And then there were three.
It was only a matter of time before a Minnesota Wild player and his country would be knocked out of the tournament–after all, only three teams are going to receive a medal. While it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Wild winger Nino Niederreiter and Switzerland would fall first, it is surprising that it comes against Latvia, a team with one active NHL player and exactly zero wins in the preliminary rounds.
Involved in three 1-0 shutouts leading up to the elimination rounds, the Swiss offense would buzz at moments and be nonexistent at others. There were a lot of dazzling moves, namely by Niederreiter and New Jersey’s Damien Brunner, but they just couldn’t finish a play properly to save their lives, which is why the Swiss return home with just three goals to their country’s name. In four games, Niederreiter would collect zero points, 10 shots and two penalty minutes to go with a plus-2 rating.
Here’s NHL.com with the full game recap:
SOCHI – This time the margin was just too fine for Switzerland.
The Swiss had played 180 minutes of one-goal hockey just to make the knockout stage of the 2014 Sochi Olympics men’s hockey tournament, but its luck ran out in the qualification playoffs as they dropped a 3-1 decision to Latvia on Tuesday at Bolshoy Ice Dome.
The game was a 2-1 nailbiter until Lauris Darzins scored his second goal of the game, an empty-netter with 59.9 seconds remaining.
Latvia, which lost 1-0 to Switzerland in the opening game of the tournament on Wednesday, gained a fair bit of revenge and advances to a quarterfinal matchup Wednesday at Bolshoy (Noon ET, MSNBC, CBC) with Canada, which received a bye into the quarterfinals by virtue of winning its group with two regulation wins and a shootout victory against Finland.
Canada last played Latvia in the Olympics in Germany on Feb. 7, 1936, winning 11-0.
Latvia, in its fifth Olympics, never had finished better than ninth, which happened in 2002. It is the first time they have reached the quarterfinals, becoming the second club Tuesday to make such history. In the day’s first quarterfinal, Slovenia defeated Austria 4-0 to qualify for the quarterfinals for the first time as well.
Latvia’s victory was keyed by goalie Edgars Masalskis, who made 32 saves. Masalskis made 38 saves in the first meeting between the teams.
Masalskis, 34, currently calls the Slovak Extraliga home but has played throughout Europe. This is the third Olympics in which he has represented Latvia. He also has played for his country in eight World Championship competitions.
Switzerland only allowed one goal in preliminary-round play, losing 1-0 to Sweden in a game in which Reto Berra played goal. In the other two games, including the opening game against Latvia on Feb. 12, Jonas Hiller was in goal. He did not allow a goal in either game, stopping all 47 shots he faced.
But the Latvians, coached by Ted Nolan, interim coach of the Buffalo Sabres, refused to be intimidated by the mystique of Hiller, a star in the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks. Hiller was good on this night (19 saves), just not good enough.
Latvia defenseman Oskars Bartulis opened the scoring at 8:38 when his shot from the left point beat Hiller to the far corner. Hiller was screened on the play by two skaters and the puck may have hit off the pants of Switzerland’s Mathias Seger and changed direction slightly.
That goal, on Latvia’s second shot, ended Hiller’s consecutive-save run at 48. It also put an end to the dominance of play the Swiss had showed for the game’s first eight minutes. At the time of the goal the Swiss held a 7-2 shot advantage.
Latvia struck again 2:41 later, this time on the power play. With Morris Trachsler in the penalty box for tripping, the Latvians were able to set up in the offensive zone and move the puck around the perimeter. Mikelis Redlihs made a perfect cross-slot pass to Darzins, who banked his wrist shot off Hiller’s shoulder and into the short side of the net.
Suddenly the Swiss needed to open up a little bit after relying on defense for so much of this tournament. After scoring two goals in its three preliminary-round games, the Swiss would need at least two in the final 48:41 to have any hope of winning this game.
For a long time it looked like Masalskis was going to be unbeatable, just as he was for the first 59:53 of his first showdown with Swiss.
Masalskis made several highlight-reel saves but none better than a lightning-fast glove-hand save of a one-timer from Andres Ambuhl ticketed for the top corner. Somehow Masalskis got his glove in the path of the puck before falling forward. He remained face-down on the ice for several seconds in a combination of exhaustion and satisfaction.
But at 15:01 of the second period alternate captain Martin Pluss powered a one-timer through the Latvian goalie to give the Swiss hope.
A chance late in the period by Seger was turned aside by a clutch blocker save.
Much of third period was played in the Latvian end, but the desperate Swiss attack could not muster the tying tally, doomed by an offense that found it hard to get in gear at any point in this tournament.
With less than three minutes remaining Swiss forward Reto Suri got loose for a rush down the left side, but Masalskis turned aside the quality chance, leaving Suri looking skyward in disbelief.
Moments later Darzins’ empty-net goal wrapped it up for Latvia.
Up next is Mikael Granlund’s Team Finland as they take on the host country Russia in the quarterfinals tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM Central Time. That game will be aired LIVE on NBC Sports Network. This is going to be a huge game as two hockey titans face each other in order to advance to the Olympic semifinals. Finland, though plagued with injuries, is still stacked with NHL talent–particularly in net–and will be a difficult challenge for a Russian team expected to win it all. Viewers can expect a highly physical and offensive match that could be tempered by a legendary goaltender’s duel between some of the best goaltenders the NHL has to offer in Tuukka Rask and either Sergei Bobrovsky or Semyon Varlamov.
Later in the day, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and the United States take on the Czech Republic at 11:00 AM Central Time on USA. If anything Latvia’s win has taught us, it’s that even the heavy favorites can fall. You can bet the Dan Bylsma and the Americans won’t take this game for granted, especially considering the ever dangerous Jaromir Jagr would just love to make them pay for any mistakes should an opportunity present itself.
One thing is for sure–tomorrow is going to be a great day for hockey.