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Olympic Hockey: Latvia Hope to Avoid Relegation Again

Michael Clifford breaks down the Team Latvia Olympic Hockey roster, strengths, weaknesses, and snubs.

Zemgus Girgensons
Zemgus Girgensons

Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons (28) during the game against the Winnipeg Jets at First Niagara Center. Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

For the third straight Winter Olympics, a squad from Latvia will be sent to test their mettle against the best in the world. It could even be four straight had they not lost a razor-thin game against Team Germany back in 2002 to qualify for the final eight-team tournament.

That’s not to say they’ve found a whole lot of success at their two most recent trips to the Olympics. In 2006, they went 0-4-1 with their only tie coming against the USA. That meant they had to qualify all over again for the 2010 Olympics, which they did by winning a mini-tournament against the Ukraine, Italy, and Hungary. Again, the team would go winless (this time 0-3) and have an average margin of loss of five goals.

The Latvians again had to qualify for the Olympics this time around, and did so by winning another mini-tournament in a group featuring Kazakhstan, France, and Great Britain. Their reward was being put in a group with Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland.

The way the Olympics are set up, the top four teams go through to the quarter-finals and the other eight teams have some sort of qualification to fill out the rest of the bracket. It’s conceivable that the Latvians could get a team like Slovakia or the Czech Republic for their qualification, and those are teams that can be beat by a lesser squad in a win-or-go-home type of format.

If you want to read the Olympic orientation invitation list, you can do so here. You’ll notice one thing about that invitation list: there is one single NHLer on it. You can include Kaspars Daugavins, who has bounced between the NHL and AHL for his career before settling in the Swiss league this year, but Zemgus Girgensons is the only regular NHLer in the lineup. And Girgensons turned 20-years-old yesterday.

Goaltenders

The Latvian goaltender expected to get the nod in net is Edgars Masalskis.

Masalskis was the goaltender of record for their qualification tournament to get to this point and is probably the best-suited to handle the pressure of Olympic hockey. Malsaskis was the goalie for Team Latvia back in 2010 in Vancouver, taking over the mantle from former NHLer Arturs Irbe. Judging from his numbers in the KHL, Malsaskis is good-but-not-great, however it’s not like there are an abundance of options.

His backup is expected to be Maris Jucers, a 26-year-old goaltender who had made his home in the KHL for a couple of years before going back to the Latvian professional league.

Jucers was in net for a 6-0 loss to Team Russia at the 2013 IIHF World Hockey Championships, a taste of what is to come, in all likelihood, for Latvia at the Olympics.

As with most nations who are outside the top eight, the 33-year-old Edgars Masalskis will be expected to shoulder the load for Latvia and make 40+ saves against some of the more prominent teams if they have hopes of avoiding relegation, or even posting a win.

Defensemen

The defense from Latvia might feature some names you are a bit more familiar with.

It would be a mistake to leave Sandis Ozolinsh, the former NHL star, off this team. Granted, he is 41-years-old now and his best days were probably 15 years ago, but this is a guy who can bring big game experience into a locker room that doesn’t have much of that, and he has managed 40 points in his last 82 KHL games. Not too shabby at all.

Another name that might be familiar to NHL fans, and particularly Flyers fans, is Oskars Bartulis.

The knock on Bartulis was that he was never really physical enough to stick around in the NHL. Hockey’s Future profile has him as a good puck mover that had to learn how to play with the bigger guys in hockey’s top league. He never quite did, and made his way to the KHL last year. He figures to have a prominent role for this defensive corps.

Krisjanis Redlihs, brother of Mikelis Redlihs (who also figures to be on this team), is former fifth round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils and has shown a penchant for being a good puck moving defenseman. If Ozolinsh really can’t handle the big minutes, I would expect Redlihs to fill the spot.

The defensemen should be filled out by Georgijs Pujacs, Rafis Friedbergs, Arturs Kulda, Kristaps Sotniecks and Janis Andersons.

Forwards

As mentioned, the only true NHLer on this team is Zemgus Girgensons and he will probably slot in to their second line center spot.

The offense will revolve around Girgensons as well as Lauris Darzins, Janis Sprukts (who I actually got to see play live when he was a member of the Acadie-Bathurst Titans of the QMJHL), Miks Indrasis (a goal scorer who plays for Dinamo Riga in the KHL) and Martin Karsums (who I also got to see play as a member of the Moncton Wildcats of the Q), a former second round pick of the Boston Bruins who has more goals than assists in his last two years in the KHL. The aforementioned Mikelis Redlihs also figures to have a prominent role on the team.

When you look at the top six of Latvia, there are goal scorers there, and the advantage they have is many of them played at least at the qualifier together. Many of these guys, like Karsums and Darzins, also play(ed) on the same professional team together in Dynamo Riga. In a short tournament like the Olympics, there’s not much time to develop chemistry and the one advantage Latvia will have over some of their more skilled opponents is that the chemistry should be instant.

It appears as though Latvia is set to fight relegation again. It’s not to say they can’t win – I always go back to Belarus in 2002 – but it’s a longshot. Any positive result should be seen as a big win for Latvia.

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