SOCHI, Russia – Shea Weber’s shot left his stick, and by the time it hit the net, Canada was able to exhale.
For much of the night, Team Canada forced everyone to hold their collective breath while goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis and Latvia played with house money in the men’s Olympic hockey quarter-final.
Weber’s third-period goal was enough to break the tie and help the Canadians escape with a 2-1 victory at Bolshoy Ice Dome on Wednesday.
The win gave Canada a spot in semifinals, where it will meet the rival Americans for a berth in the gold-medal game. The United States beat the Czech Republic 5-2 at Shayba Arena to move on.
Nerves from the Canadian contingent were palpable throughout the game against Latvia, from the time Lauris Darzins scored in the first period to tie the score until Weber reclaimed the lead with a blast from the point on the power play at 13:06 of the third. Had 11th-seeded Latvia beaten third-seeded Canada, it would have arguably been one of the biggest upsets in the history of Olympic hockey.
Instead, Canada was able to survive an unexpected test against a gritty group coached by Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native Ted Nolan. Latvia was outshot 57-16 overall but managed to hang in the game thanks to 55 saves from Gudlevskis, a prospect in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization.
“It can get to you,” Canadian forward Patrick Marleau said Canada’s struggles to beat Gudlevskis.
Patrick Sharp scored Canada’s first goal in the first period, and goalie Carey Price made 15 saves. But it was Weber’s goal through a screen after a give-and-go at the points with Drew Doughty with three seconds left on a power play that made the difference.
With puck drop coming just two hours after host Russia’s tournament ended with a stunning 3-1 loss to Finland, the atmosphere inside Bolshoy was, as Pavel Datsyuk described his emotions, “empty.” Previously the home fans filled the arena, chanted “Roos-ee-ah” and at least revelled in rooting against Canada.
This time they were more subdued, save for joining in with some “Lat-vee-ah” chants started by a group wearing bright orange. Gudlevskis gave them a chance to cheer with a big save on Jamie Benn two minutes in, and Chris Kunitz a chance to gasp as he hit the crossbar seconds after Sidney Crosby almost scored.
But Canadian fans got the first chance to celebrate when the fourth line opened the scoring 13:37 in. Rick Nash collected the puck in front of the net, skated behind it just long enough for John Tavares to set a screen and fed Sharp, who hit the open hole perfectly to make it 1-0.
Not long after, a set neutral-zone play by Latvia led to a breakaway on Price and a tie score. Defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh stepped off the ice and Darzins, a forward who impressed with a pretty toe drag earlier, stepped on just in time for Winnipeg Jets property Arturs Kulda to spring him for a pass.
Canadian defencemen Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo got beat clean, and Darzins scored on a back-hander over Price’s right pad at 15:41.
That was enough to fire up many Russian fans to make this much more like a hostile, road game for Canada. On the ice it felt similar, as Ted Nolan’s group made the Canadians work for quality scoring chances despite a huge shot discrepancy.
Early in the second period it wasn’t a shot but a hit that made a huge difference for Canada and the New York Islanders. Kulda hit Tavares hard, and the fourth-line centre went down in a heap in the corner.
Tavares was able to skate off under his own power and remained on the bench briefly before going down the tunnel. It was not immediately clear what the injury was.
Without Tavares, coach Mike Babcock was forced to shuffle his lines, putting 13th forward Martin St. Louis on right wing with Kunitz and Crosby and sliding Bergeron down to centre the fourth line between Sharp and Nash.
Canada continued the siege on Gudlevskis throughout the second period, outshooting Latvia 15-2. But it could not break through.
It looked like that run was over 8:27 into the third, but a controversial call kept it 1-1. Jonathan Toews and Marleau got the puck to the goal-line and almost over, but Latvia defenceman Kristaps Sotnieks gloved it to keep it out.
The ruling was that the puck did not fully cross the line, and Canada did not get a penalty shot because that cannot be awarded on review.
NOTES—Forward Matt Duchene and defenceman P.K. Subban were Canada’s healthy scratches vs. Latvia. Babcock said Subban, who appeared in only one of four games, has been “excellent” about handling his role. Duchene tweeted a “best of luck” message to his teammates Wednesday afternoon. … Former Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators forward Kaspars Daugavins was scratched for Latvia because of an illness. … The attendance was announced as 9,852.