SOCHI, Russia — It wasn’t a fair fight. It was Canada vs. Latvia. It was a country with 2,631 indoor ice rinks versus a country with 17. It was the defending Olympic champion versus a team that had to qualify for the tournament, didn’t win a preliminary game and entered the playoffs as the 12th and final seed. It was a rested team versus one that had played the night before.
It was NHL superstars vs. a poor goalie named Kristers Gudlevskis, a 21-year-old who has played for the ECHL’s Florida Everblades and the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch this season. The shots were 57-16.
Yet the score was 2-1.
Oh, Canada won Wednesday night and will face the United States in the semifinals – in a rematch of the final from four years ago in Vancouver. But it wasn’t until Shea Weber scored with 6:54 left in the third period that anyone could take a breath from British Columbia to Newfoundland.
Gudlevskis was drafted in the fifth round last year – by the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose general manager is Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman. Asked what he would say the next time he saw Yzerman, Gudlevskis grinned.
“You’re lucky,” he said.
[Photo gallery: Canada fends off Latvia, advances to Olympic semifinals]
The Olympics are always full of angst for Canada, but this has been ridiculous – from the selection of the roster, to the shuffling of the lines, to the nitpicking in the preliminary round, to this crazy quarterfinal against Latvia.
The Canadian men’s hockey team was like Xerxes’ army in the movie “300,” an overwhelming force coming in waves and crashing into the shields of committed men fighting for their country. Their numbers counted for nothing – until the bitter end.
The Latvians had been playing aggressively all tournament, but they saw how the Canadians had struggled to score against the passive Norwegians and Finns in the prelims and adjusted their strategy. “We definitely changed up what we did today,” said forward Zemgus Girgensons. “We stayed back and tried to make them shoot from the perimeter.” Though the Canadians got to the middle and generated more second chances than before, it still didn’t matter.
[Related: 5 things we learned from Canada's win over Latvia]
Sidney Crosby had a breakaway. Chris Kunitz hit a crossbar. Patrick Sharp scored 13:37 into the first period, but Latvia’s Lauris Darzins responded just 2:04 later. The Canadians lost John Tavares to a knee injury for the rest of the tournament in the second period, but they had chance after chance after chance, only to watch the Latvians block shot after shot, only to watch Gudlevskis make save after save.
The Latvians have a small country but big cojones. They know Weber’s shot is so fearsome it ripped through the net during a game at the last Olympics. Yet in the third period, Oskars Bartulis blocked one of his shots, collapsed in pain and still rose to his feet to finish his shift. “It’s fun,” Bartulis said, before thinking better of it. “It’s not fun.”
The Canadians crashed the net. Jonathan Toews tapped the puck toward the goal. It slipped underneath Gudlevskis as he sprawled, and it slipped under his left arm. It got three quarters of the way over the goal line … before defenseman Kristaps Sotnieks gloved the puck and shoved it to safety. It should have been a penalty shot, but the refs missed it – and could not review that part of the play on video.
A make-up call – a weak slashing penalty on defenseman Georgijs Pujacs – put the Canadians on the power play. By now, the crowd was all-in for the underdogs, especially after the Russians had been eliminated. “LAT-VEE-YA! LAT-VEE-YA!” Gudlevskis made his 52nd save and lay on his stomach for a long while. The trainer came out. Was he hurt? “I just give my teammates a rest,” he said warily, looking pale and hollow himself.
“Besides picking the puck up and throwing it in the net,” Crosby said, “what could you tell someone to do in those situations?”
[Also: Canada loses John Tavares to injury for rest of Olympics]
The Canadians stayed patient. They didn’t panic. Weber finally broke through with four seconds left in that power play.
“We just talked about the hockey gods,” said Canada coach Mike Babcock. “Keep doing things right, and you’re going to be rewarded. I mean, we had some chances. So we just thought if we kept doing it, we’d get a break. We’d score a goal. Did I want to win 7-1? Absolutely. Do I think it’s better for my team that we won the way we did? For sure.”
The percentages say the Canadians should be fine over the long haul. But in the Olympics, the percentages don’t necessarily apply. There is no long haul, especially not at this stage. These are the equivalent of Game 7s. This is hockey.
Look at the other quarterfinals: Slovenia hung with Sweden. It was 1-0 until Sweden pulled away in the third and won, 5-0. Finland upset Russia, 3-1. Only the United States cruised, beating the Czech Republic, 5-2.
The Canadians have scored 13 goals in four games, and seven have come from defensemen. Crosby, Kunitz, Tavares, Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash, Corey Perry and Martin St. Louis have combined for zero goals. Zero.
The Americans have scored 20 goals in four games, despite the larger international ice sheet and more defensive European style. Their goalie is Jonathan Quick, a winner of the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL playoffs’ most valuable player.
“This is the Olympic Games,” Babcock said. “And when you play for your country, you play with an inordinate amount of passion, and you compete hard. And that’s what Latvia did tonight. The Olympic Games isn’t supposed to be easy, and they don’t just give the medals out. You earn the medals. We’d like to put ourselves in a situation to compete for one.”
Maybe the puck is just going in for the Americans and not for the Canadians. Maybe that will continue; maybe that will flip. The Canadians almost need to think like Latvians. Hey, it’s one game. Anything can happen.