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World Junior hockey 2013: Underdog Latvia hopes to surprise

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Latvia's a tiny Eastern European nation that only competes internationally in hockey because they are absolutely bonkers about the sport. Here's a look at some of the most passionate young hockey players in the world.

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How can a developing nation of 2.2 million consistently play among the top nations in the world in a 20-man team sport?

Latvia's continual inclusion in this tournament is an amazing accomplishment unto itself, and a testament to the passion the nation has toward the sport. Their fans are world famous at international events, and hopefully a few of them show up in Ufa, although the World Juniors hasn't seen too many Latvian fans other than a small subset of North American fans who take them up as their underdog choice.

Latvia's main concern at this tournament will be Germany, who is the likely opponent for the team to avoid relegation to Division 1A, but they have the potential to put a scare in Switzerland. Just a couple years ago in Saskatoon, Latvia and Switzerland played an entertaining match that ended 7-5 for the Swiss, with Latvia holding the lead after two periods. Switzerland then went on to the semifinals and finished fourth, while Latvia was relegated. They aren't an automatic to finish in 5th in Group A, that's for sure, and this year's team has some nice talent on it.

Unfortunately, the crown jewel of Latvia's U20 core, Buffalo Sabres first rounder Zemgus Girgensons, was not granted release from his AHL club to participate in an absolutely ridiculous decision that should be panned by everyone (as with the Senators failing to release Swedish star Mika Zibanejad from his AHL club).

Depth Chart - Forwards
Left Wing Centre Right Wing
Nikita Jevpavlovs* Teodors Blugers* Arturs Kuzmenkovs*
Rihards Bukarts Roberts Lipsbergs* Nikolajs Jelisejevs
Karlis Ozolins Arturs Sevcenko Toms Andersons*
Edgars Kulda Andris Siksnis Edgars Kurmis
Lauris Rancevs

Girgensons is busy making the very tough, and unprecedented, jump from the USHL to the AHL this year at age 18 and it isn't going all that well, with only one goal and five points through 21 games, so it's hard to see how Buffalo/Rochester are justifying this decision.

Latvia actually has some decent talent up front, with Minnesota State star freshman Teodors Blugers leading the way and Roberts Lipsbergs, a top WHL rookie for the Seattle Thunderbirds, following up. These are two legitimate professional prospects, and the good news for Latvian fans is that another top talent is making an appearance.

Rihards Bukarts, younger brother of former WJC captain and current national team member Roberts Bukarts, will turn 17 on New Year's Eve and is already the leading scorer on his MHL team (the MHL is an U22 league). He projects as another potential high draft pick for the 2014 NHL Draft, following in the footsteps of Girgensons and Blugers (Blugers was picked 52nd overall by the Penguins in 2012).

For more on Blugers, read this feature done on him by Western College Hockey Blog. Note the difference between his spelling in the IIHF and the NCAA (where he is known as Teddy Blueger).

Key Player: It's easy to highlight Blugers or Lipsbergs, but Arturs Kuzmenkovs could be the real key for Latvia to avoid 10th place and maybe make a run for a quarterfinal berth. Kuzmenkovs is a point per game player in Belarus' top league, and has netted 16 points in nine international friendly matches so far this year for the Latvian U20 team. He's far and away the team's most dangerous winger.

Depth Chart - Defense
Left Defense Right Defense
Pauls Zvirbulis* Edgars Siksna*
Kriss Lipsbergs* Kristaps Nimanis*
Rinalds Rosinskis Patriks Skuratovs
Edmunds Augstkalns

Four returning players from last year's team is a nice place to start, and all of Latvia's players have played in a top-level IIHF junior tournament previously, whether the championship level at the U20s or U18s.

Zvirbulis, Siksna, and Nimanis are considered the team's big horses, although none of them play in a major professional league (Siksna plays in the Belarussian league and Nimanis plays in the Finnish 3rd league). The 6'5 Rinalds Rosinskis is currently a depth defensemen for the WHL's Prince George Cougars, and would be the most familiar name to North Americans as a result.

Key Player: Edgars Siksna looks like he'll be the go to guy on the blueline, playing in every situation and quarterbacking the team's PP unit. He's put up respectable offensive numbers in every league he's played in, and also leads his professional club in +/-, for whatever that's worth.

Elvis Merzlikins*
Rihards Cimermanis
Ivars Punnenovs

There's very little information on the Latvian goaltenders. Merzlikins tried valiantly in a lone appearance against the Russians last year, but after a good start he was lit up horrifically and now bears a statline of a .720 SV% and 14.00 GAA thanks to that appearance. His starting in that tournament was viewed as an opportunity to give their actual starter a reprieve in what was viewed as an unwinnable game.

Since he was actually at last year's tournament, I'm giving him the starting honors for this year, with 19-year-old Cimermanis as the likely backup. Both Merzlikins and Punnenovs play junior hockey in Switzerland, while Cimermanis is the only guy trained locally.

Tournament Outlook

To be honest, if Girgensons had been included here, I think Latvia's chances to create an upset in round robin play against a Switzerland or maybe scrape a point from the Czech Republic might actually stand a chance, but for now it'll take a superb goaltending effort to manage even a single point in round robin play.

I do think this team has the capability to beat either Germany or Slovakia, however, and that should be the team's goal. It's almost a 95 percent certainty that the team will end up in the relegation round, but this is a fairly deep Latvian team and avoiding relegation would hardly be shocking.