Little Latvia, big noise

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 1:20 PM ET

INNSBRUCK, Austria -- It was another close encounter of the Latvian kind.

Arturs Irbe laughed at the NHL reporter who asked the question after the exceptional experience.

"I guess it's your first time at the world championships,'' said the Latvian goalie.

'THEY ARE THE BEST'

"It's always like this. They are the best. They always come - 6,000 to 7,000 of them. They always do this for our team.''

It's amazing how they came and almost managed to fire up their team - an outfit without a single NHLer in the lineup, other than Irbe for the final 24 minutes - to another moral victory.

This time they forced a talented Team Canada to panic. Canada needed four power-play goals to escape with a 6-4 win to open Eishockeyweltmeisterschaften 2005 at Olympiahalle Innsbruck yesterday.

"They almost sold out the whole arena,'' marvelled Rick Nash, who led Canada with three goals to save the day.

"It's not a surprise at all. We knew what was in store for us after winning 3-1 in Riga.''

Last year, in Prague, Canada escaped with a 2-0 win over the overmatched Latvians who get so fuelled by their fans.

"It was our first game and our guys were excited to play and maybe a little bit nervous,'' said coach Marc Habscheid.

"You'd think it would be a neutral building, but when you take the ice, it is full of almost nobody but Latvian fans. It was almost like a Latvian home game.''

EAR-SPLITTING

It was better atmosphere, with no need to flash the "noise'' sign on the scoreboard. It was ear-splitting from beginning to end. When Latvia is playing, the drums start banging downtown not long after sunrise and continue as they walk, always walk, to the arena, no matter what the distance.

It was a sight to see so many NHL reporters, here for the first time with no Stanley Cup playoffs to cover back home, having their eyes opened on their first world championship experience.

It wasn't just the scene. It was the game. It was much more entertaining and exciting hockey to watch than an NHL clutch-and-grab game.

"The hockey world is worried about not enough goals being scored, but there were lots tonight,'' said Habscheid.

Nash scored three and linemate Joe Thornton added another as Canada went 4-4 on the power play, the only place they managed to overpower the smaller squad from the Baltic.

"Going 4-for-4 on the power play was big for us tonight,'' said Habscheid, who also received goals from Patrick Marleau and Brendan Morrison.

"The power play is crucial in this tournament.''

The Latvian goals came on glaring giveaways by the Canadians.

"They created turnovers and then jumped on them and buried their chances. We got the win and we learned a few things we need to clean up in our game,'' said Habscheid.

The Nash-Thornton-Simon Gagne line isn't broke, so he won't try fix that.

"Obviously it's a great line. Rick had three goals, and the first two were highlight-reel goals. It takes a special player to do that. He's a gifted young man.''

Thornton shook his head at the first mention of Nash in the mixed zone.

"He's a pretty good player, eh? He's great in front of the net,'' said Thornton, who scored the go-ahead goal to put Canada ahead after their third- straight second-rate first period over here.

BEST SAVE OF NIGHT

Canada led 5-2 after the second period, the second Latvian goal being Martin Brodeur's best save of the night. But replays showed his glove was behind the goal-line.

"When they scored the third goal, nerves came in,'' said Thornton. "The Latvian fans made sure their team got back in the game.''

Nash seconded the motion.

"When it was 5-4, we were a little bit nervous. The fans helped them come back,'' said the native of Brampton, Ont., who converted a perfect pass from Thornton to complete the hat trick.

The goal also put it away to end a terrific third period, in which Brodeur was screened on two long shots to give up the goals which made it a game again.

"I let four of them in. I think that's why I got drug-tested after the game,'' joked Brodeur.

''Because they saw all four goals and said: 'Test him right away.' ''

Brodeur also said the Latvian fans made so much noise '' they gave me a headache.''

In the end, Nash and Brodeur knew it was those Latvian fans who stole the scene and won the day, even if Nash stole the show and won the hockey game.


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