Shea Weber scored with less than seven minutes remaining as Canada slipped past Latvia, 2-1, to reach the semifinals of the men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics. It will face the rival United States for a spot in the gold-medal game.
The Canadians were the more dangerous team throughout. They generated 57 shots as compared to just 16 for the Latvian squad. But some strong play in front of goal and a couple fortunate bounces allowed the underdogs to keep it close until the final whistle.
Let's check out how the quarterfinal played out along with a look at the semifinal games on tap for Friday. It's followed by a recap of the high-pressure contest inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi.
Result and Semifinal Games
|Men's Hockey Quarterfinals - Canada vs. Latvia|
|Team||1st Period||2nd Period||3rd Period||Total|
|Men's Hockey Semifinal Matchups|
|Feb. 21||Sweden vs. Finland|
|Feb. 21||Canada vs. United States|
Canada enjoyed a day of rest on Tuesday while Latvia played Switzerland in the qualification playoffs. The reigning Olympic champions watched as the underdog nation scored two first-period goals and then put the defensive clamps on the Swiss to score a 3-1 win.
The Canadians were hoping to avoid getting caught in the same trap Wednesday as they came out flying. Every time they were in the attacking zone, they peppered Kristers Gudlevskis with shots. The Latvian goalie was up to the task early, most notably playing a Sidney Crosby breakaway perfectly.
With each passing minute, Latvia gained more confidence. Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail passed along comments from Kaspars Daugavins before the game, and he said head coach Ted Nolan was key to the team's unexpectedly strong play in Sochi:
We never had a coach that actually believes in the players. It's always been like army-style where everybody just has to work hard and you never get a tap on your shoulders, saying 'good job, buddy.' He brings a different spirit on the team. He actually makes us believe that we're actually a good team. I've been to a lot of world championships and an Olympics before and we never had a feeling that we can actually win something. We just went out there and played.
That belief showed.
Based purely on talent, Canada could have easily come out and scored five goals in the first period and cruised to the semifinals. It didn't happen. Latvia kept its star-studded opponents out of the dangerous scoring areas and fought for every loose pick.
The Canadians broke the deadlock with just over six minutes remaining in the opening period.
Rick Nash picked up a loose puck, glided behind the net and found a wide-open Patrick Sharp, who easily deposited the shot into an open half of the net. Gudlevskis appeared to lose his balance as he tried to move laterally across the crease and couldn't recover in time.
As Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune pointed out, the goal came at the end of a great shift and perfect play by Canada:
A little creativity allowed Latvia to strike back two minutes later.
Off a draw just outside their defensive zone, Nolan put a set play in motion. After winning the faceoff, they made a quick change and Lauris Darzins hopped off the opposite end of the bench.
The Canadian defensemen didn't catch the quick switch. The forward, who scored twice in the win over Switzerland, walked in all alone on Carey Price and buried the shot to level the score at one.
Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News, where Nolan coaches the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, made it clear the coach was quickly pushing toward legend status in Latvia:
The first period ended with the shot totals favoring Canada 16-6, but very few of those were great scoring opportunities.
While it was more of the same in the second period, with the Canadians generating more forays into the offensive zone, the team's numerous stars failed to solve the Latvian defensive riddle. And the underdogs were content playing a safe style.
One thing that did become more noticeable throughout the middle period was the increasing amount of fan support for Latvia. Neutral observers were starting to jump on the bandwagon.
Canada once again dominated the shot count in the second, topping Latvia 19-5. But once again, most of those came from the outside or without screens in front to wreak havoc. When they did get a good chance, such as a partial breakaway for Jeff Carter, Gudlevskis was up to the task.
The other bad news for Canada in the period was an injury to John Tavares. The New York Islanders star took a heavy hit from Arturs Kulda and stayed down for several seconds before skating off in obvious pain. Chris Johnston of Rogers Sportsnet noted the worrisome moment:
Following an endless stream of pressure, the Canadians thought they had grabbed their second lead of the game about midway through the third period.
A scramble in front of the net ended with the puck trickling under Gudlevskis and toward the goal line. Luckily for Latvia, Kristaps Sotnieks reached back and swept the puck away.
The barrage of pressure finally paid off for the Canadians a couple minutes later. With Georgijs Pujacs in the box for slashing, Canada was able to move the puck around the zone, and eventually Weber unleashed a blast from the point that found the net to make it 2-1, as Hockey Night in Canada pointed out:
Weber's tally came with just under seven minutes remaining in regulation. It was a point in time Canada was expected to lead by three or four goals, not scoring the game winner. Unlike some other Olympic events, however, style points don't matter.
Latvia tried to amplify its offensive pressure and came up with a couple nice chances, but it was unable to net the equalizer. The magic had finally run out for a team that certainly has nothing to hang its heads about after pushing the defending champions to the limit for 53 minutes.
Looking ahead, Canada will play the United States in a rematch of the goal-medal game from four years ago. The Americans have been playing outstanding hockey throughout the tournament, so their rivals from the north will need to elevate their level of play in the semifinal.
The biggest thing Canada should have learned from the close call against Latvia is the need to spend more time in the middle of the ice. Without shooters in the slot and bodies in front of the goalie, it's too easy for opponents to neutralize all the offensive talent.
Another goal medal is just two wins away for the Canadians. Right now, they are just happy to have survived a great challenge from the upstart Latvians.
Updated Medal Count