They didn't win a game during the group stage, but thankfully for Latvia, they got their first win when it counted, scoring an upset 3-1 win over Switzerland on Tuesday. The victory now sets up a quarterfinal date with Canada on Wednesday evening.
The Swiss were heavy favorites entering their qualification round game, having allowed just a single goal through their three group stage games. But they had only scored two themselves, and that lack of offense cost them, as Latvia took a 2-0 lead within the opening 11 minutes of the game and never looked back.
Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller, one of the best players in the tournament coming out of the group stage, admitted his team may have been thinking about a quarterfinal match-up with Canada and overlooked the Latvians. That proved to be deadly.
Latvia's win not only gives the country a gigantic hockey memory to look back on, but it also validates the kind of approach their head coach wanted to instill when he arrived three years ago.
After back-to-back 12th place finishes at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, Latvia turned to the NHL-exiled Ted Nolan as their new head coach. He had a big challenge ahead of him: turn around the fortunes of a younger hockey nation with few NHL-caliber commodities.
Nolan told Puck Daddy in March that the biggest challenge he faced initially was unifying a group of individuals into a team. Hearing his players talk, he's met that challenge.
"He’s been a huge part of us," said Kaspars Daugavins. "We never had a coach that actually believes in the players. It’s always been like army-style where everybody just has to work hard and you never get a tap on your shoulders, saying 'Good job, buddy.’
"He brings a different spirit on the team. He actually makes us believe that we’re actually a good team. I’ve been to a lot of world championships and an Olympics before and we never had a feeling that we can actually win something. We just went out there and played."
When Lauris Darzins put home the empty-net goal with a minute to go in the third period, giving Latvia 3-1 lead, the celebrations began. You could see on the player's faces how much the victory meant to them. A small hockey nation, not expected to advance defying the odds and moving on in the do-or-die stage of the Olympic tournament.
How has Nolan done it?
"I just believe in paying it forward, I guess," he said. "When I was a kid, not too many people believed in myself or gave me an opportunity. We had to fight for everything we got, and coming from where I came from, it kind of teaches that it’s important that everybody has an opportunity and to believe in themselves."
And as Zemgus Girgensons, who plays for Nolan with the Buffalo Sabres, summed up simply, belief is what the new head coach has brought to this Latvian side.
"If you don’t think you’re going to win, you’re not going to win."
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