SOCHI, Russia – The thought occurred to Zemgus Girgensons late in the third period of his first Olympic game, as he watched Edgars Masalskis make yet another remarkable save for the Latvians.
“I thought, ‘This feels like Buffalo,’ ” Girgensons said. “They’re pressuring us in the zone. The goalie is making big saves. But you know … ”
Girgensons, the Sabres’ star rookie, has been around long enough to know that a hot goalie often isn’t enough. If an inferior team can’t score, if it lives too long on the edge, chances are it is only one crucial mistake from losing a close game.
That’s what happened Wednesday on the opening night of men’s hockey. The Latvians, under Sabres coach Ted Nolan, rode their goalie to the brink of an upset before a late breakdown allowed Switzerland to score with 7.9 seconds left and escape Shayba Arena with a 1-0 victory.
It was a tough loss for the plucky Latvians, who have made four straight Olympics without ever advancing to the quarterfinals. They played their hearts out against the Swiss, who won silver in last year’s world championships, only to fall short in the end.
“I thought as the game went on, we got better and better,” said Nolan, who arrived in Russia on Monday. “We felt we could really compete. I was really proud of the way our guys battled. Unfortunately, hockey is a game of mistakes, and we made a couple in the last minute of the game that cost us.”
Specifically, Nolan was referring to forward Mikelis Redlihs, who overplayed the puck along the right wall in the offensive end in the closing seconds, only to lose it and see the Swiss go the other way and score on a deflection off a Latvian defenseman.
“If we had just thrown the puck in deep, we might have killed the last nine seconds,” Nolan said. “It was our mistake, and our mistake turned into a good play by Switzerland, and they scored.”
Latvia was outshot, 39-21, but stayed in the game with some sturdy defensive play and the brilliant goaltending of Masalskis, who stopped 38 shots – in every way imaginable.
His counterpart in goal, Jonas Hiller, didn’t have to make nearly as many acrobatic stops. But Hiller, who is 25-9-4 for Anaheim this season, was perfect against a rather limited Latvian attack.
Girgensons, who was slow to get his legs after the long plane ride to Russia, had the best chance on Hiller with 8:15 left in regulation, skating down the left side of the 100-foot-wide ice and sliding a gorgeous back-hand pass to Ronalds Kenins. But Kenins hit the post.
“I didn’t really have a chance to shoot,” Girgensons said. “I knew Hiller plays opposite side and his glove was short side, so I cannot tuck it in there. So I just took my chance and slid it through to Kenins. It was a great try, but he just didn’t finish.”
Girgensons played 14:33 in his first game, averaging 37 seconds a shift. Nolan said he wanted to keep the shifts short after the trip. Girgensons admitted it took a little adjusting.
“The first period was pretty tough,” he said. “My legs were pretty bad. In the second period, I got hit from behind at the end. So it was tough. But in the third period, I felt way better.”
He was dismayed after the stunning finish, knowing how close the Latvians had come to reaching overtime, where they could have registered a huge opening win – or at least picked up a point in the Olympic standings for losing in overtime or a shootout.
“Brutal!” said Girgensons, who turned 20 last month. “It’s a tough one to swallow. Seven seconds was really bad. It went off our ‘D’ man, which makes it worse. It’s not like they really put the puck in.”
Still, it was a proud moment for Girgensons. His mother and father were in the packed stands at Shayba, along with his sister and grandfather. Not to mention dozens of rabid Latvian hockey fans.
“I really feel proud of that,” he said. “I take pride in playing for my national team. I could have played better. It wasn’t like I was on top of my game. But everybody could have chipped in a little bit more. If we had a few more chances, we could have pulled out the win.”
Girgensons feels they have more in them. So does Nolan, who is also experiencing the Olympics for the first time and would not let one loss, however difficult, ruin his dream of taking part in the Games.
“I’m having a ball,” Nolan said. “The guys were all excited to play. I’ve been here,” coaching Latvia, “for three years and this is the most enthusiastic I’ve seen the group of guys compete. They’re having fun, and it’s only beginning.”
That’s the message Nolan delivered after the loss. It was painful, yes, but it’s only one game. Their chances of finishing in the top four (out of 12 teams) and going directly to the quarterfinals are slim. But no one gets eliminated in the preliminaries. Every team gets at least to the qualifications, where a win moves you to the quarterfinals. Latvia has never gotten that far. In Vancouver, they went 0-3 in the preliminaries by a combined score of 19-4. But they took the Czechs to overtime before losing in the qualifications. So when someone told Nolan his players must be down after the loss, he became animated.
“No,” he said. “I told them, ‘Get your head up. This is not a one-and-you’re done. You have to be good at the right time. Everybody gets a fourth game. So it doesn’t matter what you do in the first three. If you win that fourth game, you never know.’ ”