Canada vs. Latvia: Preview and Prediction for 2014 Olympic Hockey Game

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistFebruary 18, 2014

Canada vs. Latvia: Preview and Prediction for 2014 Olympic Hockey Game

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    On one hand is a country for which any result besides the gold medal will represent extreme disappointment. On the other is a country that, thanks to a dramatic upset victory over Switzerland, has already surpassed its best result in history simply by making it as far as the quarterfinals.

    While the likely conclusion to any game between Canada and Latvia might seem self-evident, heavy favorites have been upset before.

    In 2002, Canada may not have won gold if not for the fact that a dominant Swedish team fell to lowly Belarus in the quarterfinals. Could Latvia do to Canada what Belarus did to Sweden?

    Read on for viewing information, starting lineups and what Latvia needs to do if it is to accomplish the unthinkable.

     

    Statistics are courtesy of IIHF.com and EliteProspects.com and current through Feb. 18 unless otherwise noted.

TV and Live Stream Info

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The game starts Wednesday, Feb. 19 at noon ET and will be both streamed and broadcast live in the United States and Canada. In the United States, viewers can watch on MSNBC, while CBC will carry the contest live in Canada.

    For live Internet streams, go to NBCOlympics.com in the U.S. and Olympics.CBC.ca in Canada. 

Top Storylines

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    Can Canada Win Decisively?

    In an elimination game, one would think that simply winning would be all that matters. Because the opposition is Latvia, however, the Canadians will be judged not just based on the final result but also by how the team looks in attaining it.

    If it scores early and often, nervousness over the team's ability to score against the suffocating defense employed at this level will ease. If it can't, it may enter its next game as the perceived underdog.

     

    How Far Can Latvia Go?

    The Latvian team has already earned its best finish ever in Olympic hockey. The win over Switzerland was a major upset. A win over Canada, however, would be nothing short of utterly shocking and a major milestone for the country, providing a massive boost to its hockey program.

     

    Will Sidney Crosby's Line Start Clicking?

    The Canadian Press (h/t TSN.ca) reports that Sidney Crosby will once again enter a game with new linemates. After being banished to the bottom six, Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Chris Kunitz returns to the top line alongside Crosby and converted center Patrice Bergeron.

    "We've changed our lines, in my opinion, same as last Olympics—too much," coach Mike Babcock said Tuesday (via NHL.com). "We're trying to find the right way."

    Kunitz is pointless in the tournament and none of the line's three forwards have a goal yet.

Team Canada Projected Lineup

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Forwards

    • Chris KunitzSidney CrosbyPatrice Bergeron
    • Jamie BennRyan GetzlafCorey Perry
    • Patrick SharpJonathan ToewsJeff Carter
    • Patrick Marleau—John TavaresRick Nash
    • Martin St. Louis

     

    Defense

    • Duncan Keith—Shea Weber
    • Marc-Edouard Vlasic—Drew Doughty
    • Jay Bouwmeester—Alex Pietrangelo
    • Dan Hamhuis

     

    Goaltending

    • Carey Price
    • Roberto Luongo

Team Latvia Projected Lineup

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    Martin Rose/Getty Images

    Forwards

    • Kaspars Daugavins—Zemgus Girgensons—Martins Karsums
    • Lauris Darzins—Janis Sprukts—Mikelis Redlihs
    • Ronalds Kenins—Vitalijs Pavlovs—Martins Cipulis
    • Koba Jass—Herberts Vasiljevs—Miks Indrasis

     

    Defense

    • Arturs Kulda—Oskars Bartulis
    • Sandis Ozolins—Arvids Rekis
    • Georgijs Pujacs—Kristaps Sotnieks
    • Krisjanis Redlihs—Ralfs Freibergs

     

    Goaltending

    • Edgars Masalskis
    • Kristers Gudlevskis

Key Skaters

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Oskars Bartulis, Latvia

    Bartulis leads Latvia in ice time and is one of the few players on the roster with NHL experience, having played 66 games for the Philadelphia Flyers from 2009-11. The 6'3" defenseman is presently minus-three for the tournament, which is a result of being placed in a shutdown role and not always succeeding at it.

    All of the Latvian defensemen will be tested against Canada, but likely none more than Bartulis.

     

    Lauris Darzins, Latvia

    Latvia's offense has to date largely come from 29-year-old left wing Lauris Darzins, who leads the team in shots (11), goals (3) and points (4). Listed at 6'3", 201 pounds, Darzins brings some size to the lineup, too.

    He is a competent, if unspectacular, KHL winger, but has really emerged as the offensive leader of the Latvians.   

     

    Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia

    The 20-year-old was the 14th overall selection of the Buffalo Sabres back at the 2012 NHL draft and has 17 points in the majors this season.

    He has centered what has been either Latvia's first or second line and any offense Latvia is able to create that doesn't come from the Darzins unit is likely to come from his line.

Goaltender Breakdown

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    In net for Latvia is Edgars Masalskis, a 33-year-old journeyman who has bounced around top leagues in Europe and had a reasonably good career despite his 5'10" frame.

    He also has a strong history at international events for the Latvians and has been particularly good in 2014. In three games during this year's tournament (two against the Swiss, one versus the Czechs), Masalskis has a 0.959 save percentage.

    Canada will answer with Carey Price, an elite NHL goaltender who graduated pretty much straight from major junior to the NHL. Where Masalskis has done well to evolve into a competent professional in the European leagues, Price was NHL-ready early and emerged as one of the world's best goalies at a young age.

    On paper, it should be a mismatch, but Masalskis has been exceptional so far.  

Canada Will Win If It Doesn't Get Complacent

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    Prior to this year's showing, Latvia's best Olympic result had been a ninth-place finish in 2002 at Salt Lake City. Three times the country has managed to come in seventh at the IIHF World Championships.

    Despite their stunning upset over the Swiss, the Latvians aren't even close to the Canadian team in terms of ability. 

    If Canada plays up to its potential, this will be a blowout. If Canada plays anywhere near its potential, this should be a decisive win. 

    The Canadian coaches and players need to make sure they don't look past the Latvians to the semifinals. They must make a point of ruthlessly and efficiently executing against a team that is easy to take lightly.

    If they do, they'll win. They might win even if they don't.

Latvia Will Win If Edgars Masalskis Can Manufacture a Miracle

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Latvian team will be outshot and outplayed. Even if performing at peak levels of ability, there's just too much of a talent gap for any other outcome.

    That doesn't make a win completely impossible, though. The Latvians will undoubtedly form a defensive shell around their net, slowing the game down as much as possible.

    If goaltender Edgars Masalskis can stand on his head one more time, the combination of incredible goaltending and suffocating defense might suffice to allow the Latvians to stay in the game.

    If Latvia can offset or largely neutralize the Canadian attack, it only takes one or two lucky bounces in the offensive zone to put a win within reach.

Prediction

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Latvia's exceeded expectations in getting this far, winning its first game of the tournament when it mattered most to make it to the quarterfinals.

    This is where the run ends. 

    The talent disparity between Latvia and Canada is extreme, and in an elimination game, the Canadians should have the motivation to jump out early and establish themselves as the dominant team. They may ease off the pedal once a firm lead is in place, but at that point, it will be too late for Latvia to come back. 

    Predicted score: Canada 6, Latvia 2

     

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