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Latvia sees potential defining moment slip away

by Shawn P. Roarke

SOCHI -- For 59 minutes and 52 seconds, Latvia fought Switzerland evenly in its Group C preliminary round opener Wednesday at Shayba Arena.

Then disaster struck.

Latvia forward Lauris Darzins was injured behind the Swiss net, slow to get up after a hit into the boards appeared to hurt his right arm. Then another forward on the half wall made a high-risk play to keep possession and was not rewarded for his initiative as Switzerland gained possession and moved up the ice.

Still, with 10 seconds left it appeared Latvia would weather one final storm and force the 2013 IIHF World Championship silver medalist into overtime. Only it wasn't meant to be. Simon Moser found the puck on his stick behind the Latvian net, tried to pass it to Nino Niederreiter in the slot but instead watched as it rolled up the stick of goalie Edgars Masalskis, bounced off the body of Latvian defenseman Georgjis Pujacs and trickled into the net with 7.9 seconds remaining.

Just like that the Swiss escaped, taking a 1-0 victory in the game's last gasp.

It was the cruelest of fates for the Latvians, who were trying to beat a top-eight team in the Olympics for the first time in 11 tries.

"It was an unfortunate bounce," said defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, the Latvian captain. "Of course we are disappointed with the outcome of the game but I think we cannot be ashamed of the way we played. We played our hearts out."

Ozolinsh, who played 875 NHL games before moving on to play in the Kontinental Hockey League, talked about taking the positives out of the game and applying them to his country's next game, against the Czech Republic on Friday (3 a.m. ET, MSNBC, TSN).

But for Latvia coach Ted Nolan there was no room for moral victories. His team got a goaltending performance for the ages from Masalskis, who made 38 saves while using his entire body to deny and frustrate the Swiss, who carried play for long stretches.

Latvia had the ingredients to author a defining moment for its hockey program but could not put them together in the proper form. A series of mistakes and misfortunes in the game's final 20 seconds doomed the Latvians to another what-if moment instead.

"I've done some research on the history of Latvian hockey and what they have done," said Nolan, the interim coach of the Buffalo Sabres. "For a country of this size to go to four Olympic games, it is certainly an accomplishment, but the one thing about getting here, now you have to make that next step to do something that is magical. I think that is what the Olympics are all about."

Nolan believes his team is on the cusp of making magic. He thought it was going to happen Wednesday.

It didn't. Now he looks to the next game, against a Czech team that lost 4-2 to Group C favorite Sweden on Wednesday.

"This tournament is not over yet. It is just beginning," Nolan said.

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