LATVIA vs. SWITZERLAND
When: Wednesday, 12 p.m. ET (MSNBC)
Where: Shayba Arena
What's at stake: With Sweden expected to be the class of Group C and the Czech Republic dangerous as well, this is a must game for Switzerland if it intends to establish itself as a dark horse in the 2014 Sochi Olympics and an immediate opportunity for Latvia to pull off an upset.
Latvia: He's spent the past few months hard at work trying to turn the fortunes of the Buffalo Sabres; now coach Ted Nolan goes from the NHL back to the international stage, trying to lead one of the tournament's top underdogs to what would be a monumental win for the program. Latvia finished 12th at Vancouver in 2010 and had to win its way to Sochi via the qualification tournament last February.
Zemgus Girgensons, who plays for Nolan in Buffalo and is one of the NHL's bright young prospects, is also the only player currently in the League on Latvia's roster. But they also have goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis, a prospect for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, a veteran of 875 NHL games. Ozolinsh, who turns 42 in August, has spent the past five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League and is thrilled to be back with the national team.
"It's not just being on the ice for the game," Ozolinsh said in the New York Times. "It's being off the ice, in the locker room, in practice. I'm really enjoying the whole process."
Switzerland: For perhaps the first time, there are real expectations for Switzerland that come from outside the country itself and its supporters. The Swiss took Canada to a shootout in group play in Vancouver and lost a hard-fought 2-0 decision to the United States in the quarterfinals. Then came the major breakthrough last year, when the team won its first seven games at the 2013 World Championship en route to a silver medal.
The roster is an exciting mix of NHL talent -- led by Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller, forwards Damien Brunner (New Jersey Devils) and Nino Niederreiter (Minnesota Wild) and defensemen Roman Josi (Nashville Predators) and Mark Streit (Philadelphia Flyers) -- as well as national team veterans and emerging stars. Josi, one of the stars at the Worlds (four goals, nine points in 10 games), expressed quiet confidence at what the Swiss hope to accomplish in Sochi.
"After the World Championships, our expectations at the Olympics are obviously a little bit higher," Josi said. "We're still underdogs and we are still a small team (compared to the favorites), but we are not going to Sochi just to play there. Our goal is to make it through the qualifiers and then take it game-by-game and day-by-day in the medal round."
What's next: Each team gets a day off Thursday before returning to action on Friday. Latvia will take on the Czech Republic in the opening game at 3 a.m. ET, while Switzerland faces off with Sweden at 7:30 a.m. in a game that could have major implications as far as deciding Group C if each team wins its opener.