RIGA – Never has a loss felt so good.
The hockey party in Sochi will be just a little louder next year, as Latvia have punched their ticket to the 2014 Winter Olympics with a 3-2 overtime loss to France that gave the team the point it needed to qualify.
"Both teams played well and it could have gone either way," said Latvia head coach Ted Nolan. "On a personal note I'm really proud of the leadership and the maturity of some of our players that played in this game. In a tournament like this it's not like a seven-game series, it's a one-shot deal and you either win or go home, and I'm extremely happy with the way the players responded to the pressure."
France was attempting to reach its first Olympics Games since 2002, while hosts Latvia were trying to make it four Winter Games in a row for the tiny but hockey-mad Baltic nation.
Going into the third period the French held a 2-1 advantage, a score that satisfied neither team as Latvia needed at least one point to qualify and France either a two-goal victory or a one-goal win with at least four goals scored in order to win the tiebreaker between them, Latvia and Kazakhstan. Any less, and it would be the Kazakhs travelling to Sochi.
But the 2-1 score lasted only twelve seconds into the third, as Latvia gained possession on the opening faceoff and Lauris Darzins got a pass in the French zone. His initial shot on France goaltender Cristobal Huet was saved, but linemate Martins Karsums was there to get the rebound and tie the game 2-2.
In the final two minutes, France needed two goals to qualify for the Games and pulled its goalie in desperation. But a penalty taken by Kévin Hecquefeuille effectively ended any hopes for a French miracle, and with the final horn in regulation giving Latvia the point it needed to advance to its fourth straight Winter Olympics, Arena Riga erupted for the home team, cheering “Sochi! Sochi!”
"I don't really know how, we're a small country but we've got a lot of strength and a lot of... I can't say it but you know what," said a smiling Latvian team captain Sandis Ozolins, when asked how Latvia has been able to qualify for four consecutive Olympics.
"It's more than just me or any one player," he added. "We have a group here that really can respond and play hard when they have to, and it's an honour to play with this group."
It was a story of missed opportunities for Latvia in the opening frame as the hosts failed to capitalize on the power play, while at the other end France was able to light the lamp twice before going into the first intermission.
The first goal came just into three minutes into the game after Latvia defenceman Arvids Rekis was whistled for a kneeing penalty. On the power play French forward Damien Fleury got the puck in the corner of the Latvian zone and skated to the faceoff circle before letting off a wrist shot that beat Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis below the glove.
Following the goal French netminder Cristobal Huet was able to hold the fort through two successive penalty kills. Then with just under five minutes left in the frame Julien Desrosiers faked a shot in the Latvian zone and passed it off to captain Laurent Meunier for the one timer to put his team up 2-0.
France’s defence continued to play well for most of the second period, harassing any Latvian player with the puck and giving their opponents little time to make passes or shots. But with 5:01 remaining in the period Latvia got on the scoreboard thanks to a great end-to-end effort from Darzins, who stole the puck away in his own zone and took off for the French net, faking a shot then firing a wrister past Huet to cut France’s lead to 2-1.
"It was a tough game, and we needed to set up our effort to make sure we were going to qualify," said Darzins, who has won his second straight Olympic qualification tournament. "But we've made it now and I couldn't be happier."
With Karsums' goal sealing the deal for the Latvians, the team will join the Czech Republic, Sweden, and Switzerland in Group C at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
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