With a 1-0 victory over the Czechs, Switzerland wrapped up second place in Group C with six points, behind perfect Sweden. Simon Bodenmann scored the winner.
Coach Sean Simpson’s red-clad troops won’t ever be mistaken for the Soviet “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s and 1980s, but their commitment to their defence-first system is impressively machine-like. This was their third straight game that ended 1-0.
The Swiss opened by beating Latvia 1-0 on a last-minute own-goal credited to Simon Moser in their opener. They followed that up with a 1-0 loss to Sweden, as Daniel Alfredsson scored with less than eight minutes remaining. Saturday's win might have been the best Swiss effort yet.
"We played a good defensive game, which was the key," said Swiss defenceman Raphael Diaz. "We knew the Czechs had really skilled players. They have a lot of speed, but our goalie [Jonas Hiller] played a hell of a game. We deserved this win."
The Czechs settled for third place in the group.
Earlier on Saturday, Jaromir Jagr was presented with a chocolate cake after practice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome as he celebrated his 42nd birthday. But this result had to leave a sour taste in the Czech legend’s mouth.
"We knew before the game they are good defensively," said Czech forward Michael Frolik. "They play man on man in the defensive-zone coverage. Sometimes it's tough to break it. We had some chances, but their goalie played great."
Hiller, who recorded his second tournament shutout, and the Czech Republic's Ondrej Pavelec, both got their second starts of these Winter Games. Shots on goal were even at 26 apiece.
"Jonas is giving us a chance to win every game," said Bodenmann. "We'd be happy to score a couple more goals, but if we win like this, it doesn't matter."
Veteran Czech star Patrik Elias sat this game out due to illness.
In front of more than 10,000 fans, the Swiss started off at the same relentless pace that characterized their run to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship silver medal and their first two games in Sochi. By the halfway mark of the first period, they’d outshot the Czechs 9-2.
"That silver medal gave us a confidence boost last year," said Bodenmann. "We know we can beat everybody, even at this tournament."
Then the Czechs started to push back. They nearly opened the scoring on a 2-on-1 rush with Roman Cervenka and captain Tomas Plekanec, as the puck skittered just past Hiller’s left pad on their attempt. Jagr had three great chances on a shift shortly afterwards, ringing one off the post.
"We weren’t as good in the second half of the first period and they had some serious chances," said Swiss veteran Martin Pluss. "Today, I think for the most part it was good, but in some cases we didn’t play in our system and we made it too easy for them."
Switzerland got on the board with 5:50 left in the first period. Determined forechecking by forward Kevin Romy got the puck to Denis Hollenstein, who gave it to Bodenmann in the left faceoff circle, and his lightning release beat Pavelec high to the glove side.
"I was the third guy, waiting up in the middle," said Bodenmann. "Hollenstein got me the puck and I put it in."
With just over three minutes left in the period, Milan Michalek missed a golden opportunity as his one-timer attempt at a gaping net went off Hiller’s left post.
Killing off two penalties early in the second, the Swiss kept the Czechs to the outside with their trademark tenacious checking. Grinding along the boards and in the corners was the norm. The Czechs couldn't find a way to respond on the counterattack as is their wont.
In the third period, the Swiss continued to run into penalty trouble, taking two more minors. Roman Wick was sent off for tripping at 8:18, seconds after Hiller foiled a glorious chance for Michael Frolik, who came busting down the middle. Although Jagr battled mightily for position in front of the Swiss net, coach Alois Hadamczik's men couldn't find the range.
With seven minutes remaining, Jagr found Plekanec alone to Hiller's left, but he slapped the puck into the goalie's glove. Plekanec threw up his arms in frustration.
The Swiss couldn't add to their lead when Czech blueliner Radko Gudas was penalized for holding with 6:33 remaining, but they moved the puck around well, and, more importantly, ran more time off the clock.
Pluss shot wide on a breakaway with just over a minute remaining. The Czechs pressed for the equalizer after pulling Pavelec in the dying seconds, but to no avail.
"We were saying in the dressing room that one goal is not going to beat us, but unfortunately it did," said the Czech Republic's Petr Nedved.
Although Czechoslovakia defeated Switzerland all five times they met between 1924 and 1992, the Swiss won the only previous game they played in the Czech Republic era, a 3-2 upset in Turin 2006. Goalie David Aebischer made 40 saves and Mark Streit described it as “kind of a miracle.”
Eight years later, nobody considers a Swiss win over a top-tier opponent miraculous anymore. They're just doing what comes naturally. (Naturally for a machine, that is.)
"The gap is closing," said Switzerland's Nino Niederreiter. "There are no easy games out there anymore."