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SOCHI, Russia – Ted Nolan said the seeds for this victory were actually planted a year ago, after Latvia's national hockey team won the Olympic qualifier on its home ice in Riga last February.

The team was out celebrating its comeback against France that night when a team manager reminded them that it didn't matter what you did in your first three games of an Olympics.

No one gets eliminated after three games. Everyone is guaranteed at least a spot in the qualification round, a fourth game where you win or go home. That's when you can make some history.

So after the Latvians lost to Switzerland on a goal with 7.9 seconds left in the Olympic opener, Nolan was uncommonly upbeat. He seemed insulted when I suggested his team must be really down after such a crushing defeat.

Nolan emphasized the positive. He said his team had improved as that game went along. And afterwards, yes, he reminded them of that discussion in Riga a year earlier. Fellas, it's all about that fourth game. You only have to be good at the right time.

And when that fourth tournament game arrived Tuesday night, Nolan's team was ready. The Latvians were good at the right time, winning their qualification rematch with the Swiss, 3-1, to earn the first Olympic quarterfinal berth in their history.

“Today was a lucky day for us,” Nolan said after the Latvians earned a date with Canada in the quarters at 9 p.m. tonight Sochi time (Noon, Buffalo time, Ch. 5), opposite the U.S. game against the Czechs. “We got some good breaks, but it's great for Latvian hockey for sure.”

It was the greatest win in the hockey history of Latvia, a tiny Baltic nation of 2 million that had qualified for four straight Olympics but hadn't won a game since 2002. But they had been getting better. Anyone who watched them battle Sweden and the Czechs could see that.

“In this tournament, everyone gets a second chance,” said Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons, who set up Latvia's first goal and hit a crossbar in the third period. “I thought we played good the first three games. There was nothing bad. We learned as much as we could from the first couple of games and we pulled out the win today.”

Before the game, Nolan told his team to “buckle up and enjoy the ride, because it's going to be fun.” They played that way, like fearless underdogs. They stunned the favored Swiss by scoring twice in a span of 2:41 of the first period – the first allowed by Jonas Hiller in the tournament in more than 128 minutes.

Latvia spent the rest of the night clinging to that lead. The Swiss had several good scoring chances, but the Latvians played a smart defensive game and goalie Edgars Masalskis continued his sparkling Olympic run with several huge saves.

Afterwards, the Latvians lauded Nolan for instilling newfound belief in a team that had suffered so many humiliating losses at Olympics over the years.

“We've never had a coach who actually believed in the players,” said Kaspars Daugavins, a former Ottawa Senator who was released last year by Boston. “You never got a tap on your shoulder saying 'Good job, Buddy.' He brings a different spirit to the team. He actually makes us believe we're a good team.

“I've been in a lot of World Championships and one Olympics before,” Daugavins said, “and we never had the feeling we could actually win something. We just went out there to play.”

Nolan has a reputation as an ordinary technical coach, but the Latvians play a disciplined, aggressive style and make the most of their talent. Nolan kept the shifts short early in the tournament and his players seemed fresher when the fourth game rolled around.

“In the locker room, we said we'd battled the top teams in the world, all those guys in the NHL make big bucks,” Daugavins said. “Let's make a statement out there that we can actually play hockey without having a league in Latvia.”

You can hear Nolan through those words. He is nothing if not a motivator of young men, a coach who knows how to build the confidence of players who have been underestimated along the way.

Nolan knows all about that. He grew up poor on a reservation in Canada, carrying water from the well to make his own ice rink. He was the ideal guy for Latvia, a coach who was naive enough to think these guys might actually win big some day.

“I just believe in paying it forward, I guess,” Nolan said. “When I was a kid, not many people believed in me or gave me an opportunity. We had to fight for everything we got.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the way I was raised,” he said, “and the way you treat people no matter where they're from or how much money they have or how small their country is. Everybody deserves an opportunity, so today was a good day for us.”

Nolan was his typically self-effacing self afterwards. The media wanted his motivational secrets. He was more interested in defending the Swiss coach and deflecting credit to his 41-year-old defenseman, Sandis Ozolinsh.

“We wouldn't be here if not for Sandis coming back to the national team,” Nolan said of Ozolinsh, a former seven-time NHL all-star. “He's leading us here. I don't know if I'm coaching the team or he is, but he's doing a great job.”

Nolan is dumb like a fox. He's good at downplaying his own coaching acumen. He loves the underdog role. Tonight, he gets the underdog role of a lifetime. Nolan, a native Canadian, leads little Latvia against Canada in an Olympic quarterfinal.

“It's David and Goliath, I guess,” he said with a smile. “I really believe anything can happen in this game.”

When little countries pull upsets on the big stage, they almost always fall flat the next game – like sleepers in the NCAA basketball tournament. No one thinks the Latvians can beat the Canadians, except the Latvians.

“They're not going to have an easy day, that's for sure,” Girgensons said. “It's nothing to lose for us. The guys are going to give all they've got. We've been putting a lot of work in all the four games and I can just imagine what the guys are going to put out on the ice tomorrow.”

Belief is a powerful thing. It must be exhilarating for Sabres fans to watch Nolan succeed on a stage this big, to see him create a sense of belief and possibility in a team. They've seen it before, of course, and they desperately want to believe it can happen again.

“That's what I'm going to try to do in Buffalo,” Nolan said just before midnight in the Bolshoy Ice Dome, international hockey writers crowded around him. “We're going to turn this thing around in Buffalo also, under the leadership of Pat LaFontaine.

“We just got there,” he said. “It's going to be a good ride.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com