QUEBEC CITY – Switzerland has finished eighth four times in the last five World Championships, and 8th or 9th every years since 2001. Despite improved success in the World Juniors a few years ago, Switzerland still finds itself in a limbo between the Big Seven and the rest.
It’s good enough to qualify for the playoff rounds, but still lacking the edge that would help it take down one of the big hockey nations. Especially since it often meets the number one seeded team in the bracket, giving Switzerland the highest of odds of making it further in the tournament.
This year, the Swiss team has again proved that it’s gaining on the big ones by winning the Deutschland Cup in November, and beating Germany, Slovakia, and France in the Skoda Cup it hosted in Lausanne in February. With the right attitude, and crazy luck, the Swiss might be able to make it beyond the quarterfinal. And then strike next year, when they’re hosting the World Championship tournament in Berne and Zurich-Kloten.
Goaltending is key for any team in any game, but it becomes especially important for teams that rely on their powerplay and transition game offensively. Switzerland has nothing to worry about in that department, with both Jonas Hiller (Anaheim Ducks) and Martin Gerber (Ottawa Senators) on the team. Either one can carry the team – we’ve seen that in previous tournaments.
Hiller grabbed the starting job from David Aebischer in last year’s tournament but might have to step back and let Gerber take care of business, despite the veteran goalie’s problems with an injury last week. Thirty wins in the NHL were the 13th best record in the league. Gerber also led Switzerland to a 5-1 win over Denmark in their last exhibition game before the tournament and showed that he’s ready.
There’s only one defenceman who’s turned 30 on the Swiss team. He’s Mathias Seger, who’s seen coach Krueger’s tenure from up close, as the 30-year-old plays his tenth World Championship. Seger bounced nicely back after an anemic 2006-07 season and almost tripled his offensive output in the Swiss League, when he scored 14 goals in 50 games.
The core of the defence corps – Severin Blindenbacher, Beat Forster, and Seger – comes from ZSC Lions. It was good enough to win the Swiss title, and soon we’ll see how well that works on the international level.
The most famous defencemen is missing as last year’s captain Mark Streit is having a great season with the Montreal Canadiens.
No Martin Pluss, no Patrick Fischer, but instead Roman Wick and Peter Guggisberg. Coach Ralph Krueger is shaking up the team, and nobody’s safe. Pluss and Fischer have represented Switzerland in 167 and 180 games respectively, but not in the IIHF 100th anniversary tournament.
Krueger surprised with this courageous decision as Pluss played in the Swedish league and Fischer was in the NHL last season. Instead, Krueger is bringing up newcomers, preparing his team for next year’s tournament on home their ice. It’s seen as the biggest change since the 2002 Olympics by the Swiss media.
Ralph Krueger is a phenomenon. Not since Viktor Tichonov in the 1980s has one man coached a national team as long as Krueger who’s been at the helm of the Swiss team since 1998, and is now entering his 11th World Championship. That means that he’s already seen one Swiss player generation come and go in the national team, and is now in the process of bringing in the next one.
Switzerland will breeze through the first round, then beat Italy or Denmark in the qualification round to find itself in the quarterfinal game again. One upset - beating Sweden, for example - in the first round would bring the Swiss their best finish in years. But, winning the quarterfinal? Once again, it is going to be difficult.