SOCHI -- Switzerland came to the 2014 Sochi Olympics looking to continue its upward mobility in the international hockey power structure. The Swiss can add "ability to survive a scare from an inferior opponent" to its dossier as a burgeoning contender.
Latvia goaltender Edgars Masalskis stopped the first 38 shots he faced but a tough break on No. 39, from Nashville Predators forward Simon Moser with 7.9 seconds left in regulation, proved the difference Wednesday in a 1-0 victory for Switzerland in the two teams' opening games in Group C at Shayba Arena. The Swiss outshot the Latvians 39-21, but Masalskis authored a masterful performance to give his country a chance for a monumental upset.
"I probably never in my life played a game like that," Switzerland and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Mark Streit said. "It is the first game. It was a tough one. Their goalie played unbelievable. Our goalie played really well too. I thought we had a little more scoring chances than they did but they played well. It went to the end. … It was a little bit nerve-racking but we stuck with it and stayed positive and it worked out in the end. We got lucky a little bit but sometimes that's what you need. It is a big relief for us."
Latvia forward Lauris Darzins was checked behind the Swiss net and injured on the play. He was slow to get up and when he got to the bench there was a delay in someone replacing him.
Moser carried the puck into the left corner of the Latvian zone. The delayed change afforded the Swiss an extra-man situation, and Latvia's defensive-zone coverage was left to scramble. Moser threw the puck toward the net and it hit defenseman Georgijs Pujacs and slid across the goal line.
"We got better and better [Wednesday] and showed that we can really compete," Latvia coach Ted Nolan said. "Unfortunately it's a game of mistakes and we made one when it mattered the most. … One of our players got hit behind the boards. It was a 5-on-4 situation and we still had the puck. If we just would have thrown it in deep maybe we would have been able to kill off the last nine seconds."
Switzerland has been seen as an improving nation in hockey for years, but the Swiss broke through and earned a silver medal at the 2013 IIHF World Championship. With Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller leading a group of NHL players on the roster that continues to increase in number, the Swiss would like to make it two strong performances in major tournaments in a row to further close the gap on the "big seven" hockey-playing nations.
They haven't been favorites in games at this tournament often, but the Swiss did survive in that role Wednesday.
"Definitely, I agree with that," Swiss coach Scott Simpson said when asked if his team still is learning to play as a favorite. "I think we handled things better than we have in the past. We knew it was going to be a tough game, but after winning the silver medal [at the Worlds] it's our job as a team to keep our feet on the ground.
"Just because we're ranked seventh or eighth in the world and we've won one medal, it doesn't mean that we will be competing every time for a medal."
Hiller, who stopped all 21 shots he faced on his 32nd birthday, pointed to the final result as what matters.
"In the end all that counts is the win," he said. "It was probably not our best game, but at the same time this year is one of the first tournaments where we had more guys coming in from overseas so it was harder to get the lineup [set] and things like the power play where you need to know what the other guys do. It gets tougher if you don't score and then you try different stuff that makes it even worse."
Latvia had no wins, eight losses and two ties against the top eight teams (Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States) in its Olympic history before Wednesday. Toss in the World Championship and Latvia has seven wins, eight ties and 57 losses against those nations.
Three seventh-place finishes at the World Championship (1997, 2004 and 2009) represent the height of Latvia's success at this level.
Masalskis, 33, has been the No. 1 goaltender for Latvia for years, appearing in 41 World Championship games and five at the Olympics. He currently plays for HK Popard in the top professional league in Slovakia. Previous to that he spent parts of five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Masalskis made a handful of highlight-worthy saves to stymie the Swiss. He had two side-to-side stops on what looked like sure goals during Switzerland power plays in the first period and then stoned New Jersey Devils forward Damian Brunner for the second time in the game with a leg save on a 2-on-1.
"I thought we played a pretty decent game but just couldn't find a way to put the puck in the back of the net," Hiller said. "The longer the game goes like that the tougher it gets. You start trying new things that don't always work and try to get too fancy. We'll take the three points and go from here."