BERNE – In the last four World Championships, Latvia has finished 11th, 13th, 10th, and 9th. As for all teams, the tournament comes down to winning the right games, which in Latvia’s case mean first the game against Austria in the last game of the first group stage next week to guarantee a spot in the qualification round.
With half the team straight out of Dinamo Riga’s lineup - the roster includes 15 players from the Latvian KHL team - Latvia has a core of players that know each other and what is expected of them. A couple of strong NHL additions give the team the potential to pull off an upset that is required to take the team to the quarterfinal, a great feat as such.
Latvian fans are famous for their energy, and should the players show equally contagious enthusiasm on the ice, the team will not disappoint their loyal supporters.
In last year’s tournament, Latvia relied on the solid goaltending of Edgars Masalskis, who plays in the German DEL. He started all six games for the team, was pulled out in one, but still posted a respectable 91.00 save percentage, eighth-best in the tournament.
And just like last year, the other half of the goaltending tandem is 40-year-old Sergejs Naumovs, who played two out of three games in the February Olympic qualification tournament where he posted a 94.6 save percentage and a goals-against-average of 1.50.
Naumovs has seen Latvia’s journey in the World Championships from Division II to the top.
With the help of well organized defence, the Latvian goaltenders should be able to do a good job with turning away the pucks. They’ll be busy, but they’ll do the job.
The Latvian team’s two North American additions bring both experience and promise of a bright tomorrow to the blueline. Karlins Skrastins, 34, is a 600-game NHL veteran who will lead the team both on the ice and in the locker room.
Skrastins is an NHL ironman who played 495 consecutive games in the NHL, breaking the record for most consecutive games for a defenceman in 2007. As goaltender Naumovs, Skrastins began his career with the Latvian national team at the World Championship Division II. He’ll be playing in his seventh World Championship in the top division.
Oskars Bartulis, on the other hand, left Latvia as a 17-year-old to play in the Canadian junior league, and has stayed in North America since. This season, the Philadelphia Flyers’ 22-year-old prospect collected 13 points in 80 games with the AHL’s Phildadelphia Phantoms.
While Dinamo Riga finished tenth in the KHL regular season, its three leading scorers were import players.
The following three, Aleksandrs Nizivijs, Martins Cipulis, and Mikelis Redlihs, scored nine goals each, a total of 27, in the 50+ games. Slovak Marcel Hossa, Riga’s leading scorer, lit the red light 22 times. Nizivijs collected 27 points in 53 games and was the team’s leading Latvian scorer.
In Bern, he’ll get help from 23-year-old Martins Karsums, who also spent several seasons in the Canadian junior leagues. Two seasons ago, he finished second in scoring on the Providence Bruins in the AHL with 63 points in 79 games. This season he collectd 41 points in 43 games with the Providence Bruins before being traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Mark Recchi. In his 18 games in the NHL, Karsums collected five points.
Another North American addition, Janis Sprukts, scored 16 goals in 59 games with the Rochester Americans in the AHL.
As a player, Olegs Znaroks saw to it that Latvia was promoted to the top division when he scored the goal that tied the game against Switzerland and secured Latvia’s spot in the bright lights. Now, in his third year as the head coach of Team Latvia, Znaroks is hoping that the 13th-place in 2007 was the bottom and that the trend is now upward.
By his side, Znaroks has his old sidekick, Harijs Vitolins, his old linemate from Dinamo Riga and the Latvian national team.
In the last ten years, Latvia has finished eight or better just twice, in 2000 and 2004, and it’s been five years since that 7th place. Winning their key games will help Latvia breathe easier when it doesn’t have to worry about ending up in the relegation round. That means beating Austria.
A good start, an upset win over Team USA, or even a tie, in its opening game may get the team on a roll and sends it all the way to at least battling for a spot in the quarterfinal.