HELSINKI – Latvian hockey has seen a changing of the guard. Yet this small Baltic nation has weathered every storm to keep its place amid the top 16. The Latvians can’t take anything for granted, but should be able to stay up, as they have since 1997.
Defenceman Rodrigo Lavins was the only player remaining from that ‘97 team who also played at last year’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, but the Dinamo Riga veteran isn’t on this year’s squad. Assistant captain Janis Sprukts is the only member of the current national team who also participated in Latvia’s first-ever win over Russia on May 5, 2000 at the Worlds in St. Petersburg.
So the fate of the nation rests in younger hands now. The current crop of players may not bring as impressive skill sets as old-school stars like Helmut Balderis and Aleksandrs Belavskis, but they’ve got passion, grit, and determination, and won’t make it easy even for superior opponents.
When you look up the phrase “giving his team a chance to win” in the dictionary, don’t be surprised if you see a photo of Edgars Masalskis. A fixture at the Worlds, the 33-year-old starter for the KHL’s Yugra Khanty-Mansisk has only recorded a save percentage below 91.0 in one of his last five stints at this tournament. He’s got great reflexes and is used to facing a lot of rubber.
Expect Maris Jucers, a two-year KHLer with Dinamo Riga, to see limited action behind Masalskis. Kristers Gudlevskis, a big, athletic 20-year-old from the MHL’s HK Riga, is the third goalie.
Scoring from the back end is unlikely to be one of this team’s strong suits. Only one blueliner notched more than one point for Latvia at the 2012 tournament, and that was Guntis Galvins, who isn’t on the roster this year.
Arturs Kulda, who signed with the Winnipeg Jets (his 2011-12 club) in March after suiting up for the KHL’s Sibir Novosibirsk this season, will need to bring a solid all-around game. Latvia will also look for leadership from two-time Olympian and assistant captain Georgijs Pujacs. The Latvian rearguards must move the puck smartly and avoid costly turnovers against teams like Russia and Finland.
Lauris Darzins, the newly named captain, showed he knows how to step up in key situations during February’s Olympic qualifier in Riga. The Ak Bars Kazan forward led the team with three goals and two assists. He potted the 3-2 winner in a crucial tilt with Kazakhstan.
Other key forwards will include Miks Indrasis, who scored a team-leading three goals and two assists in 2012, and Ronalds Kenins, who added a goal and two assists last year.
Latvia is looking forward to adding Zemgus Girgensons, the highest-drafted Latvian ever (14th overall to the Buffalo Sabres in 2012). He’s just completed his AHL rookie season with the Rochester Americans, who were eliminated from the playoffs on May 1. Girgensons is set to arrive on Saturday but not necessarily in time for the first game against Russia.
The Latvians aren’t hyper-physical by any means, but they’re big enough to not get pushed around. Their ability to establish a heavy forecheck, however, is questionable.
This will be former NHL bench boss Ted Nolan’s second World Championship with Latvia. Getting Latvia into its fourth consecutive Olympics was a major coup for him. Nolan is known as a player’s coach, and his confident, empathetic nature will help keep his charges focused and motivated during the challenges ahead. He’ll preach an up-tempo style with defensive awareness.
Assistant coaches include legendary former star goalie Arturs Irbe and Karlis Zirnis, who played extensively in North America in the NCAA and assorted minor leagues.
Latvia will have a tough introduction to Helsinki, with its first two games against Russia and the United States. But it is certainly capable of beating Austria (May 7) and France (May 13), and will need to bring its A game for those encounters.
Latvia finished tenth last year, and will likely find itself in a similar spot at the end of this tournament. Its famously vocal fans should be happy even if it isn’t one of those special quarter-final years.