Latvia-Slovakia Preview

BY foxsports • February 20, 2010

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.

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