Latvia Stuns Niederreiter And Team Switzerland
SOCHI -- The message of Ted Nolan since he took over the Latvian team has been two-fold. First, he stressed that the Latvians were good players capable of doing great things. Also, he stressed that anything can happen in a short tournament.
Tuesday, his players proved him a prophet on both counts at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Latvia, the No. 11 seed in the qualification playoffs without a win in three preliminary games, knocked off Switzerland, 3-1, Tuesday night at Bolshoy Ice Dome. Switzerland, the No. 6 seed in the qualification playoffs, is also the holder of the silver medal from the 2013 World Championships.
"It's great," said Kaspars Daugavins, the Latvian forward. "It's something amazing. Not many people believed we could do it. And we proved a lot of people wrong."
Now, the Latvians face Canada, the Group B champion, in the 9 p.m. game at Bolshoy Ice Dome on Wednesday night.
Tuesday night, the pedigrees of the two teams did not matter. Neither did the fact that Switzerland had won the first meeting, in the preliminary round on Wednesday, with a goal with eight seconds remaining.
All that mattered was that the Latvians were on board with their coach, ready to prove that a first trip for the country to the quarterfinals was not only a possibility, but a done deal.
"To get a win at the Olympics is something we would all like to have," Nolan said. "To go a little bit further is what we are here for. That is what the Olympics are all about. Miracles can happen."
The Latvians were not shy about calling what transpired Tuesday night as the greatest hockey thing to happen to their country.
"Those chances to get in the quarterfinals don't come along very often, so we have been waiting for this chance for four years," said forward Lauris Darzins, who scored Latvia's second and empty-net goals.
Oskars Bartulis scored the opening goal, a slapper through traffic, that beat Jonas Hiller (19 saves) to the far post to set the tone for Latvia, which took a 2-0 lead into intermission and then held on after Martin Pluss cut the deficit in half with 24:59 remaining.
Switzerland, despite several Grade A opportunities, could not get the tying goal.
"It's a huge disappointment for Swiss hockey," alternate captain Mark Streit said. "We didn't achieve what we wanted to. It's not a setback; it's just tough to explain."
Latvia played a typical Latvian game, using an opportunistic defense, a physical checking game and the stout goaltending of Edgars Masalskis (32 saves) to stymie the Swiss.
"We played as a team, we stuck together, even when the times got tough in the game," said team captain Sandis Ozolinsh. "Now, I am really proud of this group of guys. Each one of them is responsible for this win as much as the other guys."
Ozolinsh, a defenseman, played a team-high 21:52 to lead the way. He has been around the Latvian national team since 1998, playing with the Soviet Union team before that. This victory means the world to him.
"Sandis, he loves the game," Nolan said. "He competes all the time. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. The last qualifier when he decided to come back to the national team, he led us in that tournament and he's leading us here today. I don't know if I'm coaching the team or he's coaching the team, but he's doing a great job."
Ozolinsh is front and center for the Latvians, owning a resume that features both international success and NHL success.
But, the goalie, Masalskis, also is revered by many in the Latvian room.
He played a huge game Tuesday, making several highlight-reel saves. None was better than a lightning-fast glove-hand save of a one-timer from Andres Ambuhl ticketed for the top corner. Somehow, Masalskis got his glove in the path of the puck before falling forward. He remained face-down on the ice for several seconds in a combination of exhaustion and satisfaction.
He also stopped Reto Suri on a semi-breakaway just before Darzins scored his empty-netter.
"Our goalie just stood on his head to give us the win," said Zemgus Girgensons, the young Latvian forward who plays for Nolan in Buffalo.
The reward for the biggest win in the country's hockey history is playing the defending Olympic gold-medal champion. But, after Tuesday night, the Latvians know that anything is possible.
They believe, like their coach taught them to believe. They are ready.
"It's going to be really tough for us, but we'll try to give them a hard time," Daugavins said. "You never know, miracles happened before – as long as we earn the miracle. We just have to go out there and work hard and have fun, just as we did today. Our goalie might stop every shot, he's good. You never know."