Latvia-Slovakia Preview

The last thing the Slovakian men’s hockey team wants after a

statement win is a poor effort against one of the weakest teams in

the Olympics.

Slovakia will try to ride the momentum from a stunning victory

as they meet defensively challenged Latvia on Saturday night.

The Slovaks pulled off the biggest upset of the Olympics so far

with a 2-1 shootout victory over Russia on Thursday.

Jaroslav Halak of the Montreal Canadiens had 36 saves through

overtime and denied Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin on

two of three chances in the tiebreaker.

Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks tied the score at 1 in

the third period with his 10th career Olympic goal before Pavol

Demitra scored on the seventh attempt in the shootout.

Demitra, an oft-injured veteran center who currently plays for

Vancouver, missed 47 games earlier this season with a torn rotator

cuff. He has a goal and three assists in 11 games with the Canucks,

and a goal with two assists during these games.

“We show we can play hockey too,” Demitra said after scoring on

his second chance in the shootout.

Perhaps more remarkable was the upset came roughly 24 hours

after a 3-1 loss to the Czech Republic. No team had to play on

consecutive nights to that point.

“To beat a big dog like Russian team is always huge, especially

after we play tough game against Czech Republic,” said Hossa, who

missed almost two months at the start of the NHL season after

offseason shoulder surgery.

Hossa’s availability appeared in question after taking a

shoulder to the head from Atlanta Thrashers forward Colby Armstrong

in a win last Saturday. Hossa didn’t play the following day in

Chicago’s road victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, but assisted

on Marian Gaborik’s goal in the loss to the Czechs.

Gaborik is tied for fourth in the NHL with 35 goals, but his

appearance in Vancouver is somewhat remarkable. Another forward who

has battled injuries throughout his career, Gaborik suffered a deep

thigh laceration during a recent New York Rangers practice as he

collided with Henrik Lundqvist – the starting goaltender for

Sweden.

Slovakia – currently third in Group B – has never won a medal in

hockey and finished fifth four years ago after a quarterfinal loss

to the Czechs.

All 12 Olympic teams competing now will move on to a

single-elimination qualification playoff round on Tuesday, but

Latvia will be relegated to a very low seed.

The Latvians are last in Group B after a 5-2 loss to the Czechs

on Friday. Poor defense doomed Latvia as Edgars Masalskis gave up

three goals in a 2:37 span early in the first period. He let in

another goal in the second before the Czechs added a late

empty-netter.

“You cannot let the Czechs skate like that, and the Slovaks have

a good team too. It’s really hard to come back from a three- or

four-goal deficit. Once we’re in the game, we can play hockey,”

Latvian forward Herberts Vasiljevs told the International Ice

Hockey Federation’s official Web site.

Masalskis, one of 16 Latvian players with Dinamo Riga of the

Russian KHL, has faced an Olympic-high 83 shots so far. He’s

allowed 12 goals for a 6.03 GAA – both tournament highs.

With that porous defense and an offense that cannot seem to

click, the Latvians have a goal differential of minus-9, which

currently places them 11th. Norway is last with a minus-13

differential.

Kristaps Sotnieks scored and Girts Ankipans had his second goal

of the games on Friday for Latvia, which hasn’t won in Olympic play

since a 9-2 rout of Ukraine in 2002 at Salt Lake City. The Latvians

gave up a tournament-worst 29 goals while finishing last in a

12-team field at Turin in 2006.