BRATISLAVA Ė Itís been one of those tournaments for Latvia. The kind where things just donít go your way, no matter how much youíd like to. The team that showed promise in 2009 by finishing seventh, took a step down last year when it ended up in 11th place.
Then again, the seventh place may just have been an anomaly. In the previous five tournaments, Latvia has finished 11th, 7th, 11th, 13th, and 10th.
The team that builds its game on the solid performance of goaltender Edgars Masalskis, and its skilled and quick forwards, has played close games in Bratislava, but always falling short in the end.
"In the game against the Czech Republic, the score was tied at 2-2, when we turned the puck over at their blue line, and they scored on their quick counter attack," Masalskis says.
In their next two games, against Finland and Denmark, Latvia got as close to a win as possible without then getting it, losing both games in a penalty shootout. The latter one was the one that sent Latvia to the Relegation Round. In Latviaís games against Finland, all four goals were scored on power play, then Finland took the win in a penalty shootout.
"Thatís what hockey is about these days: You lose games on mistakes, and you win them on power play. The fewer mistakes you make, the better your chances of winning are," Masalskis says.
Latvian power play has been fine in the tournament, ranking ninth-best of all teams. Penalty killing has also been ninth best, so itís hard to find one particular area of improvement.
Well, Masalskis hasnít been his usual wall. In 2009, when Latvia played in the quarter-finals, Masalskis recorded a 92.83 save percentage, fifth best in the tournament. He also saw more rubber than any other goalie, and was considered one of the best netminders in the tournament. Last year, his save percentage was 91.43, 13th in the tournament.
In Bratislava, Masalskisís 87.5 save percentage ranks 14th in the tournament. The Latvian goaltender is, however, once again, one of the busiest and hardest working men in the tournament as only four goalies have faced more shots than Masalskisís 120.
Head coach Olegs Znaroks pulled Masalskis in their game against Slovenia, when his team was down 5-0, a notable change, as Masalskis played every single minute of the 2009 tournament, and started every game in 2010 and 2011 as well.
The Latvian team may be facing an even bigger change, as coach Znaroks has told Russian media that heís considering leaving his post after the 2011 IIHF World Championship.
"I said it already before the World Championship that Iíd have to think about whether to continue to work with team or not. Most likely I'll step down," he said.
"I do this out of love, because I consider myself a patriot. I care about this team and Iíve known more than half of the players since they were just kids. It's a shame that we got into this situation," he said.
After starting into relegation round play with a 5-2 loss to Slovenia, the Latvians will face Belarus today and Austria one day later. Only two wins can keep hopes alive to play in the 2012 IIHF World Championship in Finland and Sweden next year.
Surely Znaroks would like to leave as a top division team coach.