Tim Wharnsby - Wednesday Feb. 19, 2014 17:36

Hockey win over Latvia more relief than victory

Gudlevskis makes an impression, Tavares injury leaves a hole

Canada's goalie Carey Price slides across his crease to make a save against Latvia during the first period of their men's quarter-finals ice hockey game at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, February 19, 2014

His carmine red Latvian sweater was soaked to his equipment. Beads of sweat still dripped off his scraggly long hair.

After facing 57 shots in a 2-1 loss to Canada, Kristers Gudlevskis was bushed. The 21-year-old goalie was so exhausted he stumbled a bit when he stopped to talk to a scrum of reporters. As he talked about his stunning performance, Gudlevskis had to lean on a barrier that separates the players from the press in the Olympic mixed zone.

A few hours earlier, he was an unknown to the Canadian hockey scene. Now everybody knew that Canadian men’s team executive director Steve Yzerman had drafted the kid two years ago in the fifth round for the Tampa Bay Lightning, that Gudlevskis had been shuttled back and forth this season between the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse and its ECHL affiliate, the Florida Everblades.

“You’re lucky,” said the Latvian goalie with a sly grin, when asked what he would say to Yzerman the next time he sees his general manager.

Yzerman and the Canadian players felt more relieved than anything to advance to the semifinals against the United States on Friday, but unlucky that they have lost centre John Tavares for the tournament with a leg injury.

Tavares was hammered into the end boards in the second period by Latvian defenceman Arturs Kulda, who played nine games for the Winnipeg Jets two years ago. Tavares required on-ice assistance and went to the dressing room and did not return.

Canadian coach Mike Babcock reported that Tavares will be evaluated by New York Islanders team doctors before the nature of the injury would be revealed. Babcock said he had talked to his young forward, who had been so impressive for Canada at this Olympic tournament, after the win.

"He seemed to be in a fine mood," Babcock said. "Obviously disappointed he's injured. But I spoke to him."

Tavares’s absence will hurt Canada’s chances of repeating as Olympic gold medallists. He centred a line between Patrick Sharp and Rick Nash, and that line put Canada on the board first with less than seven minutes remaining in the first period, only to have Latvia tie the game a minute and 56 seconds later.

Who replaces Tavares?

With Tavares out, Babcock just played centres Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlaf more.

But Patrice Bergeron, who had been playing on the right side of Crosby’s line the past two games, is an option to take Tavares’s spot with Sharp and Nash. But that means Crosby, stuck at only two assists in four games here, will have yet another alteration on his forward line.

Crosby and his Canadian teammates did not take Gudlevskis and Latvia lightly. They had seen Russia taken down by Finland a few hours earlier. They watched Latvia surprise Switzerland on Tuesday evening.

But when Canada hit the ice it was a surprise to see Gudlevskis as Latvia’s starter. Edgars Masalskis was so good against the Swiss, but he did appear exhausted. That was only part of the reason Latvia head coach Ted Nolan decided to go with Gudlevskis instead. Nolan felt that Gudlevskis, who played at a junior B level in Latvia last year, was more used to North American shooters.

“It’s tough with back-to-back games and our goaltenders get a lot of work,” Nolan said.

“[Latvia] had Arturs Irbe for years and now it looks like they have a good one coming in Kristers.”

Patience pays off

Even though you could see the frustration building on Canada’s bench, the players kept coming and felt a goal or maybe two would eventually come.

“Finally,” said Toews, asked for his reaction when Shea Weber scored from the point on the power play with 6:54 remaining in the game.

“It took us some time, but we stayed patient. We had confidence to win the game. We had enough chances, enough shots. We came close. We never got frustrated and we have to continue to play this way."

Canada has scored 13 goals in four games, and seven have come from defencemen Drew Doughty and Shea Weber. But Canada has only given up three goals in four games.

Meanwhile, the United States has scored 20 goals in four games and yielded six.

“I watched some of their action, they seem to be scoring,” Babcock said. “[Joe] Pavelski’s line [with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk] is flying and filling the net. We haven’t had that.

“We feel we have quality players, we have quality opportunities, really good looks and we haven’t scored. It’s my experience, over time, with playoff type hockey, this stuff happens. You can’t usually keep skilled guys who are determined down. I’m optimistic, to say the least.”

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