Latvia's goalie redeems a wretched season
The performance of Edgars Masalskis between the pipes for Latvia in Wednesday’s opener against Switzerland would have been eye-catching under any circumstances. But coming off a fairly calamitous season for the 33-year-old goalie, his dazzling display appears almost miraculous.
Masalskis performed heroically to keep the Swiss at bay – sometimes almost single-handedly – until just eight seconds from the end before he was finally beaten by the cruelest of deflections.
Despite the slender 1-0 defeat, his 38 saves ensured that he left the field to a tremendous ovation for both sets of fans in the Shayba Arena in Sochi.
He also won big praise from head coach Ted Nolan, who put his faith in the experienced stopper ahead of highly-rated youngster Kristers Gudlevskis from Syracuse Crunch.
“He made some really good saves at the right times,” the coach said. “I thought Switzerland had some prime opportunities to score and he came up really big.”
That kind of performance, when a goalie suddenly turns up big for the key games, is not so unusual – but rarely has it come from so little preparation.
Indeed, Nolan was swayed in Masalskis’ favour principally because of Gudlevskis’ long flight over from the U.S., saying prior to the start of the tournament that he anticipated using both goalies and might call on the youngster for game two or three.
Masalskis himself prefers not to focus on his lack of game time this season, just as he has little interest in feeling sorry for himself after Latvia’s heart-breaking defeat against the Swiss.
His sole post-game comment about his limited preparations was restricted to a few words about the warmth of a packed arena, while he is firmly focused on recovering from that defeat before Friday’s encounter with the Czechs.
"It's all in the head,” he said after training on Thursday. “The Olympics are a really short tournament and every game is so important. We need to go out and try and do our best. We know we are capable of having a good tournament here and playing with the best in the world. We know that as a group, we can do big things."
So how did an experienced goaltender, with three previous Olympic campaigns and several KHL seasons on his CV, end up apparently unwanted?
It started with minor injuries at the end of his three-year deal with KHL team Yugra Khanty-Mansisk. That, and a related dip in form, meant no extension was on offer in Siberia despite posting respectable numbers with a struggling team. Other KHL offers were mooted, but didn’t come to fruition, and when the season started, Masalskis had no club. Then, having been called up for Latvia’s Olympic party, he signed a short-term deal with HK Poprad in Slovakia, playing five games before joining the pre-tournament preparations in Riga.
In the autumn the goalie’s only game time came in couple of exhibition games against Russia B at the start of November, something which was initially hard to adapt to after so long out of action.
“The first period was daunting because I hadn’t played for so long,” he said after the first of those two games. “The sensation of being in a game was almost totally gone and it took some time to get used to being out there again.”
His performance in a 4-1 win suggested that the enforced lack of action wasn’t having too much of an impact on his abilities, but disaster struck in the second game. A heavy collision in the third period left Masalskis concussed and suffering from a broken jaw.
That further slowed his search for game action, leaving him to focus on following the training regime drawn up for him by Latvian legend Arturs Irbe until the Poprad deal was done.
A successful stint in Slovakia has won Masalskis a new set of fans – now a strong Olympics might secure a more permanent position, and a possible KHL return.
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