Latvia faces-off at hockey championships in Helsinki

The IIHF World Hockey Championship kicks-off on May 3 and runs until May 19 with the gold medal game that will determine this year’s bragging rights among the sixteen qualifying countries. The Championships are being held jointly in Stockholm and Helsinki.

Latvia will be be playing in Helsinki during the preliminary round with games against Russia (May 4), the United States (May 5), Austria (May 7), Slovakia (May 9), Germany (May 11), France (May 13) and Finland (May 14).

Sweden, the Czech Republic, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Belarus and Slovenia will be squaring off in Stockholm. The top four teams from each group will move on to the play-offs while the bottom four will fight it out for final standings. The bottom two will be relegated. The likely candidates for relegation are among France, Austria and Slovenia however Latvia should not take any team for granted. Belarus would be in that group but as hosts of next year’s championship they automatically qualify.

Even though Latvia has played at the top tier since 1997, the hundreds of Latvian hockey fans who will be rocking the Hartwell Arena in Helsinki can be forgiven going in a bit nervous. This season has had its share of challenges for Latvian hockey. The national team is young and lacking experienced veterans. Most of the players are from with Dinamo Riga. A few others play on other teams in the KHL, Germany and Switzerland. Some toil in lower European leagues. Mārtiņš Karsums, Lauris Dārziņš, Jānis Sprukts and Mārtiņs Cipulis along with youngster Miks Indrasis will be expected to produce up front. Centre is a weak spot. Krišjānis Redlihs, Georgijs Pujacs and Arturs Kulda will anchor the defence. Goaltending will be shared by Kristers Gudļevskis and Māris Jucers. They lack experience although Jucers has stepped in as a back-up for both the national team and Dinamo Riga. Veteran goaltender Edgars Masalskis is coming off an injury and may not be ready for action. Defenceman Oskars Bārtulis and forward Mikelis Redlihs are also injured and will not play. Neither will ageing veteran Sandis Ozoliņš.

Head coach Canadian Ted Nolan is back for his second season and has his staff in place. Canadian Tom Coolen and legendary Latvian goaltender Arturs Irbe are assistant coaches. Karlis Zirnis, a former NCAA player and minor leaguer in the United is the video coach. During a series of exhibition games in April leading up to the World Championships, Latvia lost to the Czech Republic, Finland and France but split a two game series with Belarus. To be fair, Nolan did not field the expected final roster in any of the exhibition games but gave some less experienced players a closer look.

But the problem with Latvian hockey is lack of players in the depth chart. There is not a lot to choose from. Latvia has a total of 2,348 men, 1,515 juniors and youth as well as 116 women and girls who play hockey. That includes players of all ages including amateurs.

Despite the numbers, Latvia’s mens team continues to play at the top level and in February they won a qualifying tournament in Riga under Nolan’s leadership securing a spot at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Latvia’s other national teams weren’t as lucky. The Men’s Under 20 (U20) juniors placed 10th out of 10 teams at the championships held this past December in Ufa, Russia and were demoted from the top tier to Division 1 Group A next year. The Men’s Under 18 (U18) team suffered the same fate this April at the championships in Sochi. The same month the Women’s team finished last in a field of six in Norway and are heading down from Division 1 Group A to Group B. Latvia’s men are currently ranked 11th and women 13th in the world.

It was a rough year for Dinamo Riga in the KHL. As a low-budget team they were unable to acquire any star players from abroad and lost a number of top Latvian players to other teams in the KHL who could afford to pay more. Sandis Ozoliņš, Jānis Sprukts, Mikelis Redlihs and Lauris Dārziņš were those who went elsewhere. So too did Arturs Kulda and Oscars Bārtulis who returned from North America. Kaspars Daugaviņš from the Ottawa Senators did play with Dinamo during the NHL lock-out. Former NHLer Raitis Ivanans also joined Dinamo but played a limited role as the team’s enforcer. The end result was that Dinamo finished dead last in the Western Conference and did not make the play-offs. Instead the team competed among the KHL’s also rans for the Cup of Hope (some called it the Cup of Losers) and ended up winning. If anything, it extended the season for Latvian hockey fans and kept the players moving on to the national team in game form.

