The men’s ice hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Games is expected to be the most thrilling and popular even at the Olympics. We’re breaking down all 12 teams until the tournament begins on Wednesday, Feb. 12.
Latvia competes in Group C in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Here are five reasons why they could totally medal in Sochi:
1. Ted Nolan’s Other Job
Before his NHL career was resurrected by the Buffalo Sabres this season, Ted Nolan was the Gordon Bombay of Latvian hockey.
He was hired in 2011, and led the Latvians to a 10th place finish at the 2012 IIHF world championships. That earned him the chance to help Latvia qualify for the 2014 Sochi Olympics for the fourth straight season … which they did, earning Nolan a second contract extension.
While the team continues to struggle in international tournaments, Nolan has received high marks for innovations like having all the Latvian players speak Latvian in the locker room, rather than Russian and other languages.
2. Edgars Masaļskis Can Handle The Rubber
Masaļskis, 33, is a journeyman goalie that finally found a home with Khanty-Mansiysk Yugra of the KHL for the last three seasons. He’s the goalie that made 47 saves in putting a huge scare into the Czechs during the Vancouver Games. As Steven Ellis of The Hockey House notes: “The only Latvian goaltender to ever score a goal (he did so in 2009-2010 while in the KHL), expect the 33 year old netminder to steal the spotlight from the rest of the team when they get pestered with 50 shots a game in 2014.”
Hopefully he’s received some good advice from assistant coach Arturs Irbe, who knew a thing or two about upsets during his career.
3. Maybe This Time They Cut The Penalties Down?
In Vancouver, Latvia took 19 minor penalties in three games, the most for any team in the tournament. A respectable 73.7 percent penalty kill – better than the Americans and No. 8 in the preliminaries – helped ease that pain, but Latvia still gave up five power-play goals, with only Germany worse (6).
So how about cuttin’ down on those penalties, boys?
4. The Ageless And The Unflappable
Sandis Ozolins (né Ozolinsh) lost his passion for hockey after the 2006 Turin Games, but rediscovered it with Dinamo Riga of the KHL. The 15-year NHL veteran can still move the puck well at age 41. On the other side of the spectrum is Kristaps Sotnieks, a stay at home defender who has played for Dinamo Riga of the KHL since 2008 and is a rock on the blue line.
5. Familiar Faces (Sorta)
Finally, there are a few intriguing names on the roster with North American ties. Zegmus Girgensons has 17 points in 56 games for the Buffalo Sabres. Kaspars Daugavins is formerly of the Ottawa Senators and a shootout ace. Ronalds Kenins is signed by the Vancouver Canucks. Oskars Bartulis played for the Philadephia Flyers. Ralfs Freibergs, 22, is a defenseman for Bowling Green University.
C’mon, Can These Guys Actually Medal?
Of course not. Just making it out of their group would be a herculean accomplishment for Latvia (just jokes: everyone advances), but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t pull an upset here or there. As Masaļskis told R-Sport: “Can we win a medal? It is another matter. I am sure everyone has a dream, and now have a chance. Olympics are unpredictable, a lot can happen time and again we have seen miracles not the main favorite performance.”
One thing we can predict: They’ll once again have the rowdiest, drunkest fans at the tournament. For which we’re thankful.