Above: Canada’s men’s hockey team won a nerve-wracking game against an unexpectedly formidable opponent. Eric Sorensen reports.
Team Canada faced off against an opponent no one expected to see in the quarter-finals of the men’s Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi.
Latvia stunned the Swiss on Tuesday, winning its first game of the tournament 3-1 and advancing to meet Canada in the quarter-finals. They continued to stun on Wednesday, with netminder Kristers Gudlevskis playing the game of his life.
After turning away 55 of 57 shots, Gudlevskis let in a shot from defenceman Shea Weber. It was enough to give Canada the 2-1 win.
By the final horn, Canada outshot Latvia 57-16.
Canada will now face the U.S. in the semifinals on Friday.
Sharp took the first penalty of the game six minutes into the first period, two minutes for tripping. Canada killed it off with ease.
Sharp also opened up the scoring, getting his first goal of the Olympic tournament. Rick Nash picked up the assist.
Latvia’s Lauris Darzins beat Carey Price on a breakaway, and tied the game up 1-1.
The first period was fast-paced, with very few stops in play. Canada outshot Latvia 16-6 in the first.
Latvia continued to play a physical, scrappy game in the second, playing the body at every chance. Canada poured on the offence, spending most of the period in Latvia’s end. They continued to dominate in faceoffs and shots on net, but were unable to get a puck across the goal line.
During the second period, New York Islanders captain John Tavares was taken into the boards by Arturs Kulda. He was slow to get up and left the Canadian bench for the dressing room minutes later. It was announced after the game that Tavares would miss the rest of the Olympic tournament due to a leg injury.
Canada started off the third with a power play and a clean sheet of ice, but were unable to capitalize.
After 12 shots turned away, Team Canada crashed the Latvian net. The puck, sliding just over the goal line, was pulled back by Latvia’s Kristaps Sotnieks. The play went to review, and was originally called “no goal” by the officials. A second look at the tape and the call remained – the score still tied 1-1.
Shot after shot was turned away by an exhausted and panting Gudlevskis, but on the power play Weber got one past him with seven minutes left in the game. Drew Doughty and Jonathan Toews picked up the assists.
Leading up to the quarter-finals
Canada advanced straight to the quarter-finals, after beating Finland 2-1 in overtime on Sunday.
Price started in net, his third start of the Sochi Winter Olympics; he was backed up by Roberto Luongo. Price stopped 19 of 20 shots in Canada’s win against Norway and 14 of 15 shots in the team’s win against Finland.
The Latvians scored a major victory just by making it into the quarter-finals, beating the heavily-favoured Switzerland.
Latvia has just one NHL player on the roster (Buffalo Sabres’ forward Zemgus Girgensons), but netminder Edgars Masalskis proved to be strong between the pipes against Switzerland, stopping 32 shots and making some key saves down the stretch to hold the Latvian lead.
The Latvian upset was likely welcomed by Canadian players and fans alike.
“The Swiss have traditionally given Canada problems because of their style of play,” said Ryan Kennedy, associated senior writer for The Hockey News.
“The Swiss lean on their goaltending and their defence and they kind of trap it up,” said Kennedy, while Latvia plays more of a North American-style game, “they’re very physical, they like to skate and they’re not afraid to forecheck.”
Unfortunately for Latvia, said Kennedy, Canada is better at all of those things. Even if Latvia were to get a lead in the quarterfinal game, Team Canda won’t back down. “The Canadians are not going to wilt, they’re going to keep plugging away,” he said.
While upsets do happen, the Canadians are the obvious favourites in Wednesday’s game. The Latvians are the 11th ranked team in the world and today’s game is the furthest they’ve ever made it in Olympic hockey.
But Team Canada will likely get a stern “don’t underestimate your opponent speech” in the dressing room ahead of the game.
“They’re better as a sum than they are as parts,” said head coach Mike Babcock, of the largely-unknown Latvian team.
Canada’s play has improved with each game in the preliminary round of the tournament, but players and coaching staff agree, they’ll need to kick it up a notch once the playoffs begin.
So far in the tournament, six of Canada’s 11 goals have come from the blue line. Doughty has four, including the only two Canadian goals in the game against Finland. Weber has two goals.
“We’ve gotten better every game,” said Carter following Sunday’s game. “That was our goal coming into these three games, to improve every game and I think we’ve done that. I think we definitely have another gear and you’re going to see it here soon.”
“The most important thing for me is that we get better as a team each and every day,” said Babcock in a press conference on Sunday. “If we get better as a team, we’re going to have an opportunity in the end…to be successful.”
Finland proved to be a tougher challenge than Canada had faced yet in the tournament.
“It was a great test for us,” said Carter. “They’re fast, skilled and they played hard…They gave us a good game.”
Team Canada’s lineup vs Latvia
Martin St. Louis was in the lineup against Latvia, rotating in on a line with John Tavares, Sharp and Rick Nash.
St. Louis said he was ready for the challenge. “It’s a situation that you fully understand it’s a possibility you might be in, in these tournaments,” said St. Louis after the lineup was announced. “You’re trying to go out there and earn another shift.”
Matt Duchene, P.K. Subban and Mike Smith were the healthy scratches for Wednesday’s game.
Subban, last year’s Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenceman, has sat out three of Canada’s four Olympic games.
Babcock said Subban has accepted his role on the team well.
“He’s a proud guy. And he’s here and he doesn’t get to dress,” Babcock said. “Nobody is probably thrilled about that. Those are hard decisions that we make, and in the end they’ve got to live it.”
“That doesn’t mean they’ve got to like it. But you’re here to be a good pro and a good teammate and as it’s not about me and it’s not him, it’s about Canada. As long as we all remember that, we’re fine.”
Team Canada held a morning skate on Wednesday, and if the same lines hold from Tuesday’s practice, Chris Kunitz will reunite with captain Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron.
Ryan Getzlaf will centre Jamie Benn and Corey Perry. Jonathan Toews will centre Patrick Marleau and Jeff Carter.
Babcock kept his defensive pairs together during practice: Duncan Keith and Shea Weber, Drew Doughty with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Jay Bouwmeester with Alex Pietrangelo. Dan Hamhuis will rotate in as the 7th defenceman.
In other hockey news
Sweden easily handled Slovenia in the quarter-finals, winning 5-0. Alexander Steen, Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson each scored a goal. Carl Hagelin had two. Swedish goalie Henrik Lundovist got the shutout, stopping 19 Slovenian shots.
Finland beat Russia 3-1 in a do-or-die game for two of the tournament’s medal favourites. Finland will face Sweden in the semifinals on Friday.
As expected, the U.S. beat the Czech Republic 5-2 in their quarter-final match on Wednesday.
Canada will play the Americans in the semifinals on Friday.
With files from The Canadian Press