MANNHEIM – The marquee quarterfinals game for Mannheim is surely the Germany-Switzerland game, a game that will see either Germany advance to the semi-finals for the first time since this format was introduced in 1992 or Switzerland advance for the first time since 1998 (the only other time the Swiss made the semis was in 1992).
In an historical context, this is hockey's oldest international rivalry, the teams having first faced each other at the 1910 European Championship in Les Avants, Switzerland (won by Germany, 9-1).
If Germany is Going to Win
It all began two weeks ago in Gelsenkirchen. A German team that wouldn’t have been in the top division this year except that it was hosting the event found strength and inspiration from 77,803 screaming fans. The dramatic, incredible 2-1 win in overtime against the United States kick-started what has surely been an amazing tournament so far for the hosts.
A quick recap of the scores shows just how impressive the Germans have been this year. They followed Gelsenkirchen with a narrow 1-0 loss to the Finns and then beat the surprising Danes, 3-1, in the final Preliminary Round game. In the Qualifying Round, they lost a squeaker to the mighty Russians, 3-2, but found renewed life against Belarus. Although that game ended in a disastrous three-on-the-goalie rush in overtime, they tied the game in the final minute. The 2-1 loss was disappointing but impressive nonetheless. Then, they beat Slovakia, 2-1, to qualify for the quarterfinals.
The team’s strength has undoubtedly been the home crowds. Feeling a duty and obligation, the players have responded with fantastic efforts, and now, against Switzerland, they will have to summon even greater strength from within if they are to advance to the semi-finals for the first time.
Goalie Dennis Endras has been excellent, and the defence has been solid. It’s the offensive skill that has been lacking. Having scored only ten goals in six games, they know how important keeping the puck out of their end is going to be, especially against a Swiss team that has proved it can score. In fact, the leading goalscorers on the team are Alexander Barta and Felix Schütz, both of whom have only two goals.
One aspect of the offence that has been terrible is the power play. Germany is last of 16 teams in the ranking, having scored just one goal on 21 opportunities. Wasted chances like these against the Swiss could spell elimination. If Germany wins this game, it will do so by a low score, with great goaltending from Endras, and an inspired effort before a sold-out SAP Arena crowd chanting and cheering non-stop for 60 minutes.
If Switzerland is Going to Win
When Julien Sprunger and Sandy Jeannin declined to play in Germany, it seemed like the Swiss offence was in serious trouble. When defenceman Mark Streit also phoned in his regrets, it seemed the team’s blueline was going to be in serious trouble. Instead, the Swiss have had both offence and defence – and great goaltending – to a degree that has been lacking for years.
Like Germany, Switzerland also got off to a fast start in the Preliminary Round. It beat Latvia, 3-1, and Italy, 3-0, before a first-place showdown with Canada, a game in which the heavily-favoured Olympic champions were expected to win. And yet, for the first time in 76 years of World Championship play, the Swiss emerged victorious by a very impressive 4-1 score.
In the Qualifying Round, they continued their impressive ways, beating the Czechs, 3-2. But then, two uninspired efforts have them on a downturn of sorts. They mailed in a 3-2 loss to Norway and then were shellacked 5-0 by Sweden. If they want to be back in the semi-finals for the first time since 1998, they have to reverse their performance of the last two games.
Goalie Martin Gerber sat out the 5-0 loss, and just having him back in the blue ice will be a marked improvement for the team. He has been if not sensational then absolutely rock solid, having given up just six goals in four games.
Special teams have been an area of both strength and weakness. The penalty killers are the only group in the tournament that have yet to give up a goal, but the power play is second worst, after Germany, having scored just once in 15 tries.
The team has only two goals from its defencemen, so if the forwards don’t score, it’s game over. So far, however, they have scored plenty. Leading the way is Andres Ambühl and Martin Plüss, with four goals each, and Damien Brunner, with a goal and four assists.
The team’s first priority, though, will be to take the home crowd out of the game. An early goal, or a scoreless first period, might do the trick, but more probably this can be done by using the team’s superior speed. If the Swiss can forecheck hard, generate scoring chances off the rush, and cause confusion around Endras’s crease, they’ll have an excellent chance of winning.
The officials for the game are: Referees: Tom Laaksonen (FIN) / Tom Sterns (USA), linesmen: David Brown (USA) / Jussi Terho (FIN).