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Sochi awaits, Latvians are coming

Sochi awaits, Latvians are coming

The final day of competition at the Sochi Olympic qualifying tournament in Sochi produced a thrilling conclusion before Latvia booked it’s place at the 2014 Winter Games – despite an overtime loss to a plucky French team in Riga.

Kazakhstan went onto the ice against Great Britain knowing that only a convincing victory would give it a chance of returning to the Olympics after missing out in Vancouver. Two goals in the first three minutes, through Roman Starchenko and Konstantin Romanov, set the tone, and the Kazakhs rode out a 6-0 win. That left GB without a point in the tournament, while Konstantin Pushkarov was left to tell reporters how the team would now hope for a favor from France in the evening game with Latvia.

The equation was complicated: a French victory by two goals, or by a single-goal margin in a game finishing 5-4 or higher, would see Les Bleus give their rivals the blues. A narrow French success, meanwhile, would put Kazakhstan in pole position thanks to that crushing win over the Brits. Latvia’s task was easier to understand: get to overtime, or better, and book that Sochi flight.

It was a packed house for the evening game, and confidence was high among the 10,000 fans thronging Arena Riga. Yet it took less than three minutes for France to tear up the script. Arvids Rekins was sin-binned, and on the powerplay Damien Fleury was given space on the left to advance towards the face-off spot and fire across Edgars Maskalskis into the net. Advantage France on the night; advantage Kazakhstan on the tournament table.

Ten minutes later, and a second French powerplay stretched Latvia once more. This time the home side had a full complement back on the ice by the time a Julien Desrosiers shot was charged down, but the puck broke for captain Laurent Meunier on the second slot and his one-timer fizzed past Maskalskis. Now both Latvia and Kazakhstan were facing Madame Guillotine.

Home hopes were rekindled by a magnificent goal from Laurins Darzins late in the second session, surging from one end zone to the other and deking his defenseman in the circle before letting rip with an unstoppable shot past Cristobal Huet. Coach Ted Nolan described it as “an NHL goal” in the post-game conference, and it changed the pattern of the game. Twelve seconds after the interval Darzins was involved again, with another surging run before he dropped the puck in the slot for Martins Karsums to lift it upstairs. 2-2, and Latvia’s fate was in its own hands.

There were anxious moments to come at both ends, with France desperate to regain the initiative, but Julien Desrosiers rattled the goalframe on 57:10 as the best chance was missed. That forced overtime, with Latvia knowing its place was secure – but amid chants of ‘Sochi! Sochi!’ the French showed courage to grab a morale-boosting game-winner through Pierre Eduard Bellemare with 20 seconds left.

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