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NHL Premiere Series Closes in Riga as Coyotes come to town

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The NHL vs. Europe series has been a bit one sided overall to date, but we should see a competitive match today in the final game.  Yesterday, the Columbus Blue Jackets defeated Swedish second tier club Malmö Redhawks 4-1.  The Redhawks didn't play their top scorer or top goaltender, while the Jackets played from their final roster, so the result wasn't too surprising.  Head over to SBN's Blue Jackets' blog, The Cannon, for a recap.  Meanwhile, in Liberec, Czech Republic, the Boston Bruins ran away with a 7-1 victory over the Bílí Tygri (White Tigers), thanks to a 2 goal, 3 assist performance from Patrice Bergeron.  I suppose when the only player he has to line up head to head against is an aging Petr Nedved, the offensive part of Bergeron's game can come through big time.  Stanley Cup of Chowder has a brief recap of the untelevised game here, while the Bruins official website has more.  The Blue Jackets will open their season Friday and Saturday with two games against the San Jose Sharks at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden.  The Bruins will remain in the Czech Republic, playing at the O2 Arena in Prague against the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday and Sunday.  The other European NHL Premiere will take place in Helsinki, Finland, where the Carolina Hurricanes will take on the Minnesota Wild on Thursday and Friday at the Hartwall Arena. 

Dinamo Riga (KHL) vs. Phoenix Coyotes, Oct. 6, 12:00 PM EST

The NHL finally comes to the independent nation of Latvia today, having twice before visiting Riga when they were still under the occupation of the USSR.  Dinamo Riga has played NHL teams nine times, winning only twice and getting a respectable tie against the Calgary Flames during their Stanley Cup winning season.  The names of the goal scorers from those games were decidedly Russian, however, and today's team stands in stark contrast to the pre-1991 reality (IIHF Hall of Fame goaltender Arturs Irbe was part of those teams as well).  While the local team may have been stacked with Russians before, Latvians have taken great pride in their hockey, and largely due to the definition of "import" players for a Latvian team in the KHL, they finally employed their first Russian this season, a young 21 year old forward named Vitaly Karmanov.  You will see a lot of surnames ending in 's' on the ice today for Dinamo, as the team employs a lot of the same players as appear on the Latvian national team.

The Phoenix Coyotes, meanwhile, are coming off a very strong season and an interesting offseason which saw them remain very active in changing their roster from last year's trade deadline through free agency.  Former 3rd overall pick Kyle Turris looks to have finally made the team, while top Swedish prospect Oliver-Ekman Larsson is still hanging around with the team.  The only Coyote player currently on their roster that would have experience playing in the Arena Riga is rookie defenseman Maxim Goncharov, currently in a battle for one of the final spots on the team.  The other Russian, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, played in the Russian Super League before Riga was affiliated with Russia's top league, and none of the players were part of their national squads when Riga hosted the IIHF World Championships in 2006 (not even Captain Canada, Shane Doan).  Coyotes assistant coach Dave King, who has one of the most impressive resumés in the hockey coaching world, is the man the Coyotes will turn to for preperation for the Latvian crowd:

"I think Riga might be the most difficult place to play because the fans are relentless, the noise in the building is just amazing," King told "I think they are the most passionate hockey fans in the world. That says a lot because there are a lot of passionate fans here in Czech as well.

"The building will be noisy, almost uncontrollable. It will be a huge game for them because Riga is their team in Latvia, so it is Latvia against the NHL."

Riga is currently led by captain and top defenseman Sandis Ozolins, who starred in the NHL from 1992-2008.  He has 12 points through the team's first 12 games.  Up front, veteran Latvian national team winger Aleksandrs Nizivijs is off to a surprisingly hot start with six goals and 14 points, while two time Stanley Cup champion (you can look this up, it's true) Mark Hartigan is the team's top centre.  Former NHLers Tomas Surovy and Martins Karsums also are employed as top line players, while young imports Juraj Mikus and Brock Trotter offer scoring depth, along with other Latvian national team players like Janis Sprukts and Birts Ankipans.  The team's youngest player was Latvia's U20 WJC captain last year, Roberts Bukarts (a personal favourite of mine).  After Ozolins, the team's defense drops off considerably.  Oskars Cibulskis is a quality KHL blueliner, and he plays a lot as Ozolins' partner, but it's a considerable decline after that.  In goal, an all import tandem of Chris Holt and Mikael Tellqvist get the starts. 

Riga is currently in 7th place in the Western Conference of the KHL, although they are only two points out of third.  They pulled off a big upset last year in the playoffs, beating the vaunted SKA St. Petersburg in the first round, but were knocked out by eventual finalists MVD.  They have qualified for the playoffs in both years they have competed in the KHL. You can watch the game for free on's GameCenter.

Five For Howling, SBN's Phoenix Coyotes blog, will have a Game Day Thread set up.

Speaking of GameCenter, Puck Worlds has been given an account with access to NHL game highlights/video that can be posted on the site.  Although I leave a lot of the heavy lifting for the NHL to, well, every other hockey blog on SBN save for Western College Hockey Blog, I will be doing some analysis of the NHL, just from a completely different perspective.  Our main focus will remain international competition and the European professional circuit, but we'll keep some tabs on the international stars in the NHL as the season goes along, as well as young players making an impact.  I'm actually planning on highlighting the first career NHL goals of every player who does that this season, so be sure to send me an email if someone has done so and I've missed it.