BUFFALO – Switzerland edged Slovakia in a thrilling game, 6-4, to reach the final round at the expense of the Slovaks. It was a déjà vu from last year’s event in Saskatoon for both teams.
The win also ensures Team USA a quarter-final berth before their games against Germany (tonight) and Switzerland (New Year's Eve).
“Everyone played well, and this was a huge win for us,” said Switzerland captain Nino Niederreiter. “It was a fun game to play, but not so much in the third period, when we let them back into the game.”
The Swiss, United States, and Finland battle it out for first place (and a bye to the semi-finals) tomorrow while Slovakia will go into relegation round with two points from its game against Germany, which takes one point.
Switzerland held the lead for most of the game, but Slovakia cut a two-goal deficit in the last period before Samuel Walser scored the game winner with 5:56 left.
“We weren’t ready at the start of the game and they scored some lucky goals. We knew we had to skate more and shoot more,” said Richard Panik, who, along with Marek Hrivik, scored two goals. “I don't know why, but once we made it 4-4, we stopped playing. We got too excited and forgot about playing defence.”
Slovakia and Switzerland might not be what you would call geographic neighbours, nor has there been any traditional rivalry between these countries, but these nations are pretty close to each other in hockey skills, and this game was certainly good proof of that.
Switzerland is seventh in the men’s world ranking and Slovakia eighth. At the World U20 Championship – or the World U18s that uses the same format – the nations have exchanged several battles in either the Relegation Round or in the run for a final-round berth.
In 2008, Slovakia sent Switzerland down to Division I for the first time in 12 years with a 5-2 win in the Relegation Round. Last year after getting back to the Top Division, the Swiss avenged the loss and sent Slovakia to the Relegation Round with a 4-1 victory in the Preliminary Round. This year history repeats after the Swiss win at HSBC Arena.
Switzerland had the better start to this game and Gregory Hofmann opened the scoring at 8:15 when he rebounded the puck into the net after a long shot from Nicholas Steiner, but the lead didn’t last long.
Just 63 seconds later, Michael Vandas passed the puck from the end boards back to Peter Sisovsky, who tied the score.
“Sometimes I try this pass and it works,” Vandas said after his three assists in the game. “My linemates know I might do this and it worked twice today.”
At 11:50 the DJ reacted to the on-ice action with the ‘90s hit “You’re unbelievable” – a song he must have dedicated to Swiss defenceman Dominik Schlumpf and the Slovak goalkeeper Dominik Riecicky. The first because he sent off a fluke shot from the centre red line, and the latter, well, because he let the puck in.
“I was just trying to get the puck on net, maybe get a faceoff. It was a big goal for us to that point, but it was lucky,” Schlumpf said about his goal.
With two minutes left, the teams exchanged some more quality chances. Slovakia’s Miroslav Preisinger was sent to the penalty box after hooking Swiss forward Inti Pestoni from behind on his way to the Slovak cage.
After the next faceoff, however, Panik got the puck and had a two-on-one break with Juraj Majdan, but Reto Schäppi used his stick to stop him and the refs awarded a penalty shot. Majdan, however, fanned on his shot and the goalie never had to make a save.
With 68 seconds left in the first period, the Swiss capitalized on their power play when Sven Bärtschi scored from the blue line. It was the first World U20 goal from the WHL’s top-scoring rookie.
The Slovak head coach Stefan Mikes reacted and replaced Riecicky with Juraj Holly for the second period. And his team reacted at 1:29 when Hrivik cut the lead after a nice side pass from, again, Vandas.
Niederreiter extended the lead for the Swiss when he won the puck in the Slovak zone and defeated Holly with a hard shot from just before the left faceoff circle into the top-right corner.
With 2:54 left in the second period, the Swiss thought they scored again, but the refs disallowed the goal after a video review.
The Slovaks were more successful in the third period when Andrej Stastny scored the 4-3 goal 5:30 into the third period. He brought the puck to the crease before being checked into the end boards and the puck landed into the cage via Swiss goalkeeper Benjamin Conz.
It continued to be an end-to-end game and it became even better for the Slovaks.
With 7:52 remaining in the third period, Richard Panik won the puck at the boards in the middle zone to end his rush with a shot into the top corner of the close side to equalize the score.
“The coach just told us to stay patient and keep shooting the puck on goal,” Swiss defenceman Luca Camperchioli said about the moments after the Slovak equalizer. “We knew we could still win the game. That was the only thing we cared about.”
And it worked out like the Swiss wanted. The 4-4 was on the scoreboard for only two minutes when Samuel Wasler scored on a rebound after a shot from Yannick Herren with 5:54 remaining in what became the game-winning goal for the Swiss. Pestoni sealed the win with the 6-4 goal into the empty net 30.3 seconds before the final buzzer.
The game visibly ended with some frustration for the Slovaks, who had already lost Peter Hrasko and Martin Marincin due to suspensions after their hits to the head in the game against the U.S.
Slovakia will now have to regroup to avoid relegation while the Swiss can dream of a top-four finish again.