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Canada hopes avoiding upset against Latvia provides Olympic lesson

Canada's Shea Weber celebrates his goal against Latvia during third period quarter-final hockey action at the Sochi Winter Olympics Wednesday, February 19, 2014 in Sochi. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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Canada's Shea Weber celebrates his goal against Latvia during third period quarter-final hockey action at the Sochi Winter Olympics Wednesday, February 19, 2014 in Sochi. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

SOCHI, Russia - As Kristers Gudlevskis turned aside shot after shot, Sidney Crosby and his teammates wondered what it would take to beat the Latvian goaltender.

"Besides picking the puck up and throwing it in the net, what could you tell someone to do in those situations?" Crosby said.

Team Canada didn't quite have to resort to that, surviving a historic upset bid by Latvia with a 2-1 win in the quarter-finals of the Olympic hockey tournament on the strength of a late power-play goal by Shea Weber.

Despite Gudlevskis making 55 saves on 57 shots, coach Mike Babcock didn't sense any uneasiness on his bench. It's his hope that being in a tight, frustrating game will help Canada as it advances to face the rival Americans in the semifinals Friday.

"We just thought if we kept doing it, we'd get our chances, we'd get a break, we'd score a goal," Babcock said. "Did I want to win 7-1? Absolutely. Do I think it's better for my team that we won the way we did? For sure."

The next one looks tougher on paper than any of Canada's first four games in Sochi. At first glance, a matchup between the undefeated third seed and 11th-seeded Latvia didn't seem like it would be a significant test for the tournament favourites.

Canada, Babcock insisted, did not take Latvia lightly. Watching coach Ted Nolan's group eliminate Switzerland should have been enough of a wake-up call not to think it was going to be a walkover.

Still, it was hard to expect this. After Patrick Sharp gave Canada a lead at the 13:37 mark of the first period, it looked like Gudlevskis wouldn't get beat again and the frustration crept in.

"It can get to you, I think, a little bit," winger Patrick Marleau said. "But you just got to keep persisting and think that next one's going to go in."

It didn't help that most of the game happened with a tie score after Lauris Darzins got a breakaway and beat Carey Price two minutes after Sharp's goal. And it didn't help that Canada played almost two full periods without forward John Tavares, who was hit by defenceman Arturs Kulda and is out for the rest of the tournament with a knee injury.

A controversial no-goal call in the third period that could have led to a Canadian penalty shot only added to the drama.

All the while, Canada had Gudlevskis and the Latvians under siege but couldn't find a way to break through. It's one thing to squeeze the sticks a little too tight, but another one altogether to have a goaltender looking like a brick wall.

"Coming into this tournament we talked about facing adversity," defenceman Duncan Keith said. "There was a little bit there throughout this game. We didn't want to get frustrated with the score being tied."

Babcock said all anyone has to do to see his team's quality chances is "watch the highlights for six seconds." It would take much more than six seconds to document Crosby's near-goal early, Chris Kunitz's shot off the post and a bevy of memorable saves by the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect who has spent time this season in the AHL and ECHL.

Told he scared the entire country of Canada on Wednesday night, Gudlevskis said: "I hope so." Asked what he'd say to Team Canada executive director and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, the 21-year-old responded: "You're lucky."

In Nolan's eyes, Canada was lucky to get the opportunity to tie the score at the 13:06 mark of the third period after a slashing penalty was called on Georgijis Pujacs. But Babcock saw it more as the following-through on a game plan.

"We just thought we were going to win," he said. "We just talked about being patient and staying the course, not getting in a hurry, not forcing anything. If we did that we thought we'd be fine, and in the end we were."

That was one lesson Canada gleaned from this scare and almost joining the 2002 Swedish team that lost to Belarus in Salt Lake City in an infamous chapter of the Olympic history books: Winning matters more at this stage than how it happens.

Of course there could be a benefit in needing to go shift-for-shift against a team playing with nothing to lose. That kind of desperation is impossible to manufacture or prepare for in practice.

"No pressure for us," Kulda said. "We came out to play, and it's just a game. Everything is possible. All of them have two legs and two hands. They're players just like us."

Undoubtedly as Canadian fans watched back home, Crosby figured many spent time screaming at their television screens. This was Latvia, after all, a country Nolan estimated had fewer rinks than his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

On the rink at Bolshoy Ice Dome, there was a different challenge.

"I think it's just the ultimate test of your patience when you're getting chances like that," Crosby said. "You need to find a way to score."

Canada's 13 forwards entered the night having scored a combined 309 goals in the NHL this season and only five through the first three games at the Olympics. One of the biggest questions going in was how this star-studded team would overcome some immense pressure to score not 300 goals but the one important one it needed.

"We got a lot of guys that can score," said centre Jonathan Toews, who could've had at least a penalty shot in the third if not for officials missing Kristaps Sotnieks covering the puck in the crease. "Now it's just a matter of every guy looking at himself and digging deep and trying to come up with a big moment. We don't care who it is.

"If everyone jumps over the boards expecting to have a chance to make a difference, that's what we want. They'll go in for us. We have to believe that."

That's Canada's collective mindset going into Friday's showdown with the United States, which has outscored opponents by 14 goals in its first four games.

"We play a U.S. team that seems to score real easy," Babcock said. "We haven't scored real easy."

It's possible facing Gudlevskis and a Latvian team playing with house money gets Canada loose when the puck drops at 9 p.m. local time Friday and all of North America watching. Or it's possible that Jonathan Quick has the same effect, and the rematch of the 2010 gold-medal game has the opposite outcome.

"This is a one-game tournament and it usually comes down to a one-goal game," U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said after his team beat the Czech Republic 5-2 at Shayba Arena to move on.

It was more difficult than that for Canada against Latvia, but players hope that's a good thing.

"It's always good to face adversity," said Price, who only had to make 15 saves. "It brings your character forth. These are the types of games you live for."

More likely the games to live for are still to come. Before Canada and the U.S. meet for one spot in the gold-medal game, Sweden and Finland — which shocked host Russia on Wednesday — face off for the other one.

But Canada can't afford to look ahead to that. Instead, Babcock can use film from a near-catastrophic loss to Latvia to show his players just how close they are to breaking out and scoring goals like the Americans have.

"We feel we have quality players who have gotten quality opportunities, real good looks, and we haven't scored," Babcock said. "It's my experience over time with playoff-type hockey — this stuff happens, in the end, though, you can't usually keep the skilled guys who score and are determined and are determined down. I'm optimistic to say the least."

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