QUEBEC CITY – Until the 1990’s, the only question you’d need to ask about a Russia-Switzerland matchup would be, “How much will the Russians win by?”
The two nations didn’t meet frequently in IIHF World Championship play, usually because Switzerland was competing in a lower pool. But when they did, Russian victories by scores like 10-2 (1972) or 13-5 (1987) were typical.
However, as of 2008, the gap isn’t nearly as large, even though the Swiss have only defeated Russia twice at the Worlds (4-2 in 1998 and 3-2 in 2000).
Granted, the Swiss simply don’t have superstar NHL offensive talent like Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, and most observers are predicting that unbeaten Russia will prevail in Wednesday’s second quarter-final at the Colisée.
But this year, the hard-working, disciplined Swiss, who perennially finish eighth at this tournament, have looked like they’re ready to take another step forward under longtime head coach Ralph Krueger. They won a Preliminary Round group for the first time ever with victories over France, Belarus, and Sweden. They also showed an unexpected level of offensive domination in a 7-2 win over Denmark, outshooting their opponents 54-20.
On the injury front for the Swiss, Severin Blindenbacher was hurt in the last game versus Russia, but will suit up nonetheless. Roman Wick is still out with a concussion after taking a hit to the head from Sweden’s Niclas Wallin.
According to a report on the Russian Ice Hockey Federation’s web site, forward Alexander Radulov and defenceman Dmitri Vorobiev will likely be healthy scratches.
Here are 10 key questions heading into the quarter-final. The answers will likely determine the outcome.
1. HOW LOW WILL THEY GO? At the 2008 tournament, the Swiss have scored 20 goals in six games, the second-lowest total among quarter-final participants. In their Qualifying Round finale versus Russia, a 5-3 loss, they showed character and an ability to capitalize on Russian miscues to keep the score close. However, they simply don’t have enough firepower to catch up when they spot the Russians a 4-0 lead, as they did on Monday. They need to keep the score low. Switzerland is unlikely to win unless it’s by a 1-0, 2-1, or 3-2 margin.
2. WHO’S SPECIAL? Historically, Russia’s power play has been the most devastating weapon in its arsenal. But the numbers from Quebec City don’t fit that trend. With the man advantage, Russia actually ranks behind Switzerland in percentage (20.59 to 24) and has scored only one more power play goal (seven to six). The Russians’ biggest PP outburst came in a 5-4 OT win over the Czechs, with three goals at extra strength. Meanwhile, the Swiss penalty-killing has also been superior (86.21 percent to 79.31), and they stung Russia for a shorthanded goal by Julien Vauclair in their last meeting. If the Russians don’t improve on special teams today, they could be in trouble. Andrei Markov, a power play specialist, needs to show up after going pointless in three games thus far.
3. CAN RUSSIA ELIMINATE ERRORS? “They’re not the best defensive team in the world and we can use that,” said Swiss defenceman Goran Bezina of the Russians heading into this game. For all their offensive prowess, the Russians still remain an adventure in their own zone. Graphically illustrating that problem was a totally unforced Sergei Fedorov giveaway to Belarusian forward Dmitri Dudik that, at the time, led to a 2-0 lead for Belarus in their May 9 encounter (eventually won 4-3 by Russia in a shootout). Even with tough, longtime NHLers like Dmitri Kalinin and Daniil Markov on the roster, too often you’ll find Russian D-men fishing for pucks with their sticks when they should be taking the man, and it can lead to easy rebound goals for the opposition. Against a team like the Swiss, Russia’s best bet will be to simply keep the puck out of its own end as much as possible. It outshot Switzerland 18-5 in the first period on Monday.
4. FOND MEMORIES FOR OVIE? Naturally, the Swiss must focus on shutting down the “Washington Line” of Alexander Ovechkin, Sergei Fedorov, and Alexander Semin, which has spearheaded the Russian attack, combining for 23 points. Ovechkin leads the way with five goals and three assists, and while the 2008 NHL scoring champion has yet to show his best form, he may harken back for inspiration to a December 2007 meeting between his Capitals and the Ottawa Senators. In an 8-6 win, Ovechkin pounded four goals past Martin Gerber, who is expected to get the start versus Russia today (in lieu of Jonas Hiller, who played on Monday).
