game was a huge moral victory for Latvia. Taking Canada to the wire in hockey is like a lesser country almost defeating Brazil in the World Cup. And the PR this brings for Latvia … it’s something the Latvian government could never buy.
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