Team Canada advanced to the semifinals at the Sochi Olympic hockey tournament with a 2-1 victory over Latvia Wednesday, just as everyone expected.
Well, the result was expected. Everything else -- from the final score, to the terrifying closeness, to the unthinkable near-upset by Latvia -- not so much.
Canada is still in this tournament, so we can talk about them later. For the moment, however, the story is Latvia. What a performance from the tiny Baltic nation.
This is a team whose most notable name is probably head coach Ted Nolan. A team that wasn't expect to win a single game. But they did, stunning the Swiss to earn what was supposed to be a shellacking at the hands of Team Canada in the quarterfinals. Except it wasn't. Latvia held their own with the Canadians, a team bursting at the seams with talent.
It was a performance for the ages.
Shea Weber played the hero for Canada, scoring the game-winner with just under seven minutes remaining on one of his trademark, murderous slappers (he nearly broke Oskars Bartulis in half with one earlier in the game) but like T.J. Oshie before him, even Weber would have to admit that he wasn't the real hero. That honour goes to Latvian netminder Kristers Gudlevskis, who stopped 55 shots to keep this game close throughout.
Gudlevskis plies his trade with the AHL's Syracuse Crunch. He's used to facing AHL shooters, not the best the NHL has to offer. But he handled himself expertly. At times, it looked like the Canadians couldn't handle him. They threw everything they had at him, outshooting Latvia by 40. But Gudlevskis was nigh unbeatable.
And by the back half of the third period, he had almost nothing left. When the whistle blew after making his 52nd save of the game, he stayed down, doubled-over, possibly cramping up, possibly dehydrated, and obviously spent.
If Ted Nolan made a single mistake in this tournament, it was here, as he opted not to take a time out and give Gudlevskis a moment to recompose himself. When play resumed, Jonathan Toews won the draw back to Drew Doughty, Doughty moves it across to Weber, and Weber put Canada ahead with a blistering slapshot from the point.
Canada opened the scoring thirteen minutes into the first period after Rick Nash centered a puck for Patrick Sharp, and Sharp banged it home. One assumes that was going to lead to more goals, and it did -- but for Latvia.
Two minutes later, the Latvians fooled Canada with a set play off a face-off, splitting the Canadian defense and springing Lauris Darzins on a breakaway. Darzins did great work to settle a bouncing puck, draw Carey Price onto his belly, and then roof the puck on his backhand to tie the game.
And then the Latvians went into lockdown mode. Canada buzzed all game, outshooting Latvia by a wide margin and playing the majority of the game in the Latvian end, but Gudlevskis stoned the Canadians at every turn.
Canada thought they had the game-tying goal when Jonathan Toews knocked a loose puck past a sprawling Gudlevskis. It trickled towards the goal line, but it didn't cross thanks to the quick glove of Kristaps Sotnieks, who dove over the pile of bodies and scooped it back into his goaltender's body.
Normally, gloving a puck in the crease is a penalty shot, but only if it's spotted the first time. It wasn't, and it wasn't reviewable. For Canada, it will go down as a missed call (although they're likely to forget it now with the Americans next on the docket). For the Latvians, it's evidence of the way the entire team collapsed down to help their goaltender keep this close.
Now Latvia goes home, and they won't have a medal to show for it, but they don't need one to know they did their country proud.