RIGA - Latvian ice hockey club Dinamo Riga has been beaten emphatically in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) Western Conference semi finals, spelling an end to their 2010/2011 campaign. Playing against Lokomotiv in the best of seven series, Dinamo Riga failed to make any real impact on the men from Yaroslavl, Russia, with the series only going five games as Lokomotiv prevailed 4-1.
Having finished the regular season on top of the Western Conference, Yaroslavl looked sluggish in their quarter-final series against Dinamo Minsk, with the series going down to a seventh game before the winner could be found. This gave Dinamo Riga confidence that, despite their number one ranking in the West, Lokomotiv would be tired and ripe for the picking in their semi-final match-up.
In the opening game of the series in Yaroslavl, Dinamo Riga showed the benefit of three extra days’ rest, but the fact they could not convert this into goals showed that Lokomotiv had lifted their focus following their closer than comfort opening round clash. Trailing 3-2 going into the final minute, Dinamo Riga pulled their goalie, Chris Holt, which ultimately backfired as Lokomotiv scored again to go one up in the series.
Dinamo Riga then turned game one’s result on its head, playing what would prove to be their best hockey of the series to beat Lokomotiv 5-3 on their own ice, suggesting they would be able to take a useful lead in the series when it returned to Riga for games three and four.
Optimism was high amongst fans when the team arrived in Latvia, with signs being waved in Arena Riga declaring the stadium as the final train stop for Lokomotiv. But the guests quickly silenced the famously loud Dinamo Riga fans by annihilating the home side 8-4 in game three and 6-2 in game four, proving that game two was nothing more than a slight glitch on the behalf of the Russians.
With the end of their season now potentially just sixty minutes away, Dinamo Riga finally showed the fight that got them to this point in the first place as they went up 4-2 midway through the second period of game five. However the inability to close out saw Lokomotiv come back and tie the game up before hitting the winning goal in overtime, crushing the hopes of the Latvians.
Fans in Latvia are not getting too downtrodden about the demise of their team. In a typical cup half empty Latvian outlook, they had given their team little chance of making the playoffs at all this season following a number of departures after the completion of the 2009/2010 season. Taking that attitude into the new campaign, any win was a bonus for Dinamo Riga fans and the general feeling around the country following the semi-final series’ loss is, “well, they did better than what we expected them to do,” followed by a well rehearsed piece of knowledge that any Latvian fan will readily impart on you, “we have one of the smallest budgets in the league, but are still able to compete with the best from Russia,” an attitude which would suggest that if you look at the low side of life, anything else you gain is a bonus.
At this stage it is unclear as to what shape Dinamo Riga will take looking ahead to next season, with a number of contracts coming up for renewal including that of their Slovakian head trainer Juliuss Suplers and aging Captain Sandis Ozolins. Dinamo Riga media manager Janis Stepitis told The Baltic Times that, “Of course we will welcome both of them back, but we are just waiting to hear from them.” Despite his age, Ozolins continued to be one of the leading defensemen in the KHL with six goals and 25 assists in 41 games during the regular season and a further 11 assists during the playoffs.
It is likely that no announcements will be made until at least the completion of the playoffs, with the attention of the majority of the Dinamo Riga roster now turning to Latvian national duties as they prepare for the World Championships, set to begin in Slovakia on Apr. 29.