Hopes are high, but the absence of key forwards could burst that post-Olympic bubble as the next generation of Baltic talent emerges.
Latvia’s best-ever Olympic performance has revitalised this fervent hockey nation, and Ted Nolan brings his team to Minsk with high hopes of a repeat of that quarter-final place. As always with the Baltic country, familiarity plays a big role in cementing the roster; many national teams talk of being a sporting family, but with so many past and present Dinamo Riga players involved, Latvia has a rare solidarity right through its roster.
True, there are some faces missing from the Sochi squad: Sandis Ozolins is out, as is the injured Martins Karsums of Dynamo Moscow. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl duo Mikelis Redlihs and Janis Sprukts also miss out this time, while Ralfs Freiburgs and Vitalijs Pavlovs are also unavailable, suspended after failing drug tests during the Olympics. However, there are also some promising new faces emerging from the junior ranks to take their first steps in the senior national ranks.
Goaltending is often a lively affair for Latvia. For years Edgars Masalskis was undisputed #1 between the piping, and it’s no coincidence that victories often coincided with big performances from the experienced stopper. But now he faces serious competition for the starting berth after Kristers Gudlevskis produced a starring show at the Olympics. His 55 saves had Canada sweating on a slender 2-1 quarter-final victory and saw him called up for his first NHL start with Tampa Bay Lightning in April.
Ivars Punnenovs completes the trio, earning his call-up after topping the charts in this year’s World Junior Division I Group A tournament in Poland. He claimed two shut-outs, allowing just one goal in his three starts as Latvia came second behind Denmark.
The biggest name in Latvian hockey, Sandis Ozolins, is missing, but the roster is not short of the veteran’s Dinamo Riga team-mates. The reliable Georgijs Pujacs and Kristaps Sotnieks provide plenty of experience, along with ex-Dinamo man Guntis Galvins, now at AIK Stockholm. There’s also a call-up for young Janis Jaks of Dinamo’s farm club. The 18-year-old has yet to play for Dinamo’s senior team but has earned a call-up to the national roster after he also impressed in Poland. Latvia allowed just seven goals in five games there, including three shut-outs, and Jaks was voted the top defenceman in the competition. With Ozolins and assistant captain Oskars Bartulis both absent this time, it’s important for Latvia to start bringing on its next generation of blue-liners to maintain the team’s presence at the top level.
There are more than a few changes up front as well, with some significant losses and a couple of welcome returns. Experienced duo Alexander Nizivijs and Gints Meija are back in the fold after injuries ruled them out of the Olympics, but the loss of Lauris Darzins, Martins Karsums and the Lokomotiv pair of Mikelis Redlihs and Janis Sprukts will inevitably take its toll on Latvia’s offensive options. Darzins and Sprukts between them delivered nine points in Sochi, comfortably leading the team’s scoring.
Again, though, this creates opportunities for the rising stars of the under-20s. Roberts Lipsbergs, another Dinamo graduate now playing for the Seattle Thunderbirds, helped the nation to u18 Division 1 gold in 2011 and scored 6+1=7 in his most recent outing with the u20s in Poland back in December, making him the leading goalscorer in the tournament.
Zemgus Girgensons, the roster’s lone NHL regular under Nolan at Buffalo, is perhaps the player with the biggest reputation outside of Latvia. He spent the whole of the season just gone with the Sabres, posting 8+14=22 in 70 games, and also got his first Olympic goal in Latvia’s loss to Sweden. But the 20-year-old, for all his potential, remains a raw prospect who is still learning his trade at this level. The onus still rests firmly on his more experienced colleagues.
Ted Nolan would be the first to admit that he knew little about Latvia when he was invited to coach the team after 2011’s narrow escape from World Championship relegation. Since then, though, he’s grown into his role and become a hugely popular figure in his adopted country.
The Canadian, who combines his duties in Riga with the head coach’s role at Buffalo Sabres, is noted for his boundless enthusiasm and confidence and his deep belief in his players’ ability has paid off, lifting Latvia to its first ever Olympic quarter-final after winning a game at the Olympics for the first time since 2002. But don’t be fooled by the romantic tale of the dreamy underdog: Nolan’s teams are well-drilled and frustrating for the big boys to play against.
Latvian hockey is on a high after a best-ever Olympic showing, and Nolan’s ‘can-do’ approach to coaching his team will ensure there’s no shortage of belief that the team can improve on its recent World Championship struggles. A quarter-final spot would represent another solid achievement, and it may well be attainable. Finland and Russia are out of sight at the head of Group B, and an experimental USA roster should be strong enough to deliver a top-four finish without undue alarm. However, even allowing for the Sochi absentees, Latvia will feel it can once again battle with Switzerland to complete the qualifiers for the knock-out stage. When those two sides meet in the final group stage game on May 20 that could be the decisive game for them.
Much will also depend on the performance of the host nation, though: Belarus is also capable of winning that race for fourth, especially if generous home support inspires the team. A slow start could see Latvia sucked into a struggle to keep away from relegation if Belarus exceeds expectations while Kazakhstan and Germany will target the men in maroon as a potential source of vital points in the battle to stay off the bottom. As always, though, Latvia won’t lack for fans at this competition and after Nolan delivered on his pre-Sochi promise that big tournaments are where magical things happen, there are grounds for optimism here as well.