BRATISLAVA Ė At the start of the new millennium, many believed Latvian hockey would soon fall off the map. Thankfully for the loudest fans in our great sport, that hasnít proved to be the case.
In the post-Soviet era, the Baltic state with 2.2 million inhabitants admittedly hasnít managed to produce new NHL-calibre stars to equal defenceman Sandis Ozolins and goalie Arturs Irbe. But that hasnít stopped Latvia from clinging firmly to its place at the IIHF World Championship. Only twice in the last 14 years has Latvia even been obliged to brave the dangers of the Relegation Round. Packed with players from the KHLís Dinamo Riga, this yearís World Championship squad will aim to keep the maroon-and-white flag flying high despite missing some familiar faces.
If this team is going to go anywhere, itíll be on the shoulders of starting goalie Edgars Masalskis. The 31-year-old veteran had a mediocre season with the KHLís Yugra Khanty-Mansisk, serving as a back-up to Mikhail Biryukov, but heís elevated his game on repeated occasions in international play. Masalskis got strong consideration for Best Goalie honours when Latvia matched its best-ever result with seventh place at the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland. And few who saw his magnificent 47-save performance in a 3-2 OT loss to the Czechs at last yearís Olympics will forget it. Heíll need to be just as brilliant if Latvia is to outdo (presumably) Denmark in Group D and avoid a bottom-four finish.
Martins Raitums, who has appeared in two previous World Championship games, just won the Kazakh league championship with Beibarys Atyrau, and will serve as the backup.
Latvia could probably use Ozolins on its blueline, since heís coming off a fine 32-point campaign with Dinamo Riga. But as the 39-year-old Stanley Cup champion retired from international play in 2006, heís now serving as the teamís general manager instead. Karlis Skrastins is taking a pass this year as heís between NHL contracts, and six-time World Championship participant Guntis Galvins is scheduled for surgery. Oskars Bartulis of the Philadelphia Flyers is also out for the season.
However, the addition of 22-year-old Arturs Kulda, whoís played six career games for the Atlanta Thrashers, should provide a much-needed dose of physicality, and the Latvians need anyone with the potential to limit opportunities for big, skilled Group D opponents like the Czech Republicís Jaromir Jagr or Finlandís Mikko Koivu. Georgjis Pujacs will need to generate offence from the back end: the 29-year-old earned a career-best 21 points with the KHLís Sibir Novosibirsk this year, and last year he led all Latvian D-men with two goals and an assist. The rest of the mostly Dinamo Riga crew will need to focus on moving the puck quickly out of their zone and not taking obstruction fouls. Latvia only picked up 54 minutes in penalties last year, but their penalty-killing was a cringeworthy 77.2 percent.
Thereís some quality up front for Latvia, but no real standouts. Left wing Lauris Darzins will need to contribute after leading Dinamo Riga in scoring with 44 points. He should have good chemistry with fellow Riga linemates Andris Dzerins and Mikelis Redlihs. Herberts Vasiljevs remains productive with the DELís Krefeld Pinguine, where his 49 points were also a team-best. Other perennial national team members, like Aleksandrs Nizivijs and Martins Cipulis, are still contributing but arenít going to light it up in all likelihood. Notable missing forwards include Janis Sprukts (declined), Kaspars Daugavins (AHL playoffs), and Martins Karsums (recovering from surgery). Scoring by committee will be the order of the day.
Olegs Znaroks is back for his fifth straight World Championship with Latvia. No other national team coach in Latvian history has reigned that long. (Leonids Beresnevs, under whom whom Znaroks served as an assistant, coached Latvia at four Worlds.) The famously moustachioed former national team captain is very emotional behind the bench, and finds a way to instill confidence and fighting spirit in his players. Tactically, his main challenge early on will be finding a way to keep the score close as long as possible against the Finns and the Czechs.
Frankly, this yearís Latvian team isnít quite as strong Ė at least on paper Ė as some of its recent predecessors. That doesnít mean itís in imminent danger of being consigned to Division I, but there is also no room for complacency. A finish between 10th and 13th place looks about right. Anything higher would simply be a bonus.