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Slovakia's next test in Group B from upstart Latvia

by John Dellapina
SLOVAKIA (1-0-0-1) vs. LATVIA (0-0-0-2)

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 --
The Czech Republic's victory over Latvia Friday precluded the possibility of Slovakia winning Group B. But the Slovaks remarkably can finish second in this toughest of the three round-robin pools by defeating Latvia and the Czechs topping the Russians Sunday afternoon.

That is a remarkable thing given that the Slovaks came into this tournament with their top two forwards banged up and then were given a rugged schedule -- three games in four nights with the first two back-to-back against the Czech Republic and Russia.

The Latvians have had their moments so far. And each of those moments has been boisterously cheered by the Latvian fans here and the countless others who are captivated by their enthusiasm.

But Latvia never had a chance among the heavyweights in Group B. And it now will look to ruin somebody's medal hopes by upsetting a power in the qualification games Tuesday for Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

Team Reports:

Slovakia -- Some grit, plenty of skill and a whole lot of Jaroslav Halak have the Slovakians right in the thick of the Group B competition.

They nearly upset their closest rivals, the Czechs, in their opening game. And they pulled off the stunner of the tournament so far by beating the Russians in a shootout Thursday night.

Halak sparkled in both games, turning aside 36 of 37 shots from the frighteningly talented Russians and then six of seven in the shootout – including two of three by Alex Ovechkin.

Marian Gaborik (lacerated leg) and Marian Hossa (concussion) both returned earlier than expected from injuries suffered last week in the NHL. And each has scored a goal. But neither could yet be described as flying.

Latvia -- It has gone just about as expected so far for the Latvians. Two powerful foes. Two predictable losses. Two games in which, though overmatched, they played with gusto and occasional flair.

Competitive through two periods against Russia in their Olympic opener, the Latvians were overwhelmed in the third period, when Russia strafed them for four goals.

The Czech game unfolded the opposite way. Blitzed early for three goals in the first 5:07, the Latvians battled back from a 4-0 deficit to within 4-2 before ultimately succumbing.

Goaltender Edgars Malaskis has faced 84 shots in two games. Yet, every time he appears to be mentally broken, he rallies to keep his team in the game a little longer.

Total NHL players in game --
15; the only Latvian NHLers are defensemen Karlis Skrastins of Dallas and Oskars Bartulis of Philadelphia. Though only five of the seven Slovak defensemen currently play in the NHL, all seven have at some point in their careers.
Puck Drop --
After back-to-back games vs. the Czech Republic and Russia, all the Slovaks needed Friday off. But none more than defenseman Zdeno Chara, who spent Thursday night matched against the dynamic Alex Ovechkin. Chara kept Ovechkin off the scoresheet. But Ovechkin pounded Chara physically.

Prediction -- Some anxious early moments for the Slovaks yield to a pull-away victory. Looking ahead to the qualification games, Latvia gets overrun late, 8-2.

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