HK Riga is Dinamo’s junior team and they play in the Russian dominated VHL. The juniors fared better and made it to the play-offs before being bowing out in the quarter-finals. Locally, Liepajas Metalurgs played in the Belarus League while won the semi-professional Latvian loop.

Unlike previous years, only one Latvian played in the NHL. Kaspars Daugaviņš saw limited action with the Ottawa Senators and late in the lock-out abbreviated season was traded to the Boston Bruins. Arturs Kulda had seen limited action with the Winnipeg Jets the previous season and opted to play this year with Novosibirsk Sibir in the KHL. When their play-off run ended he was signed by the Winnipeg Jets on a short-term contract. In the month that he was back before the Jets season ended, Kulda was a healthy scratch, no doubt acquired as insurance in case the Jets ran into injuries.

Zemgus Girgensons made the jump from junior ranks in the USHL to the American Hockey League (AHL) and the Rochester Americans, a farm team of the Buffalo Sabres. He recently turned 19 and was the youngest player on his team. He held his own and the Sabres opted to keep him in Rochester rather than send back to the juniors. Expect Girgensons to crack the NHL within a couple of years. Kristiāns Pelšs also made the jump from major junior hockey with the Edmonton Oil Kings to the Oklahoma City Barons, an AHL farm team of the Edmonton Oilers. He spent part of the season during the NHL lock-out in Stockton California one level lower in the ECHL but was called back up after the lock-out ended and room opened up on the team. He is a solid defensive forward who has a shot at the NHL. Both the Americans and Barons are in the AHL play-offs and unless their teams have a short run, Girgensons and Pelšs will not be available for the World Championships.

Four 18 year olds played in Canada’s major junior leagues. The most successful was Roberts Lipsbergs with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League (WHL). He was the team’s top scorer and is ranked 85th in this summer’s NHL draft. Edgars Kulda, younger brother of Arturs Kulda, and Nikita Jevpalovs had solid seasons with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL and Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec League (QMJHL). All three will likely be back next year. Rinalds Rosinskis had a decent plus/minus figure for a defenseman on the weak Prince George Cougars (WHL) but it is not clear if he will be back. Edgars Kļaviņš, a junior from Latvia playing in Sweden, is ranked 63rd for the NHL draft.

Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Teodors Blugers started his NCAA career with Minnesota State University (Mankato) and posted decent numbers. Another NCAA forward is Ralfs Freibergs, a freshman at Bowling Green. He saw limited action because he was suspended for 33 games having violated the NCAA amateur rule. As a junior Freibergs had played in Latvia on a team in Latvia’s semi-professional domestic loop. Latvia had no junior team at that point so the suspension seems somewhat unfair because he had no other option. But he returned to action and then with the school year over headed to the national team’s training camp. Meanwhile there are a number of junior and youth age players from Latvia playing in North America hoping to catch a break and get a shot at one of the top junior leagues in Canada and the United States or to pick up a scholarship with the NCAA.

Meanwhile back to Helsinki. Latvia should hang-on to a place in the top tier of men’s hockey. Although they no longer strong enough to take a game from the big powers, they are better than some of the lesser powers also competing. But don’t expect Latvian hockey fans to breathe easy until the final whistle.

7 thoughts on “Latvia faces-off at hockey championships in Helsinki

  1. As expected Latvia lost to Russia in the opener losing 0:6 and being out-shot 15:34. No offence. Kulda made it back from the Jets and logged the most ice time anchoring the defence with Krisjanis Redlihs. Girgensons AHL play-off run has ended and he is joining the national team in Helsinki. And veteran goaltender Masalskis is on the mend and played the last period. But other than that, Latvian hockey fans will need to wait for dates against weaker teams and none of them will be push-overs.

  2. A loss is a loss but at least the 1:4 loss to the USA and only a 20:26 differential in shots was respectable. Defenceman Arturs Kulda continued to log the most ice time, he scored Latvia’s only goal and was awarded the team’s best player award. Now it’s a weaker Austrian team on Tuesday and Zemgus Girgensons will be in the line-up. But the boys will need to be up for the game against Austria. Latvia has a history of taking weaker teams for granted.

  3. The 1:4 loss to the United States wasn’t surprising but today’s 3:6 loss to Austria was disastrous. It puts Latvia into a must win situation, certainly against France and Germany and even then it will depend on how the other games play out. Right now Latvia is last in the tournament with zero points. Relegation is a possibility unless they put some big games together. They’ve gone to the brink before and have come back. Here’s hoping.

