AC Olympic Preview: Latvia, aka Dinamo Riga

Martin Rose

If anything is going to be said of team chemistry trumping on-paper skill, Latvia will be its champion.

Offense Preview: You will notice one thing in common with many of these Latvian players: eight of them currently play for Dinamo Riga of the KHL. Riga, the capital of Latvia, is the only city in the country with a KHL team, so thus many of the nation's budding hockey prospects travel to play for Dinamo as young children and grow up coming through their academy system and eventually graduate to the senior team.

And thus, many of these players have grown up playing together and thus are vastly familiar with each other. So if any team in this tournament can be expected to have chemistry through familiarity, perhaps no team is a better example than Latvia.

So for coach Ted Nolan, the challenge of forming lines becomes just a little bit easier.

The Latvians boast one lone NHL player in Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres. The NHL rookie has had a decent first outing despite playing for an abysmal team, going 5-12-17 with a -6 rating. But the good news perhaps is that he is not going to be relied upon as a leader with so many of these players returning from the squad that finished dead last at the Vancouver Olympics.

However, not all the names on this Latvian team are completely unfamiliar. Remember Kaspars Daugavins?

Kaspars Daugavins crazy shootout attempt on Tuukka Rask . Mar 11, 2013 (via HockeyVideoHD)

Okay how about now? Yeah that's what I thought. Daugavins is still playing, now for Genève-Servette HC of the Swiss league. He played a key role for the Latvians during qualifying, which they were forced to go through this year, and did so by nature of a narrow 3-2 win over Kazakhstan.

Defense Preview: The Dinamo Riga dynasty shows its head clearly when you look at the blue liners. Of the eight defensemen selected, five of them play for the KHL squad, and two of the other three also play in the KHL. Among them are Latvian great and former Mighty Duck of Anaheim Sandis Ozolins, who lo and behold still plays and serves as the captain of Dinamo Riga at the age of 41. While he initially announced his retirement from international play after the 2006 Olympic games, he returned to help Latvia qualify for these Olympics and has been named to the squad headed for Sochi.

The lone defenseman who plays outside of Europe's biggest league is young Ralfs Freibergs, who currently plays for Bowling Green State University of the NCAA.

Philadelphia Flyers fans may also recognize Oskars Bartulis, who will be present at this year's games. Bartulis spent two seasons bouncing between the Flyers and their AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms, before being let go. He now plays for HC Donbass in the KHL.

Nonetheless, there will be some familiar pairs for coach Ted Nolan to work with on his blue line.

Goaltending Preview: Unfortunately for the Latvians, Arturs Irbe no longer plays ice hockey at a competitive level. With that torch being passed on, the responsibility now falls to young Kristers Gudlevskis. If that name sounds familiar to any of you AHL fans, it's because he currently plays for the Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning). He is yet to make his NHL debut, but has served as a backup for a short period of time when both Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop were down with injuries earlier this season.

Beyond him, the goaltending depth gets very thin for Latvia. Ervins Mustukovs of Esbjerg IK (Denmark) will likely see the backup position, and Edgars Masalskis, who currently does not play for a club team anywhere, will likely see the third position.

X-Factor: This team somehow always seems to be in the Olympic tournament and yet has never finished higher than ninth place. This time around they've got a good mix of young talent, veteran leadership, strong coaching, and team chemistry that will arguably give them their best potential showing yet. However, that's not setting the bar too high. This team could scare one of the giants if they decide to take the day off, which is always a huge issue with short tournaments such as this, and they'll do so if they truly excel to their full potential. The biggest factor for this team has to be in its Dinamo Riga-heavy defense. The Latvian club is currently fifth place in the KHL's western conference, so they're not a bad team by any stretch. But will KHL success translate to Olympic quality play?

Predicted Finish: The Latvians drew into the pool which is arguably the most favorable to them, alongside Switzerland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. While they dodge the super-giants in Canada, Russia, and the United States, they're mired in the middle of arguably the most hotly-contested pool, and none of the teams above them are a game which on paper they could possibly stand a reasonable chance. They don't get a shot at Norway or Austria, which arguably they'd need to get an important three points to have an inkling of a chance of getting out. Thus, I think Latvia unfortunately finish bottom of the group and bow out in the round-robin stages.

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