Canada-Latvia Olympic Hockey Preview: Depth Will Lift Canadians To Semis

drew doughty canadaLatvia earned one of its biggest wins Tuesday in a 3-1 qualification-round upset of Switzerland, but the Winter Olympics road doesn’t get any easier because its next opponent is defending men’s hockey gold medalist Canada.

Canada finished the group stage 3-0 with wins over Norway, Austria and Finland. The Canadians also scored the second-most goals (11) and gave up the second-fewest goals (two) in the preliminary round stage, and unfortunately for Latvia, its quarterfinal opponent hasn’t even played its best hockey yet.

How much of a test does Latvia pose for Canada at noon Wednesday? Find out in the in-depth preview below.

Tale of the Tape

Team Record Last Game GF GA Leading Scorer
CAN 2-1-0-0 W, 2-1 vs. FIN 11 2 Drew Doughty – 5 PTS
Latvia 1-0-0-3 W, 3-1 vs. SUI 8 11 Lauris Darzins – 4 PTS

Forwards

Canada hasn’t had any trouble scoring goals in Sochi, but team captain Sidney Crosby has just two assists and isn’t creating many scoring chances. He practiced with Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Chris Kunitz and Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron during Tuesday’s session. By putting Crosby alongside responsible, defensively skilled wingers, it’s possible Canadian head coach Mike Babcock plans to use the NHL’s leading scorer in a more defensive role, similar to the one he played in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.

Even if Crosby’s line struggles again, Canada has more than enough firepower to score four or more goals against Latvia. Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter was fantastic in the preliminary round with four goals in three games.

Latvia’s offense is led by Buffalo Sabres rookie forward Zemgus Girgensons. The talented center is a key part of the Latvian power play, and his faceoff ability is critical to the team establishing consistent puck possession. Former Bruins forward Kaspars Daugavins also has played well in a top-six role, and he picked up an assist in Tuesday’s win.

Defense

The Canadian blue line has been phenomenal at even strength (two goals against in three games) and on the penalty kill. The top pairing of Duncan Keith and Shea Weber has excelled in a shut-down role, and it limited Finland to just a single goal Sunday (the Finns had scored 14 goals in Sochi entering that matchup).

Canada’s defensemen also are providing plenty of scoring. Six of the team’s 11 goals have been scored by blueliners, and four have come from Drew Doughty. The Kings star scored twice against Finland, including the game-winner in overtime.

The Latvian blue line doesn’t feature any NHL players and is led by former Colorado Avalanche star Sandis Ozolinsh. The 41-year-old veteran has played on the team’s second pairing, and his physical style of play sets the tone for the other defensemen. Oskars Bartulis serves in the shut-down role and likely will play against the Crosby line. Bartulis also will be an important component of the Latvian penalty kill.

Goaltending

Carey Price will start for Canada. He’s 2-0 with a .943 save percentage and 0.98 goals against average. The Montreal Canadiens star wasn’t tested much in the preliminary round (faced just 35 shots), but as an elite NHL goaltender, he gives the Canadians a decisive advantage in net.

Edgars Masalskis, 33, will get the start for Latvia. He made 32 saves on 33 shots against Switzerland for his first win of the tournament. Masalskis is an athletic goaltender with a good glove hand, but his only win is against a Swiss team that scored just three goals in four games. He needs an all-time performance to give Latvia a real chance of upsetting Canada.

Prediction

Latvia lacks elite talent, but it’s one of the hardest working teams in Sochi. Head coach Ted Nolan demands 100 percent effort from his players on every shift, and if Canada enters this game relaxed, Latvia could provide a challenge because it plays with no fear.

The key for Canada is to score first and keep attacking. Latvia doesn’t have the depth to win a high-scoring game or play from behind. If the Canadians don’t look past this matchup, which could be a semifinal game against the United States, they will easily dominate and reach the final four.

Pick: Canada wins 6-1

Yardbarker

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