KOSICE - The quarter-finals are no longer considered to be a great achievement in Swiss hockey circles. In fact, most of their fans feel that a quarter-final berth is the minimum that a Swiss team should deliver at the World Championship.
The Swiss are no strangers to the quarter-final round – they’ve made it that far at three of the last five World Championships, including last year’s appearance against the Germans. However, getting past the quarters is something that no Swiss team has ever managed to accomplish. Going back to 2001, Switzerland is a collective 0-6 in quarter-final games. In those six games, they have been outscored 20-4, and shutout in each of their last two QF appearances.
One year ago the goaltending situation was pretty straightforward: Martin Gerber (Oklahoma City, AHL) had the number one spot and played in five of the seven games for the Swiss. This year things aren’t quite so clear. Gerber suffered a neck injury in March and missed much of the stretch run of the season. There were some concerns whether or not he would be in game shape; so the decision was made to pass on Gerber. The late availability of Jonas Hiller (Anaheim, NHL) was also a temptation. However, coach Sean Simpson and his staff decided to pass on Gerber and Hiller, and instead commit to the tandem of last year’s backup Tobias Stephan (Genève-Servette, SUI) and Leonardo Genoni (Davos, SUI). It will be interesting to see how Genoni fares, if he gets a chance. He’s never played at the World Championship but was sensational this season with league champions Davos.
The big question is how much help the team will get from North America. On the “yes” side of things, Luca Sbisa (Anaheim, NHL) decided to join the national team after the Ducks went out in the first round of the NHL playoffs. As of Thursday, the staff was waiting for word from Yannick Weber (Montreal, NHL) as to whether or not he’d join them as well.
On the “no” side, defenceman Mark Streit (New York Islanders, NHL) missed the entire season with a shoulder injury; so he’s out. There was some hope that Severin Blindenbacher (Texas, AHL), might have recovered from a concussion, but he’s not on the roster after not having played any games recently. Roman Josi (Milwaukee, AHL) is playing in a second-round series and won’t factor into this year’s WM. Julian Vauclair (Lugano, SUI), Mathias Seger (ZSC Lions, SUI) and Goran Bezina (Genève-Servette, SUI) all have solid World Championship experience and will be back this year and counted upon heavily. All in all, it’s not a bad blue line to head into the tournament with.
The line to watch out for, going by pre-tournament games, will be the combination of Martin Plüss (Bern, SUI), Ivo Rüthemann (Bern, SUI), and Ryan Gardner (Bern, SUI). The triumvirate played on the same line for most of the season in Bern, finishing 3rd, 4th and 5th (respectively) in team scoring. All three players have the North American-type tendency to fire the puck on goal and take their chances, as opposed to over handling the puck and trying to make a perfect play. But if past Swiss national teams are any indication, even with what should be an effective line, the club will struggle to score goals. Switzerland lack an NHL-calibre forward and, by and large, their forwards don’t drive to the net often enough. To compete with the big boys at a consistent level, Swiss forwards will have to add that element to their game. A good young player to keep an eye on is right-winger Kevin Lötscher (Biel, SUI). The 23-year old had a break out season, saw some duty with the national team and is making the move to SC Bern next season. Swiss head coach Sean Simpson describes him as “a strong right-winger with a good scoring touch”.
Simpson has a well-deserved reputation as a coach who does an excellent job of drilling his team to execute effectively against stronger opponents. A great example of this comes from the 2008 Champions Hockey League, where his club (ZSC Lions Zurich) managed to upset the heavily favoured KHL team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, in the two-game final. This will be Simpson’s second World Championship as Switzerland’s head coach and he’s well aware of the expectation level from fans and the Swiss hockey establishment.
“We’re in a position where only the quarter-finals is an acceptable result - nothing less,” says Simpson. “We’ve been a top-eight team for quite a few years now, but we’ve never made it to a semi. We’d like to change that.”
The Swiss would have to completely implode not to make it to the qualifying round. They have an easy opener against France before moving on to Belarus and then Canada. After that, they should have no problem making it through the next round to the quarter-finals. However, after that, they’d need a lot of things to go right for them to upset teams like Canada, Russia, the Czech Republic or Finland or Sweden. The team will be well prepared and tough to play against, but taking that next step will be an uphill battle.