Euphoria and realism
Euphoria and realism
Expectations high after historic Worlds silver
At least if you read the Swiss media, some things have changed compared to Vancouver 2010. Not only skiers, snowboarders, curlers or bobsledders are considered medal candidates. Now the hockey teams are suddenly mentioned too after last year’s silver in Stockholm and the women’s national team’s first-ever Worlds medal (bronze) in 2012.
If you ask the men’s team, though, not much seems to have changed after earning nine wins en route to that second-place finish. The team is starting from scratch. It’s a new tournament. History doesn’t count, but a new chapter can be written. And that’s exactly the modest attitude this Swiss team needs if it wants to surprise the hockey world again.
“The expectation is not different from my side. If people want to put more pressure on us they can go ahead,” says head coach Sean Simpson, who travelled to Sochi with his Switzerland-based players on Thursday after a three-day camp in Kloten.
“We know where we stand in the world and we know it’s going to be a tough tournament and a tough group. We know we must have the same attitude as last time, play our best, and then we’ll see what happens. If we reach the quarter-finals, that’s a big step.”
His veteran players also share this attitude.
“We already knew before the World Championship in Stockholm that we’re close to the top nations,” says Martin Pluss. “We have to do our job and beat Latvia in the first game to earn a good position for the final round. We also know that some top nations might not be totally ready in the beginning and will improve throughout the tournament. Therefore we have to improve our game too.”Continue reading
“Nothing has changed for us, but we know that it’s a best-on-best tournament here,” defenceman Mathias Seger says. “We have to take it step by step.”
Seger is Switzerland’s most veteran player. Since debuting in the 1998 IIHF World Championship on home ice in Zurich and Basel, the 36-year-old has played in 15 World Championships, missing just one tournament. Sochi 2014 will be his fourth Olympics.
The ZSC Lions Zurich player caused maybe the most surprise when the roster was named one month ago. Not because of his nomination, but because he was named captain, whereas many people expected the Philadelphia Flyers’ Mark Streit to wear the “C” as he always did whenever he was able to join the team in the past. This time, Seger will keep the role he filled at the 2013 Worlds.
Seger admits that he was a bit surprised initially.
“I grew up with Streit. We played together on junior national teams and in Zurich, and he always was the captain in Zurich and on the national team. For me it was like a given that he would be named captain,” he says. “But Sean Simpson’s arguments that I’ve been with the team from the beginning and that I know the team better make sense too.”
Otherwise, the roster choices elicited little surprise. Simpson was able to choose from a growing number of candidates from the Swiss league – which has gotten stronger since Seger entered it in the 1990s thanks to better player development – and from 11 players under contract with NHL teams.
He selected nine NHLers, only omitting Anaheim Ducks defenceman Luca Sbisa, who missed most of the games in January due to injury, and Sven Bartschi, who lost his place with the Calgary Flames and has been sent to the AHL.
The Swiss are – as usual – particularly strong between the pipes. Goalie Jonas Hiller recently had a franchise-record winning streak of 14 games in the Anaheim net and Reto Berra is having an NHL rookie season in Calgary’s cage with some highlight-worthy saves.
Simpson had plenty of goaltenders in the Swiss league to choose from for the number-three position and went with Tobias Stephan. This was partly because Martin Gerber has been sidelined for several weeks due to a recent injury. Gerber, along with Berra, was heroic in Stockholm. He also famously made 49 saves in Switzerland’s 2-0 shocker over Canada in Turin 2006.
Four of the eight nominated defencemen are NHLers too, including veteran Mark Streit and the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship’s Most Valuable Player, Roman Josi, who usually logs team-high ice times along with Shea Weber for the Nashville Predators.
Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber haven’t logged that many minutes, but when the Montreal Canadiens traded Diaz to Weber’s Vancouver Canucks, he replied with a strong performance and a goal in his first game.
The other defencemen – Seger, Severin Blindenbacher and Julien Vauclair – bring valuable veteran experience, while another nominated rearguard, Philippe Furrer, didn’t join the team due to injury. His spot will likely ben taken by either one of the replacement players from the Swiss league or Sbisa. Apart from Furrer, Yannick Weber is another question mark on defence. After suffering an upper-body injury last week, he has yet to play a game with the Canucks, and had to travel home during the recent road trip.
Coach Simpson is less injury-plagued on offence. It’s usually a weak point for the Swiss, but they showed strong improvement at the last World Championship, going hard to the front of the net instead of just counting on skill and speed.
Until 2012, Switzerland used to have zero NHL forwards, except when someone occasionally got called up. Now they have Damien Brunner, the scoring leader of the Swiss league in 2012, who then moved to the Detroit Red Wings and now the New Jersey Devils. Nino Niederreiter seems to have made a breakthrough in Minnesota after struggling in the Islanders organization, and Simon Moser had his NHL debut with Nashville last week.
They are joined by top players of the domestic league like Luca Cunti and Roman Wick, who are excelling in the scoring derby that used to be heavily dominated by import players until a few years ago. The number of household names among forwards is declining and includes veterans like Martin Pluss and Andres Ambuhl. They’re keeping up with the new generation of forwards and inspiring it.
“We have a certain stability with the players and the system we play under Sean [Simpson],” Seger says. “We gel together quickly. We can feel great enthusiasm within our team. The Olympic Games are the biggest thing for a hockey player.”
A medal is the dream, and suddenly it looks more realistic after the Stockholm silver. But the team knows where it’s ranked in the world order and reaching the quarter-finals will be the main goal. After that, anything is possible on a good day paired with luck and strong goaltending. Medalling for the first time in an Olympic ice hockey tournament since winning bronze in 1928 and 1948 would still be considered a huge surprise.
Jonas Hiller: After a mediocre start and sharing the Nashville net with two other goalies, Hiller has recently been in red-hot shape. He has had a 92.44 save percentage since December and is more consistent than his younger backup, Reto Berra. Switzerland will need strong goaltending if it wants to surprise.
Roman Josi: Mark Streit is still considered the Swiss poster boy in the NHL as the first skater from the country to make a breakthrough, but more recently it has been the 23-year-old Josi who has made his mark both in the NHL and in international play. The Berne native shines both in his own zone and offensively.
Damien Brunner: He’s the top player of the young generation of forwards who combines skill and speed with more physical talent than Swiss hockey has been known for. It’s players like him, Nino Niederreiter, Simon Moser or Reto Suri who can help Switzerland shed its historic reputation of struggling to score.
Julien Vauclair: After the 2008 Worlds he quit the national team, not fitting into the system of then-coach Ralph Krueger. He returned under Simpson for the 2010 Worlds and has since blossomed on the world stage. The 34-year-old hasn’t succeeded in the NHL, but he is still among the top defencemen of the domestic league, quietly providing extra power on the blueline.
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