Great Britain start their Olympic final qualifying tournament today with the toughest opponent of them all in the host nation, Latvia.
The Latvians are the class of GB’s group, no doubt about it. They present an extremely tricky proposition, containing several ex-NHL players. There are no players on the current roster from NHL teams, with the majority playing either for Latvia’s biggest club Dynamo Riga or other teams in the KHL or eastern Europe-only forwards Ronalds Kenins and Roberts Yekimovs play outside Eastern Europe. Here’s the breakdown on them.
The Latvians, like most European teams, play fast, skilled hockey. However, they are a fair bit less finesse-laden then a lot of Eastern European squads, and have usually been outskated by opponents at full Olympic level, finishing last in the last three. They do like to get in amongst the opposition, with Raitis Ivanans providing the physical muscle. GB will have to skate as hard as they ever have before to keep up with them, and find a way to move the puck back and forth fast, because they won’t get much time on the puck in their own zone.
The name Ervins Mustokovs will be familiar to EIHL fans from his year in Sheffield several seasons ago-however Mustokovs will likely be backup behind Edgars Masalskis. The 32-year-old has been the starter for his country since 2006, and has already played in two Olympic Games. Masalskis is short at 5’9 and relies on speed and agility to make his saves. He has played mainly at KHL level and equivalent, and is consistently among the top three performers on his team at big events.
The two big names on Latvia’s defence are 40-year-old Sandis Ozolins (over 800 NHL games for Anaheim and Colorado amongst others, one Stanley Cup) and former Philadelphia Flyer Oskars Bartulis, both of whom will be relied upon by the Latvians to drive them forward from the blueline. The rest of the Latvian D squad are all KHL regulars, whether it be in their own country or elsewhere, with the pick of them probably being Arturs Kulda or Georgijs Pujacs, who was a captain in the KHL last year. Smooth-skating and sharp positionally, they’ll be the best unit the British forwards will face by some distance this weekend.
They may be lacking the NHL’s Kaspars Daugavins or junior prodigy and NHL pick Zemgus Girgensons, but the Latvian forward corps still has a good mix of speed and toughness. Raitis Ivanans is the muscle-the former Phoenix Coyote hardman will make space for Janis Sprukts and Juris Stals at centre. Goal-wise the main sniper is likely to be Martins Karsums, ex of the the Providence Bruins. With four strong lines, though, the Latvians have goals all over the ice at this level, and will be a tough test for the GB D. They need to be stopped from getting into a passing rhythm and given no space, otherwise it could be a long night for Stevie Lyle.
HOW TO BEAT THEM
A win for GB v Latvia is a massive ask. There’s no question they’ve been given the toughest possible opening to the tournament. However, they can be beaten by sound positional play and not being allowed to get into a passing rhythm. Ozolins is key and will need to be prevented from weaving his transitional magic at every opportunity, while in the offensive zone, the GB forwards may get some joy from fast passing and last-second screens on Masalskis. It’s a game that is winnable…just. But the ten-place gap between GB and Latvia in the rankings tells just what a tough task this’ll be.
Realistically, the best GB can hope for is to take the Latvians to OT. Get that far, get a point, and anything can happen in the OT and penalties. But a loss will set the Latvians off to the best possible start and mean the Brits have to win their next two games in regulation to have a decent hope of progression.
Given the right bounces, GB can beat Latvia. But they’ll need ALL the stars to align. Win this game, and anything is possible for the Lions.
Realistically, though, the Brits will be happy with an OT loss to the hosts to start the tournament.