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Latvia figures to have its hands full with Russia

by John Dellapina
RUSSIA (0-0-0-0) vs. LATVIA (0-0-0-0)

NOTE: records are presented as three-point wins (regulation time), two-point wins (OT or shootout), one-point losses (OT or shootout), zero-point losses (regulation time).
What to watch --
If there is a Group of Death in this tournament, it is Group B. Russia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia all reside there -- one more traditional power country in this foursome than in either of the other two.

But if there is a game in Group B that figures to be a blowout, it's this one. Of course, that's what Team USA probably thought before Latvia tied it, 3-3, in the opening game of the 2006 Torino Games. Cowbells rang throughout the Italian night after that game. Truth be told, the Latvians would be happy just to minimize the sound of goal horns Monday night.

Karlis Skrastins, the veteran Dallas Stars defenseman, is the only member of the current Latvian team who played in that tournament-rocker in Torino. He’s also one of only two NHL players on the Latvian roster. Suffice to say, that doesn’t figure to frighten a Russian team that will send these first two lines over the boards: Ovechkin-Datsyuk-Semin, Kovalchuk-Malkin-Afinogenov.

"There are no easy games for anybody in this tournament," Russian defenseman Andrei Markov said.

There certainly are no easy ones in the rest of Group B. As for this one? Good luck to the Latvians.

Team Reports:

Russia -- Russian coach Viacheslav Bykov, who played during the glory years of the Soviet Union, has taken a page out of the gold medal-minting playbook of yesteryear by assembling his 20 skaters into five-man units for Monday's practice.

No, there was no Green Unit -- Ovechkin, Malkin and Co. might be brash, but they aren't yet up to donning the same practice colors as the fabled Krutov-Larionov-Makarov-Fetisov-Kasatonov quintet. But there were those aforementioned couple of formidable trios. Presumably, the deployment of five-man units will speed the gelling process that is key to any of the NHL-dominated rosters ultimately prevailing here.

Also key, of course, is to get top-tier goaltending. And at either end of the rink during Monday's practice, there were nets tended by two of the NHL's best this season: Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks and Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes.

But what could be most critical for Team Russia is the health of defenseman Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens. Markov, a terrific two-way blueliner, is paired with Anton Volchenkov of the Ottawa Senators on what undoubtedly would be Russia's shut-down tandem. If Markov isn't in top form, the least impressive unit on Russia's team -- its defense corps -- could have trouble dealing with the counterattacks that undoubtedly will result from its forwards committing to the attack.

"I feel pretty good and I hope I'm going to feel better every day," Markov said. Asked if he was 100 percent, Markov said: "Uh … no."

Latvia --
Can familiarity in the Olympics breed competitiveness? That is what Team Latvia is hoping, as it will deploy three entire forward lines intact from their club teams in the KHL.

Assigned to be the sacrificial lambs among perennial lions Russia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in Group B, Latvia hopes to have a surprise in store for at least one of them. The toughest test comes right away, though. And an early key for the Latvians is to remember that they are in a hockey game, not at an autograph session.

"I think everybody understands," Skrastins said. "Yes, those are big names. But when you're on the ice, you can't just watch the numbers of the guys you are playing against. Of course, you have to be aware and respect those guys. But you can't be scared. Just battle for each second, each shift and you never know what the result is going to be."

That approach stunned the Americans in the Olympic opener four years ago. But that Latvian team had NHL veteran Arturs Irbe between the pipes. This one has 40-year-old Sergei Naumov, who not only has no NHL experience, he’s not particularly big.

"For us, maybe it’s a plus because all of our three lines play together in the KHL in the Russian League -- so they know each other for a couple of years," Skrastins said. "And the first game? You never know how it’s going to be."

Total NHL players in game:
Russia: 14; Latvia: 2 – the only Latvian NHLers are defensemen Karlis Skrastins of Dallas and Oskars Bartulis of Philadelphia.
Puck Drop -- "Play with all your heart. Play a hard game for all 60 minutes and you never know. Upsets have happened before. Why can't it be our team?" Skrastins said. predicts -- While not quite the Canadian women vs. Slovakia, this game has the potential to get out of hand early.

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