SOCHI, Russia — Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller made 21 saves Wednesday as Switzerland opened the Sochi Olympic hockey tournament with a 1-0 victory over gritty Latvia, but he wasn’t even the best goalie on the ice at Shayba Arena.
Latvia’s Edgars Masalskis, who plays professionally in Slovakia, was outstanding in making 38 saves and was beaten only because of a defensive breakdown by his teammates and an unfortunate deflection with 7.9 seconds left in the third period.
Latvia had the puck but failed to get it in deep, a mistake that proved costly when Switzerland regained possession. Simon Moser’s centering pass, intended for Nino Niederreiter, instead struck Latvian defenseman Georgijs Pujacs and caromed into the net.
Hiller had a great view of Masalskis’ performance and had nothing but praise.
“He played really well,” said Hiller, who celebrated his 32nd birthday by playing for Switzerland’s national team for the first time in four years and recording his first Olympic shutout.
“I have been a lot of times at the other end where the other team is dominating. You feel good about yourself and it seems like pucks don’t want to go in. We got that little bounce there at the end but those things always happen when you work hard.”
Both teams played well in front of a lively crowd of 5,116. The game proved to be closer and a more even matchup than might have been expected by simply looking at each team’s lineup.
Latvia had only one NHL player in its lineup — forward Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres — and is coached by Ted Nolan, who coaches the Sabres. Its captain is 41-year-old Sandis Ozolinsh, a seven-time NHL all-star who won the Stanley Cup with Colorado in 1996 and counts the Ducks among his NHL stops.
Switzerland had several NHL players besides Hiller, including defensemen Mark Streit of the Philadelphia Flyers, Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber of the Vancouver Canucks, and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Among the forwards, Niederreiter plays for the Minnesota Wild and Damien Brunner for the New Jersey Devils.
With a higher skill level, Switzerland’s players could easily have become more frustrated the longer the game was scoreless. But they kept their cool and kept creating chances.
“We stayed positive on the bench,” Brunner said. “Even when it was close in the end. [Moser’s] great effort on the boards. Took some hard strides to get some room in between him and the defenseman and then he was a little lucky, but, you know, if the pass comes through, Nino buries it anyway.”
Switzerland has had some impressive international results over the last few years, including a second-place finish at last year’s World Championships. Expectations are higher for the Swiss in these Games than ever before, but Hiller said the team is prepared.
“With success comes also the expectations,” he said. “I think everybody expected us to win tonight. At the same time, I think we’re at the Olympics and all the teams here are good hockey teams and if you play not at your best there’s always the chance that you’ll lose….
“Everyone here wants to be successful and is not happy just to be here. And you can definitely feel that in the dressing room.”