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An eye-opener

Americans must rebound quickly after Latvia letdown

Posted: Wednesday February 15, 2006 10:23PM; Updated: Thursday February 16, 2006 11:45AM
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John Grahame; Aleksanders Semjonovs
Aleksanders Semjonovs (center) and Latvia have just two NHL players and finished ninth in the 2002 Olympics.
David E. Klutho/SI
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TURIN, Italy -- The latch on Latvia's bench was stuck with two minutes to go. Game officials tried to pry the latch open but gave up after a few minutes. The game resumed, but even a broken door wasn't going to keep Latvia from busting through the Olympic opener with a 3-3 tie against the heavily favored U.S. hockey team at the Palasport rink.

"We're big-time underdogs in everybody's eyes," says Latvia's goaltender Arturs Irbe. "We can say this tie means more to us than the American team. It's only natural to look at it this way."

Naturally, the U.S. can only view the 3-3 tie as a loss. Considered the second-weakest team in the five-game round robin, Latvia finished ninth at the 2002 Games and has only two NHL players -- Colorado defenseman Karlis Skrastins and Anaheim defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who made his first appearance since Nov. 27 after being released from the league's substance abuse and behavorial program.

The U.S., meanwhile, earned a silver medal in Salt Lake City and boasts 12 members who have won a Stanley Cup. While several U.S. skaters complained that they had only one day to prepare before the tournament because of a jam-packed NHL travel schedule, head coach Peter Laviolette said that was no excuse. "Everybody in the National Hockey League is dealt the same hand," he says. "We needed to win tonight. There is more of an urgency now as the tournament moves on."

The U.S. has less than 24 hours to digest what went wrong against Latvia before facing Kazakhstan, and then a tougher schedule that begins with Slovakia, Sweden and Russia over a four-day period.

Laviolette, who coaches the Eastern Conference-leading Carolina Hurricanes, snapped his gum and crossed his arms as he watched the U.S. defense hit a wall in the second period. Latvia tied the game 2-2 on a power play goal when defenseman Atvars Tribuncovs shot the puck between the legs of U.S. goalie John Grahame. With a mass of Latvian fans dressed in maroon and white still cheering, Herberts Vasiljevs shot a goal over Grahame's shoulder 44 seconds later to take the lead for the first time. "In a three-minute span, there were four or five odd-man rushes," says American forward Craig Conroy. "It's a quick game, and there were some breakdowns. We won't let it happen again."

Defenseman Jordan Leopold scored a goal in the second minute of the third period, but the U.S. was unable to convert the other 18 shots past Irbe, who last played in the NHL for the Hurricanes in '02. Irbe, 39, currently plays for the Salzburg Red Bull in the Austria Hockey League. Says Irbe, "For our people, I think hockey and results like this give a hope that we can really be successful in any field."

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