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Olympic Hockey Preview 2006: Latvia
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
Feb 18, 2006 - 3:36:00 AM
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2006 Men’s Olympic Hockey Preview: Latvia
2002 Result: A ninth-place finish after losing out to Germany in the preliminary round.
Since then: no major international medals.
Players are listed in probable combinations with their NHL city, Russian league team or club team city with country/league in parentheses.
1. Vladimirs Mamonovs (Liepajas) - Herberts Vasiljevs (Krefeld, Germany) - Aleksandrs Nizivijs (Nizhny Novgorod)
2. Grigorijs Pantelejevs (Zug, Switzerland) - Aigars Cipruss (Riga) - Martins Cipulis (Riga)
3. Girts Ankipans (Riga) - Aleksandrs Semjonovs (Malmo, Sweden) - Leonids Tambijevs (Basel, Switzerland)
4. Maris Ziedins (Stockton, ECHL) - Armands Berzins (Riga) - Mikelis Redlihs (Umea, Sweden)
1. Sandis Ozolinsh (Anaheim) - Krisjanis Redlihs (Albany, AHL)
2. Arvids Rekis (Augsburg, Germany) - Karlis Skrastins (Colorado)
3. Agris Saviels (Nizhy Novgorod) - Gerogijs Pujacs (Riga)
4. Rodrigo Lavins (Gavle, Sweden) - Atvars Tribuncovs (Mora, Sweden)
1. Arturs Irbe (Salzburg, Germany)
2. Sergejz Naumovs (Voskresensk)
3. Edgars Masalskis (Almetyevsk)
Key Performer: Arturs Irbe. At 39, can Irbe still perform at a high level and steal a game from a much stronger opponent? That’s the question facing the Latvian team, who’ll go with Irbe as their number one goaltender despite his age and the fact that his game, at least at the NHL level, declined sharply the past few seasons to the point where he wasn’t invited to a team’s training camp this season. Irbe has always impressed observers with his ability to play a lot and play well with such a small frame; at just 5’8 and 190 pounds, Irbe doesn’t take up a lot of space in the net, and with his old style goaltending equipment that he insists on fixing himself, sometimes he looks a bit comical. The only thing comical about the way he plays, however, is, well, how he handles the puck sometimes. His age has to be a concern, but he’s a legitimate Latvian hockey hero who’s playing this season specifically for the Olympics and the 2006 World Championships, which will be held in Riga. He’ll be as ready as he can be to play here.
How They’ll Win:
1. His age aside, Irbe gives the Latvian team the potential for an upset. Everyone knows that anything can happen in a single game playoff, and if Latvia makes it to the medal round, Irbe in goal means they have to be taken seriously. In his heyday, he was one of the NHL’s best, and provided age hasn’t made him lose a step, he’s capable of great things. Naumovs is no slouch either, having bounced around the IHL and other North American minor leagues in the 1990’s before leaving for a successful career in Europe. He’ll likely get into a preliminary round game or two, but the bulk of the work will fall to Irbe.
2. Latvia has some real talent on defense. Led by Anaheim’s Sandis Ozolinsh, who’s spent much of the season in the NHL’s substance abuse program but is being allowed to play in this tournament, and Colorado’s Karlis Skrastins, one of the NHL’s steadiest defenders. Saviels was drafted in the second round by Colorado in 2000 and spent three years playing for their farm club in Hershey before heading to Russia this season. Krisjanis Redlihs plays for New Jersey’s top farm team, lurking somewhere on their depth chart as a steady defenseman much like Skrastins. Rekis played major junior in Ontario, and though he never got higher than the ECHL, he has been successful in Germany. Pujacs and Lavins both had similar short stints in North America before finding steady work in overseas, and Tribuncovs is another good, steady defender in the Swedish Elite League. All of Latvia’s defensemen are over six feet and five are over 200 pounds, a definite advantage over some of the smaller teams in Turin.
3. Latvia takes a lot of pride in this team. Unlike some former Soviet controlled republics that haven’t really warmed up to hockey, Latvia loves their hockey heroes. Irbe was selected as the nation’s flag-bearer at these Olympic games, and while people understand that Latvia isn’t on the same level as some of the other teams here, the fans would go nuts for an upset. For the national team, this tournament represents a chance to really stir up fan fervor; the 2006 World Championships are going to be in Riga starting in May, and if Latvia were to have a good showing at this tournament the Worlds could quickly become the hottest ticket in town in Riga, where a lot of these guys play professionally.
How They’ll Lose:
1. Latvia really doesn’t have a lot of scoring potential. Ozolinsh, a defenseman, is their most gifted offensive player, but he often sacrifices his defensive game and gives up almost as many chances in his own zone as in the offensive one. Up front, this team will have to rely heavily on Herberts Vasiljevs and the line of Cipruss, Pantelejevs, and Cipulis for much of their offense. Vasiljevs and Pantelejevs are really the only forward on this team who have come close to an NHL career; both are former offensive stars in the AHL who could never quite crack an NHL roster for more than a few games at a time. While it’s obviously not a requirement that a guy have played in the NHL to have offensive skills, aside from Leonids Tambijevs few of the players on this team are gifted scorers at the European club level either. Latvia will have to rely on its defense and goaltending to win games for them, because they probably won’t be scoring much.
2. While the defense has good size, it’s an area that their group of forwards is somewhat lacking in. only two of their forwards are 6’0 or better (Ankipans is 6’0, Berzins 6’3) and seven of their forwards are under 180 pounds. Some of them are the kind of small where you might see them skate through the legs of Slovakia’s Zdeno Chara, their 6’9 defenseman. It’s tough to play against NHL-sized defensemen when seven of your forwards are 5’9 or 5’10, and this group could find themselves getting pushed around in the offensive zone somewhat.
3. Irbe’s not the only key player on this team who’s getting a little long in the tooth. Ozolinsh is now 33 and of late has looked like he’s lost a step in the NHL. Cipruss is 34, Pantelejevs and Semjonovs 33, and Tambijevs is 35. Not to pick on Irbe, but it bears mentioning again that he’s now 39 years old, and has played a lot of hockey over the years. Naumovs, his backup, is 36. Only a handful of players on this team are under 25. This is a program that could desperately use an injection of talented youth.
The Bottom Line: With Slovakia, the United States, Sweden and Russia in their group, Latvia is in tough to finish in the top four and make the playoff round. A ninth place finish is a lot more likely, a respectable but somewhat disappointing result for a nation that has never placed higher than seventh in a major international tournament.
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