The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Posted: 02/12/2014 1:41 PM | Comments: 0
Last Modified: 02/12/2014 7:08 PM
SOCHI, Russia - Switzerland has had some success in Olympic hockey, thriving as underdogs. As a heavy favourite, the Swiss needed a lucky break Wednesday to avoid being pushed to overtime by lightly regarded Latvia.
Simon Moser was credited with a goal that caromed off Latvian defenceman Georgijs Pujacs in front of the net with 7.9 seconds left in the game, lifting Switzerland to a 1-0 win in the Olympic opener for both teams.
"The puck bounced our way at the end," said Swiss coach Sean Simpson.
Latvia's Edgars Masalskis made 38 saves, stopping shots with every part of his body and going down briefly after taking a knee to the head early in the game. The Kontinental Hockey League goaltender and four-time Olympian blocked a shot with his face mask and had it knocked off his head after a goal-mouth scramble.
"He played unbelievable and was the best player on the ice," Latvian forward Zemgus Girgensons said.
Girgensons, who was drafted 14th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2012, is the only Latvian player from the NHL. The Swiss have eight players from the league, including one-time All-Star goaltender Jonas Hiller.
"In the end, it doesn't matter how many NHL players you have at the Olympics," the 20-year-old Girgensons said.
A hot goalie, from any league, after all, can boost any team's chances in the tournament.
Still, Latvia hasn't lasted longer than the preliminary round in the previous three Olympics, finishing 12th in the last two and ninth in 2002. The best the country, which broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has a population of just about 2 million, can point to is pushing the Czechs to overtime in a playoff qualification match in Vancouver.
"For a country of this size to go to four Olympic games in a row is an accomplishment, but now you have to take the next step to do something magical," said Latvia's coach Ted Nolan, who also leads the NHL's Sabres. "That's what the Olympic games are all about."
Following a preliminary round in which each of the 12 nations play three teams in group competition, the top four teams move on and the remaining eight get one shot to advance to the medal round.
"This is not one and done," Nolan said. "Everybody gets a fourth game. If you win the fourth game, you never know."
The Swiss advanced to the quarterfinals in 2006 and 2010, and they have a chance to upset some teams with more talent simply because they have Hiller of the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks in net. He made 21 saves against the offensively challenged Latvians, including some key stops that kept his team from the upset.
"In the Olympics, there are no easy games," he said. "We got lucky at the end."
Switzerland, without Hiller, was more than fortunate when it earned a surprising silver medal in last year's world championships as Nashville Predators defenceman Roman Josi was named the tournament's most valuable player.
That has Swiss fans wanting more than a solid showing in Sochi.
"The expectations in Switzerland are through the roof," Simpson said.
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