It was an Olympic shocker on Tuesday as Latvia put forth yet another stunning Sochi performance, defeating Switzerland 3-1 en route to a quarterfinals berth and a date with reigning gold medalist Canada.
It wasn't the first time Latvia has surprised a supposedly superior opponent in this tournament, pushing Sweden to the limit in the preliminary round in a close game that could have gone their way if not for Sweden's red hot powerplay and some sketchy officiating.
Led by captain and former star NHLer Sandis Ozolinsh, the Latvians played a hard-nosed game that had the Swiss on their heels early, countering their stifling neutral zone trap with a physical presence that Switzerland couldn't match. Head coach Ted Nolan has the Latvians all on the same page, dedicated to executing his system, and it shows.
Switzerland's main strengths as a hockey nation are a very strong goaltender in Jonas Hiller, and a relatively deep defensive core full of NHLers, so it makes sense that they play trap hockey and clog up the slot in their own zone in order to eke out wins, but that's a strategy that only works if you don't give up the first goal, which is exactly what happened against Latvia.
Behind by a goal put the Swiss in unfamiliar territory, and with only two goals scored in the preliminary round over three games, it was too steep of a hill to climb for the offensively challenged group. Being forced to open things up led to the Swiss getting caught on plays, and after Morris Trachsler took a penalty for tripping, Latvia doubled their lead on a nice pass from Mikelis Redlihs to Lauris Darzins, who sniped a goal over Jonas Hiller's glove from a sharp angle.
Switzerland got one goal back, with Martin Pluss putting a one-timer from the slot through Edgars Masalskis, but it wasn't enough. With the goalie pulled, Lauris Darzins struck again with a long bomb empty netter, sealing the game, and a quarterfinal matchup with Canada for Latvia.
It was a disappointing finish to the Olympics for Switzerland, who excelled in the last Olympics held in Europe, upsetting Canada with a 2-0 victory in Torino. It's possible that Switzerland, like almost everyone, underestimated Latvia and was looking past them to a matchup with Team Canada, but you can't take anything away from the Latvians, who stuck to their game plan and executed well the entire tournament.
Latvia is back in action on Wednesday, February 19th against Canada at noon.