SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Latvia's reward for its first Olympic victory in 12 years is a quarterfinal date with defending champion Canada.
That sobering realization couldn't dampen the thrill for coach Ted Nolan and his underdog players after they made a bit of hockey history in Sochi.
Oskars Bartulis and Lauris Darzins scored in the first period, and Latvia reached the Olympic men's hockey quarterfinals for the first time with a 3-1 victory over Switzerland on Tuesday night.
Edgars Masalskis made 32 saves and Darzins added an empty-net goal in the Latvians' first Olympic victory since 2002, when they returned to the games after a 66-year absence. After the clock ran out on an impressive victory over a rising Swiss team, the Latvians gathered around Masalskis for a joyous group hug.
"It's just awesome to do this for all of the great veteran players that we have," said Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia's only active NHL player. "No one has done it before, so it's unbelievable to be in the quarterfinals and beat the Swiss."
Latvia went winless in preliminary-round play in Sochi, losing 1-0 to the Swiss in its opener. But the Baltic nation of 2 million people posted the second stunner of the qualification round, several hours after Slovenia beat Austria for its own debut trip to the quarterfinals.
Nolan, the Canadian who also coaches the Buffalo Sabres, took a moment to appreciate the breakthrough before focusing on a date with Canada on Wednesday night.
"I just really care about the players and (making) them enjoy this game," Nolan said. "To come to the Olympics and play in this venue, it's a thrill of a lifetime. ... Today was a lucky day for us. We got some good breaks, but it's great for Latvian hockey, for sure."
Masalskis, the Latvians' four-time Olympian, was a 21-year-old backup goalie when Latvia got its previous Olympic victory over Austria in Salt Lake City. He was the difference against the Swiss, repeatedly shutting down their scoring chances in spectacular fashion.
"We knew we could do it, and we had shown we had a chance in the previous three games," Masalskis said. "(Nolan) makes us believe in ourselves. He tells us every day we're a great team. We did it all for him."
With 41-year-old defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh as its captain and a virtual coach on the ice, according to Nolan, Latvia sustained a team defensive effort to shut down a Swiss lineup with nine NHL players. The result is a bitter disappointment for the Swiss, who won twice in the preliminary round while allowing just one goal in three games.