U.S. has rough start in tie with Latvia


TURIN, Italy -- Just as the U.S. men's hockey team hit the figurative wall of fatigue yesterday, Latvian goaltender Arturs Irbe began to play, as he said during his prime with the NHL's San Jose and Carolina teams, "like wall."

Irbe made 39 saves and Mighty Ducks defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh had two assists in his first game since being released from a substance-abuse program as Latvia, which has only two current NHL players, pressured a hurriedly assembled U.S. team on the first day of the tournament.

A fluke goal by Jordan Leopold that struck Irbe's stick and flew over his back gave the United States a 3-3 tie that deflated the Americans, but inspired the Latvians to raise their sticks in triumph.

"When you look at paper, we don't have much expectations," said Ozolinsh, who suffered a knee injury on Nov. 27 and, on Dec. 29, entered the substance-abuse and behavioral-health program operated by the NHL and its players association. He was cleared to play by the program's doctors and arrived in Turin on Tuesday, five days after his countrymen.

The U.S. team, which had only one day's practice after a weather-delayed arrival, had some strong moments early in the game, but faded in the second period and exposed goaltender John Grahame to an unconscionable number of two-on-ones and three-on-twos.

Los Angeles Kings center Craig Conroy, who scored the second U.S. goal and won the faceoff that led to Leopold's tying goal 2:01 into the third period, said the result was no reason to panic.

The Latvians, Conroy said, "have offense and they have skill. We can't worry too much about this. I feel this team can win anytime. ... We just got away from our game plan and missed some assignments."

Brian Gionta of the New Jersey Devils scored the first U.S. goal, from the high slot, at 9:44 of the first period. Conroy extended the lead to 2-0 at 10:38 when he faked two defenders for a quick shot that went in off the shaft of Irbe's stick.

Latvia cut the U.S. lead to 2-1 at 13:15 when Aleksandrs Nizivijs lifted the rebound of a shot by Ozolinsh over a fallen Grahame. Atvars Tribuncovs tied the score at 15:04. Forty seconds later, Herberts Vasiljevs beat Grahame with a high shot for a 3-2 edge, sending most of the crowd of 7,851 into a loud and joyful frenzy.

Helene Elliott writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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