HOCKEY, ANYONE?: Even if Latvia’s team doesn’t win the championship, the fans are still winners.
RIGA - Require any services in Latvia on Saturday evening? Too bad, the hockey’s on.
As far as Latvians are concerned, year in, year out, there are few more important dates than the opening game of Latvia’s International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship campaign, so when the Latvian first line takes to the ice for their opening face-off against the reigning world champions, the Czech Republic, in Bratislava, Slovakia on Saturday evening, few Latvians will be anywhere other than in front of a television screen.
To say that Latvians are hockey fans is something of an understatement, with Latvian hockey often better known in world media for the feats of their fans off the ice rather than their players on it, with a large contingent of Latvian fans making their presence felt at every Olympics and World Championships.
But that should not take anything away from the players themselves, who have a knack of boxing above their weight on the world stage – something they will again be out to show this week in Slovakia.
This year Latvia has been handed a difficult task to just get out of pool play, with prospects not looking any easier even after they play the Czech Republic in their opening pool match.
Following their match against the Czechs, they then need to take on Finland on Monday, who are currently ranked fourth in the world. Earlier this month, the Finns beat the Latvians 5-0 and 5-3 in two warm up matches in Riga.
Needing to finish in just third spot in their group to advance to the next round, Latvia should be able to get there with just one win, allowing for no upsets in any of the other pool matches. With this in mind, the game that they will be targeting as a must-win is the final of their pool play matches, when they take on Denmark on Wednesday. Currently ranked one place ahead of the Danes in the world rankings on twelfth spot, the game is likely to decide the fate of both sides.
For most Latvian fans, making it into the round of 16 would be a satisfactory result, with the side having only gone one step further to make the quarterfinals on four occasions (1997, 2000, 2004 and 2009).
While they may lack the player base and some of the big names of other major hockey playing nations, Latvia does have one major trump card in their favor this year: Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) club Dinamo Riga. Once again the world championships will be overshadowed by the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs in North America, which run concurrently with the Championships and deprive a number of the participating countries of their key players, whose professional contracts overrule them from representing their country. But with only a handful of Latvians playing professionally in North America, the squad will mainly be made of current and former players of the Latvian dominated Dinamo Riga side, making the task of getting his lines to gel somewhat easier for Latvian coach Olegs Znaroks.
Eleven of Znaroks’ 25-strong squad play together for Dinamo Riga, along with goalie Edgars Masalskis and Martins Cipulis, who both played for the franchise in 2009/2010. Forward Kaspars Daugavins and defenseman Arturs Kulde are the only players who will join the squad from North America, where they both play for NHL farm teams, while the remainder of the team, including veteran Captain Herberts Vasilijevs, play in various leagues across Europe.
Much like the hopes of Dinamo Riga, who made it through to the final eight of the KHL, a lot will lie on the shoulders of Mikelis Redlihs and Lauris Darzins, who combined to become one of the most dangerous combinations in the KHL this season. Latvia’s biggest weakness is in goal, where they may be found wanting should anything happen to front line goalie Masalskis. As long as he remains healthy and Redlihs and Darzins fire, then Latvia should be in good stead to move past the first round and cause an upset or two on their quest to make it to the final eight.
Latvia pool play schedule
vs. Czech Republic Sat, April 30 21:15 (Baltic time) LTV7
vs. Finland Mon, May 2 21:15 (Baltic time) LTV7
vs. Denmark Wed, May 4 17.15 (Baltic time) LTV7