  4. Go figure. Yesterday Latvia lost to Austria, a team that they should have beat and put themselves into a deep hole. In a must-win scenario today, they beat Slovakia considered to be among the contenders by a score of 5:3. Lauris Darzins netted three goals to lead the charge. But the real shocker of the day was underdog France upsetting powerhouse Russia 2:1. That was not the result that Latvia had hoped for because it opens the gap with them and France, one of the countries that they had hoped to better. This sets up an interesting finish to the preliminary round with Latvia, Denmark and Austria all with three points (a win counts as three), Germany with four and France with six. Belarus also has three but as next year’s hosts they automatically qualify. The combinations and possibilities are too convoluted to sort out. But Latvia needs be ahead of at least two other teams to avoid relegation and has to come up big in games against France and Germany. The Finns are expected to beat Latvia in the last game of the preliminary. Nervous times coming up for LV fans.

  5. The picture is becoming clearer and with today’s 0:2 loss to Germany (Latvia beat them 3:2 last year) it looks iffy for Latvia. Among the countries in the bottom part of the table, France has 6 points, Austria has 5, Denmark, Latvia and Belarus (remember that as the hosts of next year’s championships Belarus can’t be relegated) each have 3 and Slovenia is last with 1. Latvia needs to beat France on May 13 because they’re not expected to beat the Finns a day later. That would give them an additional 3 points. Austria will likely stay put given they’re up against Russia. Denmark could take 3 points in the game against Belarus and France still need to play against Germany. So … can’t figure it out? Best to stay tuned for a few more days. Relegation would be disastrous for Latvia’s hockey program given they’ve been at the top tier since 1997. They still have a chance to escape that fate but they will need to muster more firepower than they did against the Germans in the game against France who is having a good championship, at least for France. Either way, far from what Latvian fans had hoped for.

  6. OK! Latvian hockey fans can breathe easy. Our guys beat France 3:1 with a three point performance by captain Janis Sprukts. But the victory alone was not enough to avoid relegation. Russia also had to beat Austria. One would think that would be a no-brainer but the Austrians were desperate to stave off their own relegation and half-way through the game the score was a surprising 4:4. Fortunately Russia then pulled away and ended up winning 8:4. Austria and Slovenia now get relegated. The lowest that Latvia can finish is 14th among the 16 competing countries. Actual placing will depend on the results of the games on Tuesday. An interesting scenario would take place if Latvia beat the Finns in their final game and France beat Germany. That would put Latvia and France tied with 9 points in 4th place in their group and given that Latvia beat France they would move on to the quarter finals. However if Germany won they would have 10 points and would advance instead. But beating the Finns is a very big if. And had Latvia beaten Austria arguably the weaker team earlier on, the next round would have been a real possibility. But no matter what happens, it’s on to Sochi and the Winter Olympics and then to Minsk for next year’s World Championships.

  7. The World Championships are over for Latvia and after going to the brink staring at relegation, the team came back with Monday’s win over France and Tuesday’s overtime 2:3 loss to Finland which counted for a point. That means they placed a respectable 11th out of 16 teams. The third line came up big today with Gints Meija and Roberts Jekimovs scoring and Meija and Andris Dzerins picking up two points. Had they beat Austria earlier …. Oh let’s no go there! Latvia’s hopes to make the quarterfinals were dashed by Slovakia who had a surprise win today against the United States and grabbed the final play-off spot in Latvia’s group. Germany did not aid the cause by eking out an overtime victory against France which meant that even with a victory against Finland, Latvia would finish behind the Germans. So a measure of vindication for a young Latvia squad and their Canadian coach Ted Nolan who put it together in the last two games to separate themselves from the bottom of the pack. Austria and Slovenia got relegated while France, Belarus and Denmark placed behind Latvia. Of the smaller powers, Germany and Norway placed in front of Latvia at 9th and 10th. So now the top four from each group head into the play-offs with Switzerland being the tournament’s surprise having won all its games. Now if Latvia had beat Austria …. Oh let’s no go there! Let’s think about Sochi and Minsk (next year’s venue) instead.

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