HALIFAX, Canada – The loyal and vocal Latvian fans have had few reasons to celebrate lately. Over the last several years it has had to cope with the loss of three major stars — goalie Arturs Irbe simply got old; Sergejs Zoltoks passed away suddenly; and, defenceman Sandis Ozolins was felled by personal problems. Furthermore, the second-tier players from the late ‘90s and early years of the 21st century are all getting long in the tooth, and a new generation of stars has yet to emerge or develop, as the case may be. In short, 2008 is a year of survival for the Latvians, and avoiding relegation might well be considered a victory of sorts.
Year after year, the pair of Sergejs Naumovs and Edgars Masalskis has played for Latvia and proved to be decent but nowhere near spectacular goalies. Naumovs is now 39 years old and Masalskis just 28, but they will be expected to beat the lower nations not shut out the higher ups. The third goalie is Dmitrijs Zabotinskis who may well get his first taste of World Championship action if things don’t go well for the two veterans.
The Big Three of the Latvian blueline this year includes Rodrigo Lavins, Aleksandrs Nizivijs, and Agris Saviels, veterans all who will be relied upon for excellent play in their own end as well as a bit of offence. They’ll be joined by Guntis Galvins, Aleksandrs Jerofejevs, and Georgijs Pujacs, all returnees from a year ago when the team finished 13th. Three players who weren’t in Russia last year include two brothers of forward Mikelis Redlihs — Jekabs and Krisjanis — and Janis Andersons. This is a group of experienced defencemen but lacking in skill.
The Latvians are relying on veterans to get them through this year. Only three new forwards are on the team. The attack will be led by Aleksandrs Macijevskis, Herberts Vasiljevs, and Janis Sprukts, all of whom will have to put the puck in the net if their team will advance to Switzerland for 2009. Juris Stals, who played the season with Riga 2000, was not in the lineup last year. He’ll be joined by Viktors Blinovs and Sergejs Pekura on a team that will struggle to score. Other veterans on the team include Aleksands Nizivijs, Mikelis Redlihs, and Martins Cipulis. Their ability to play defence will be as important as any offence they can bring to the team.
Back for a second year, Olegs Znaroks has his work cut out for him. He has to try to coax some goals out of his forwards, get the five men on the ice to commit to defence without taking penalties, and hope that his goalies turn in great performances. Two things he can control are special teams. If his team can stay out of the penalty box and capitalize on their power-play chances, the team has a fighting chance.
The last several years has marked a steady and consistent decline for the Latvians. They finished a very impressive 7th in 2004, slipped to 9th in 2005, then 10th in 2006. Last year, they were 13th, and this year, with little new blood of the Irbe-Zoltoks-Ozolins calibre, they’ll be hard pressed to avoid the Relegation Round. Making it to 2009 in Switzerland would be a decent success for the re-building nation.