“Canada must overcome Achilles heel to reach Olympic quarterfinals” – or so many journalists were prepared to write if the results of today’s game went as predicted. Instead, it will be Latvia, a perennial also-ran in the international hockey world, that Canada will meet tomorrow in Sochi.
But even if the Canadian team is as surprised as most are at the result of the game, they cannot afford to relax. In many ways, the win over Switzerland proves that the Latvians are every bit as concerning for Canada as the Swiss would have been. The team will still be facing their Achilles heel in the quarterfinal, but they will instead be wearing purple instead of red and white.
In fact, the Latvians have proven to be even more dangerous than the Swiss so far in Sochi. While they have scored seven goals so far this tournament, the Swiss were eliminated having scored just three.
The gameplan is the same: Allow Canada possession and time on attack while maintaining composure and efficiency in the defensive zone. Force Canada to make mistakes, and when they do capitalize on them. The longer this goes, the more frustrated and worried Canada will become, taking penalties and making even more mistakes.
Under the tutelage of highly regarded coach Ted Nolan, the Latvians have orchestrated this strategy far better than even they would have expected. They turned heads by nearly holding off the Swiss the entire game before being scored on late to lose 1-0 en route to narrow losses of 4-2 and 5-3 to the Czechs and Swedes respectively.
The Latvians may have only one current NHLer in 19-year-old Buffalo Sabres centre Zemgus Girgensons. However, they feature a number of former NHLers including Kaspars Daugavins, Oskars Bartulis, Martins Karsums, Arturs Kulda, Janis Sprukts, Herbert Vasiljevs and probably the best Latvian born player ever in Sandis Ozolinsh.
The big ice surface aids teams who choose to play this style, while being a constant thorn for more elite teams. The fact that Canadian players are not used to these conditions only further hurts their chances. On this ice, players are far less dangerous from the peripheries; a place where just about everyone has tried to keep the Canadian team so far.
The Finns demonstrated in the last game of the round robin that keeping Canada outside is possible. Despite the wealth of zone time the Canadians held over Finland, they were forced to play overtime. The only two goals Canada were able to score were on the powerplay and on an odd-man rush in four-on-four overtime. At even strength they consistently failed to generate scoring chances despite their domination of puck possession.
In the Canada-Latvia game, the clock could be the biggest factor. The longer Canada goes without scoring the more confident the Latvians will become. Meanwhile, the pressure on Carey Price in the Canadian net will increase exponentially. So long as the score is close, he will know that every passing shot, of which there will presumably be very few, will become that much more important to stop.
While Canada enters the Quarterfinals with the team many consider to be the easiest opposition, they cannot get complacent. If this had been the Swiss they would have been fully prepared, knowing full well the substance of which the plucky underdogs are made.
Should Canada play the way they have so far this tournament, a semifinal spot can be booked. But the more they underestimate the Latvians the closer they will come to an upset not unlike the loss to Switzerland in 2006.
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