MANNHEIM – At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Latvia didn't win a single game and was outscored 22-6 in four outings, finishing twelfth and last. But a better fate could lie ahead for the Baltic nation in Germany. Once thought to be in decline in the post-Soviet era, the Latvian program has managed to revitalize itself in recent years with emerging young talent. Last year, maroon-and-white flags were waving happily in Switzerland as coach Olegs Znaroks led his squad to a seventh-place finish, matching Latvia's all-time best results from 1997 and 2004.
If Latvia aspires to crack the top eight again, it will need a tremendous effort from number one netminder Edgars Masalskis. At last year's Worlds in Switzerland, he posted a 2.53 GAA in seven games and was considered a contender for Best Goalie honours, which Belarus's Andrei Mezin ultimately claimed. Particular notable were his 38-save performances in a 3-2 shootout upset versus Sweden and a 2-1 win over the host Swiss. Czech fans, too, will remember the Dinamo Riga starter's acrobatic antics en route to 47 saves in Latvia's 3-2 overtime loss in Olympic qualification playoff hockey in Vancouver. The diminutive 30-year-old is the most important player on this team.
Backups include Martins Raitums, who played this season for the Hull Stingrays in Great Britain and will crack his fourth elite World Championship roster, and 25-year-old Edgars Lusins, who was the starter this year for Bremerhaven of the German second league.
Scoring from the back end could be a concern. Sandis Ozolins, who made a comeback with Dinamo Riga this year at age 37, led his KHL club's defence with 25 points, but the 1996 Stanley Cup winner with Colorado has retired from the national team. Ditto for Olegs Sorokins.
Decent puck movement and mobility will be brought by Olympic returnees Guntis Galvins, Kristaps Sotnieks, Georgijs Pujacs, and Arvids Rekis. But without longtime captain Karlis Skrastins – the Dallas Stars veteran declined an invitation – and nine-time World Championship participant Rodrigo Lavins, there won't be much experience as Znaroks might like.
Reinforcements from North America? If the Philadelphia Flyers are eliminated versus Boston, bringing in 23-year-old NHL rookie Oskars Bartulis is a possibility, and Arturs Kulda of the Chicago Wolves would be another welcome addition. Kulda, an Atlanta Thrashers prospect, recorded an AHL-leading +47 plus-minus rating this year, and is currently embroiled in a playoff battle with the Texas Stars.
There's no rival to Alexander Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos to be found on this roster. Offence will be by committee, and expect veterans like ex NHLer Herberts Vasiljevs (nine points in Switzerland 2009) and Aleksandrs Nizivijs (eight points) to set the tone.
Centre Janis Sprukts provides leadership and appeared in 14 NHL games with Florida between 2006-07 and 2008-09. This year, he tied for second with Nizivijs in team scoring with Dinamo Riga (36 points). Other NHL-experienced forwards suiting up in Mannheim include Kaspars Daugavins (one game with Ottawa in 2009-10) and Martins Karsums (24 games last year with Boston and Tampa).
The Latvians have gotten better over the years at dealing with the physical play they face versus North American sides, but still aren't exactly going to run you out of the building on any given night. They will also need to get better in special teams situations: at the 2009 Worlds, they converted on five of 32 man advantages (15.62 percent).
Olegs Znaroks will guide Latvia for the fourth straight World Championship. A longtime star in the old Soviet league (in the 1980s) and the lower German leagues (in the 1990s), his latest professional exploit was leading MVD Balashikha to Game Seven of the 2010 KHL finals, where it lost the Gagarin Cup to powerhouse AK Bars Kazan.
Znaroks knows how to keep players on an even keel, and his ability to get Latvia to play as a unit will determine how far this team can go. He's assisted by Harijs Vitolins, another longtime Latvian star who played eight NHL games for Winnipeg and spent the 1990s primarily in Switzerland. He also works with Znaroks with MVD Balashikha.
There's no need to guess what Latvia wants to achieve in Germany. "The goal is for us to qualify for the quarterfinals," stated Latvian Ice Hockey President Kirovs Lipmans at a press conference. "This will not be easy because we have a very young team." But it's not out of reach.
Competing in Group B in Mannheim, Latvia is unlikely to knock off the high-powered Canadians, but has already proved it's capable of beating Switzerland, and should be favoured against the ponderous Italians. That latter matchup on May 12 could hold the key to Latvia's fortunes. Top Eight, maybe. Top Twelve, probably. Top noise levels from enthusiastic fans, certainly.