Latvia once again proved itself to be a feisty underdog and gave Sweden all it could handle, but in the end Tre Kronor managed to squeak past with a 5-3 win.
The teams combined for six power-play goals as Daniel Alfredsson, Daniel Sedin and Erik Karlsson each got two points for Sweden. Latvia had a two-point performance from Janis Sprukts.
The opponents approached this game trying to solve fundamentally different issues. Sweden had two wins under its belt but has lost its offensive leader Henrik Zetterberg in the process. Getting a break before the quarter-finals would certainly do the veteran-laden team a world of good.
Latvia, with but one NHLer on its roster, Zemgus Girgensons (and he only 20 years of age), had lost close games to Switzerland and Czech Republic and has proven itself to be a very unpleasant opponent. As befits a Ted Nolan team, knowing the fiery coach’s style and history.
For this game, Latvia decided to rest its veteran goalie Edgars Maslaskis, who was heroic in the first game but didn’t look nearly as sharp against the Czechs. 21-year-old Kristers Gudlevskis from the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch took his place between the pipes.
Predictably, the Swedes dominated possession from the early going, outshooting the less-heralded opponent 11-4 in the first period. For all that, however, they only managed to solve Gudlevskis once, and that on a power play, after Krisjanis Redlihs was called for tripping. Erik Karlsson’s shot from the point was deflected in front of the net by Patrik Berglund for the latter’s second goal of the tournament.
Latvia, however, did the most out of the only real first-period chance they got. Sprukts slipped a nice pass along the blue line to Lauris Darzins and the 29-year-old Dinamo Riga forward, skating all alone on Henrik Lundqvist, calmly outplayed the NHL superstar with a patient and crafty deke.
If the first period provided a scoreline that went against the flow of the game, the second provided the game that went against the flow of logic. Latvia, seemingly unaware of its underdog status or the huge disparity in NHL talent, took the game into the Swedish side of the rink, outshooting and outplaying Tre Kronor for long stretches of time.
"We have great pride in the kind of game that we play," said Girgensons afterwards. "We tried to get under the Swedish team's skin. We competed really well against them."
In the first minute of action, long-time NHLer Sandis Ozolins had a great opportunity in the low slot, forcing Lundqvist to make a tough save, deflecting the puck with his glove. Seconds later, the Latvians found themselves on a power play and managed to score off a nice set-up, with Krisjanis Redlihs passing from the blue line and Janis Sprukts deflecting the puck over Lundqvist’s glove.
The 2-1 lead by Latvia shocked the Shayba Arena into silence, despite the Russian fans’ penchant for always supporting underdogs. The shocking score lasted for one minute and 22 seconds, during which many people in the building probably thought they were about to witness yet another Olympic loss by Sweden to an unheralded Eastern European team.
"Yes, you could say that," said Louie Eriksson after the game was safely in the books. "But there was still a lot of minutes left to play."
The Swedes didn't need too many of them, either. Tre Kronor capitalized on their own man advantage after Ronalds Kenins committed a hooking penalty in the very next shift. This time Erik Karlsson released an absolute bomb from the point, which Gudlevskis had no chance of seeing, let alone saving. This was the Ottawa Senators' defencemen's third goal of the Olympics.
The Latvians continued giving the opponent power-play opportunities, being often unable to keep up with the fast Swedish forwards. And the Swedes kept punishing them for it. Daniel Sedin set up Daniel Alfredsson beautifully on the week side for a go-ahead goal in the 17th minute of the period and a minute and a half later Jimmie Ericsson from Skelleftea AIK converted another man advantage.
"It's a big adjustment from small to big ice and on the penalty kill there are lots of different things to do," said Berglund when asked about the game's stunning power play efficiency rate.
And still, Latvia just wouldn’t go quietly into the night. A power-play goal by Sweden’s only non-NHLer was answered with a power-play goal by Latvia’s only NHLer as Girgensons blasted the puck from the right faceoff circle past Lundqvist. Shortly thereafter, Guslevskis made what can easily be called the save of the tournament, catching the puck off a point-blank shot by Loui Eriksson, who tried to one-time the puck off an excellent pass by Sedin.
Lativa, looking to get its only second Olympic victory ever, and by far the most impressive one, proceeded to create a few scoring chances as first Oskars Bartulis and then Martins Karsums forced Lundqvist to show off what made him a Vezina Trophy winner and a Hart Trophy finalist in the NHL.
Even after Alexander Edler beat Gudlevskis with a shot that sneaked under the goalie’s arm Latvia wouldn’t let the favorites coast to a victory, waging a late assault.
"This was my first Olympics and I kind of felt that we would be overpowered," said Sprukts. "But now I think we can play with any team. We are very happy we've played evenly with all our opponents and will be looking ahead confidently."
The Swedes were just happy to get a well-deserved break.
"We know Lativa is a good team and if you make mistakes, they can come fast at you," said Eriksson. "It's been three games in four days, so we will take all the positives we can from the three wins and bring them to the quarterfinal."
Sweden's Olympics will continue on 19th February, while Latvia will have to take its chances in the qualification playoff on the 18th. Both teams' opponents are yet to be determined.