Latvia might be a lightly regarded hockey team in the 2014 Winter Olympics, but it put up a very strong effort against Sweden, one of the top teams in the games.
Sweden ended up winning 5-3, but Latvia put up a spirited fight and even led briefly. However, some big penalties were the Latvians' undoing as their discipline wore down as the game wore on, allowing the Swedes to become 3-0 in the early going and win Group C.
The Swedes were hurting in this one, with the recent loss of captain Henrik Zetterberg to go along with the absence of center Henrik Sedin.
But Sweden still has a supremely talented roster without those missing players, however, and it showed in the country's hard-fought win over a lesser Latvian roster.
The Swedes already clinched a bye due to their early excellence coming into the game, but it helped to get another win over a pesky Latvian squad.
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist was uncharacteristically sloppy in the early going, but rounded back into form as the game went on to make 20 saves on 23 shots.
Patrik Berglund got the scoring started, capitalizing on a tripping penalty on Latvian Arturs Kulda. Erik Karlsson and Alex Steen assisted on the goal.
However, Latvia struck back three minutes later with a goal of its own from Lauris Darzins. He was assisted by Janis Sprukts and Kristaps Sotnieks.
Things got chippy at the start of the second period, with Swedish defender and Detroit Red Wings star Niklas Kronwall getting called for tripping, leading to a quick power play.
Sprukts scored for Latvia with the man advantage, giving them a brief lead over the Swedes.
However, the Swedes used their power play to absolutely dominate the remainder of the period.
A hooking penalty on Latvia’s Ronalds Kenins gave Sweden a chance to tie it up, and its talented power play unit took full advantage.
Karlsson tallied the score, with assists from Swedish stars Nicklas Backstrom and Daniel Alfredsson.
Alfredsson continued to make an impact when he scored on another power play with a one timer a few minutes later and clearly helped buoy the team offensively, as MIRS News’ Jacob Kanclerz noted.
Alfie with another big goal for Sweden. His leadership and skill are carrying Sweden in Zetterberg's absence.— Jacob Kanclerz (@JacobKanclerz) February 15, 2014
From there, Sweden started to pour it on. Jimmie Ericsson scored to help the Swedes take advantage of yet another Latvia penalty to effectively put things out of reach for the underdogs, as Pro Hockey Talk’s Jason Brough observed.
Welp, the upset watch is over. Sweden makes it 4-2 on a PP goal by Jimmie Ericsson. Latvia led 2-1 at one point.— Jason Brough (@JasonPHT) February 15, 2014
However, the Latvians wouldn't go down quietly.
Zemgus Girgensons scored on a power play that stretched from the end of the second into the early minutes of the third to make the Swedes a little nervous, as the NHL noted.
Sweden very nearly stretched the lead back to two a few minutes later when Loui Eriksson got stopped on a beautiful save by Latvian goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis of the AHL, as Eriksson's Boston Bruins noted.
Loui just got robbed point-blank at the goal mouth. Sweden up 4-3 in the third. ^CS #NHLBruins— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) February 15, 2014
But Sweden quickly made up for Eriksson's missed chance when Alexander Edler beat Gudlevskis with a beautiful shot to make it 5-3.
A late penalty on Jonathan Ericsson gave Latvia a chance to make things interesting with a little more than a minute remaining. The Latvians got a couple good chances out of the effort, but Lundqvist made a pair of stellar back-to-back saves to shut things down for good.
Overall, the Swedes made it clear that they’re still a powerful team, even without Zetterberg and one of the Sedins.
Alfredsson seems more than capable of stepping up to lead the team offensively in the captain’s absence and certainly showed it in this one.
"It's a tough loss," Alfredsson told NHL.com’s Corey Masisak. "We had a few of those before the Olympics as well. It is just like anything -- you deal with it and move on. We're going to be thinking about Henrik for the rest of tournament. He'll be with us. We're going to move forward.”
Sweden can’t afford to be so sloppy on defense and in net heading forward, especially given the skill level of teams like Canada.
However, it's got plenty of offensive firepower even without its absent stars, and Lundqvist will surely be more dominant going forward.
Other teams might be healthier right now, but the Swedes proved they've got more than enough talent to stay dangerous.