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Canada ousts pesky Latvians

Stamkos and Hamhuis star, Baltic state matches best-ever finish

07-05-09
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PostFinance Arena Bern  SWITZERLAND
Matthew Lombardi (L) celebrates after scoring Canada's fourth goal. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHoF-IIHF Images.

BERNE – Despite a slow start, Canada hit its stride in the second period versus Latvia, prevailing 4-2 and advancing to Friday's semi-finals to face Sweden.

The victory marks Canada's seventh straight semi-final berth. The Canadians have captured three out of the last six World Championships (2003, 2004, 2007), and are looking to regain their throne after falling to Russia in last year's final on home ice.

Dan Hamhuis and Steve Stamkos led the way with a goal and an assist apiece, and Dany Heatley and Matthew Lombardi also scored for Canada. Herberts Vasiljevs had a goal and a helper for Latvia, and Guntis Galvins scored the other goal.

Latvia's Edgars Masalskis had a busier night between the pipes than Canada's Chris Mason, as the Maple Leaf squad held a 48-23 edge in shots on goal.

"We knew before the game we couldn't give them too many power play chances," said Latvian captain Karlis Skrastins. "When we did, they scored two power play goals on us."

The never-say-die Latvians, who finished seventh, equalled their previous best World Championship results (1997, 2004). The small Baltic country has only had to play in the Relegation Round twice since earning promotion in 1997, demonstrating that its hockey program is in no danger of falling off the map in the post-Soviet era.

After winning four out of its first six games at this tournament, Latvia looked determined to not simply surrender in the early going. Masalskis made more challenging saves than Mason, and although he was shaken up on a shot with about seven minutes left in the first period, he hung in there, even when the Canadians crowded his crease toward the end.

"In the first period, they put themselves in a position with good goaltending," said Canadian coach Lindy Ruff. "They felt like they could give us a run in this game."

It was a cautiously paced opening as the teams felt each other out, and that was to Latvia's liking. But the optimism wouldn't last for the former Soviet republic.

The best early chance of the second period went to Canada, as Mike Fisher got loose on a breakaway in the neutral zone four minutes in, but Masalskis stood his ground on the shot.

At 7:23, Heatley finally opened the scoring in vintage Heatley fashion with his sixth of the tournament. On the rush, Canada's all-time scoring leader one-timed a cross-ice pass from Derek Roy inside the Latvian goalie's left post.

"After the first period we were a little frustrated," admitted Roy. "But we tried not to show it. We didn't want the Latvians to see our frustration and think they had a chance with us."

Now Canada picked up its tempo, and the Latvians had trouble keeping up.

With 7:53 left in the middle frame, defenceman Kristaps Sotnieks hauled down Steve Stamkos going to the net on the rush. With five seconds left in that man advantage, Hamhuis beat Masalskis on the blocker side with a fluttering slapper from the centre point to make it 2-0.

At 17:30, Latvia got some life with a shorthanded marker as Galvins swept into the Canadian zone, took a nice cross-ice feed from Herberts Vasiljevs, and fired the puck home glove side as he caught Mason sliding across.

Yet the Latvian elation was short-lived. Just 17 seconds later, Stamkos casually went to the net and tapped in the rebound from a Hamhuis drive for his team-leading seventh tally, restoring Canada's two-goal edge. The Canadians outshot their opponents by a whopping 22-4 margin in the second.

"He's a really good player," said Ruff of Stamkos. "You could really see him coming on in the last 30 games of the NHL season. Here he's got great chemistry with Martin St. Louis. He's hitting the right spots and scoring timely goals."

Showing resilience, Latvia cut the deficit to 3-2 at 1:27 when Nizivijs fed Vasiljevs for a quick one-timer from the slot.

"In the third period, we really picked up our game," said Skrastins. "We started to move around more and play more active."

Yet just 1:40 later, Canada had an answer when Lombardi powered through the Latvian defence and tucked the puck around Masalskis's pad to round out the scoring at 4-2.

Latvia got another chance to make it close came during a late slashing minor to Heatley. But even after calling a timeout, pulling Masalskis, and seeing their power play turn into a 6-on-3 advantage when Marc-Edouard Vlasic was sent off for high-sticking, the Latvians couldn't get it past the unflappable Mason.

Hamhuis was penalized for a thunderous, helmet-loosening hit behind the Canadian goal line with 2:22 left, but again Latvia came up empty with six attackers.

The three best Latvian players of the tournament were honoured prior to the playing of "O Canada": Aleksandrs Nizivijs, Edgars Masalskis, and Karlis Skrastins.

The last time Canada lost a World Championship quarterfinal game was in 2002, a 3-2 decision versus Slovakia.

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