Latvia Stands in Canada's Way of Berth in Semifinals
LATVIA vs. CANADA
When: Wednesday, Noon ET (MSNBC, CBC)
Where: Bolshoy Ice Dome
What's at stake: In the grand scheme of things, it's the same: This game is for the right to compete for a medal in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
In reality, it means something completely different to each of the two competing nations.
Canada was expected to be here and is expected to go on and defend the gold medal it won four years ago in Vancouver. Anything less will be seen as a huge disappointment.
Not much was expected from Latvia, which seemed on the way to fulfilling that prophecy by going 0-3 in group play. However, all three losses were tight games and Latvia finally broke through and stunned Switzerland 3-1 in a play-in game Tuesday. Another win 24 hours later as the heaviest of underdogs would be nothing short of this country's own Miracle on Ice.
Latvia: Edgars Masalskis stopped 38 of 39 shots against Switzerland in Latvia's Group C opener, but it wasn't enough because his teammates couldn't score a goal. Masalskis was just as good Tuesday, making 32 saves, and this time he got support in the first period from Oskars Bartulis and Lauris Darzins, whose goals built what turned out to be an insurmountable 2-0 lead.
This is the first time in five Olympic appearances Latvia has reached the quarterfinals. Anything more at this point is icing on the cake, which makes the Latvians dangerous, and while they'll be playing back-to-back while the Canadians come in rested, there should be plenty left in the tank for a game of this magnitude.
"One of the greatest hockey teams ever to play hockey," forward Kaspars Daugavins, who played in the NHL for the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins, told the IIHF website of the Canadians. "It's going to be really tough for us, but we're going to try to give them a hard time. You never know. Miracles have happened before."
Canada: Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, who started the first and last game for Canada in group play, was named the starter by coach Mike Babcock. Price hasn't been tested much to this point, needing to make just 33 saves combined in wins against Norway and Finland, but each game had its stressful moments, particularly the 2-1 overtime triumph Sunday against the Finns which allowed Canada to place first in Group B.
"I'm actually just trying to do the same thing I do in Montreal," Price said about his mentality in net. "You're not getting as many shots, but whenever they're in the zone you just try and find that zone that you're in regularly as when you're facing 30, 35 shots."
Babcock's lineup juggling has been one of the biggest storylines to this point, as he tries to find the right fits around Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby and decide on a 13th forward and seventh defenseman. Babcock, from the Detroit Red Wings, will match wits in this game with another great hockey mind in Latvia's Ted Nolan, interim coach of the Buffalo Sabres. While popular opinion will be that Canada dodged a major bullet not having to face Switzerland in the quarterfinals, Babcock won't let his players overlook Latvia for a second.
What's next: It's the end of the line for the losing team, while the winner advances to the semifinals Friday to play either the United States or Czech Republic.