Tuesday, January 12, 2010
For some countries the goal is to win a gold medal at the Olympics. For others any sort of medal is the goal. For some surviving the group stage to reach the knockout round is an achievement in itself, while for another large group of hopefuls, just making it past the Qualifying Tournaments into the actual Olympics is the dream. This is the story of those teams and their route to the last Olympics.
Following three Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournaments of four teams each to decide that Norway, Poland and France would advance to the actual Final Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, play began to see which of three countries would advance to compete in the 2006 Olympic Tournament in Torino, Italy with the nine other countries automatically entered in the tournament based on their IIHF rankings.
Group A, played in Kloten, Switzerland, consisted of Denmark, Japan, Norway and Switzerland. The Swiss won their first game over Japan 5-1, while Norway defeated Denmark 4-0. This set up a critical game between Switzerland and Norway, which the Swiss won 3-1 to take command of the group and finalized their place in Torino by defeating Denmark 4-2 in front of the home crowd.
Group C was hard-fought, with France knocking off Ukraine 4-3 in a back and forth contest to open the group. Austria pasted Kazakhstan 4-0 to put themselves in a position to advance as well. The following day Kazakhstan put Ukraine in a deep hole with a 2-1 win to even their record at 1-1 while France and Austria skated to a 1-1 tie to leave them tied with 3 points in the group ahead of Kazakhstan with 2. Ukraine finished off host Austria's hopes with a 4-3 win, setting up a must-win game for Kazakhstan against France. Andrey Samokhvalov beat current NHLer Cristobal Huet at 17:57 of the first period to give the Kazakhs a 1-0 victory, earning them their place in Torino.
Group B held in Riga, Latvia saw Belarus gain two points in the standings by defeating Poland, while Latvia knocked off Slovenia 2-1. Belarus took care of Slovenia the next day 7-2 while Latvia kept pace by beating Poland 3-1, setting up the final winner-take-all game against Belarus on this date in 2005.
Belarus opened the scoring of the deciding game at 5:16 of the first and stretched their lead to two at 12:06 before Latvia answered at 18:33. The second period was played even, with each team scoring one with Belarus going back up by two at 1:49 before former Boston Bruin Grigori Panteleev scored 18 seconds later to return the margin to one in favor of Belarus.
Belarus put themselves in a good position with a goal at 9:11 of the third to make the score 4-2 for Belarus.
Now in desperation mode, Latvia pulled goalie Edgars Masalskis during a Latvian powerplay at the with just six minutes remaining in the game and down by two. The gamble paid off as Latvia scored at the 15:11 mark to reduce the margin again to one.
1:47 later the Latvians thrilled the home crowd by getting the equalizer at even strength, leaving just three minutes to decide who would claim the final remaining spot in the Olympics. Alexsandrs Semjonovs sent the home fans into rapture by finishing the comeback and punching Latvia's ticket to Italy just 33 seconds later to complete the three goal outburst in two minutes and twenty seconds in what would become known as "The Miracle in Riga", considered by some the greatest achievement in Latvian sports since they regained their independence in 1991.
Today's featured jersey is a Nike 1999 Latvia National Team Arturs Irbe jersey as worn in the World Championships. This older style has a v-neck collar, as opposed to the yoke-style collar introduced at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Irbe was chosen to be the flag-bearer in the opening ceremonies at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin and is a hero in his native Latvia. His performance in Latvia's opening game against the United States in Torino in 2006 was perhaps the last great moment of his career, coming after his final NHL game and his subsequent demotion all the way down to the ECHL in 2004.
In another one of those completely unexpected youtube finds, here is the comeback that would become known as "The Miracle in Riga".
At the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Latvia was placed in Group B with Slovakia, Russia, Sweden, the United States and fellow qualifier Kaszakhstan. Irbe played brilliantly and held the United States to a 3-3 tie in their opening game, but they were then defeated four straight times to finish last in their group. They finished the tournament classified 12th out of 12 teams, but nothing could erase the excitement of "The Miracle in Riga" and no one, and we mean no one, has a better time at the games than the fans from Latvia.
Once more Latvia survived the Final Olympic Qualification to earn a spot in Vancouver by defeating Ukraine, Italy and Hungary, so if you are looking for an underdog to support in the upcoming Olympics, get on the Latvian bandwagon. Win or lose, it's always a fun ride.