5. CAN KOVALCHUK CAPITALIZE? Ilya Kovalchuk matched his NHL single-season high in goals this season with 52 for the Atlanta Thrashers, and here in Quebec City, he’s putting up over a point-per-game. Trouble is, none of his seven points so far have been goals. The 25-year-old left wing’s frustration is evident - we’ve seen plenty of sticks discarded at the bench - and frequently he’s resorted to futile individual rushes, trying to get himself going. Don’t expect Russia to go all the way without any goals from Kovalchuk. For him to find the range versus Switzerland would be huge. Regardless of his struggles, his confidence about victory seems to be intact. Kovalchuk told the Russian newspaper Sport-Express: “Switzerland is not the strongest team. I don’t think they’re capable of upsetting us. We are not allowed to lose against such a team.”
6. IS NABBY A GAME-SAVER? For Russia, the road to gold goes through Switzerland first, and only two Russian goalies have backstopped their teams to the World Championship final since the fall of the Soviet Union: Andrei Trefilov (winning gold) in 1993 and Maxim Sokolov (settling for silver) in 2002. Evgeni Nabokov, a 2008 Vezina Trophy finalist, is arguably the finest Russian netminder since Vladislav Tretiak, and even though his San Jose Sharks were eliminated by Dallas in Game Six of the second round of the NHL playoffs, people are still talking about the amazing glove save the Kazakhstan-born workhorse made on Brad Richards in the first overtime of that marathon affair. With Russia’s defensive lapses, Nabokov will likely need to outduel a Swiss shooter or two and give his mates that extra level of confidence they just wouldn’t have with Mikhail Biryukov or Alexander Eremenko between the pipes.
7. DO THE SWISS HAVE GOALS IN THEIR VAULTS? Offence by committee is the rule of the day for Switzerland, but there are a few forwards to keep your eye on. Julien Sprunger, a 22-year-old forward from Fribourg-Gottéron, leads the way with three goals and two assists, and has, at times, looked like a bona fide power forward with strength in the corners and nice hands down low. Andres Ambuhl scored a highlight-reel goal versus Switzerland, and has looked consistently dangerous. Thibaut Monnet, coming off a career season with the ZSC Lions Zurich (18-25-43), also has the potential to show more after accumulating a goal and two assists so far.
8. WILL DIPIETRO BE MR. CLUTCH AGAIN? Simply put, Paul DiPietro knows what it takes. Internationally, the 37-year-old Canadian-born forward is best-known for scoring two goals versus Canada in Switzerland’s upset 2-0 victory at the 2006 Turin Olympics. In the NHL, he came up with a pair in the Stanley Cup-clinching game for Montreal in 1993. His message for his team versus Russia? “We have to create our own chances, shut them down 5-on-5, and capitalize on our power play,” he said after the last game. And if DiPietro can come through with one of his patented one-timers from the faceoff circle, so much the better.
9. WHO WILL WIN THE COACHING BATTLE? Slava Bykov’s team gets the last change as the home side for this quarter-final. But that’s not the only edge Russia’s bench boss possesses. He’s played against DiPietro and Jeannin and with Goran Bezina in the Swiss National League A. Bykov also oversaw Thibaut Monnet and Julien Sprunger as an assistant coach with Fribourg-Gottéron in 2003-04. And more importantly from an experience standpoint, he coached Russia to a 4-0 win over the Czechs in last year’s quarter-final in Moscow. That said, Ralph Krueger has been exceptionally successful in getting Team Switzerland to buy into his positive message about working hard, staying disciplined, and being patient. Will Bykov be flexible enough to get his team to change its tactics should it unexpectedly fall behind the Swiss, or will he emulate the flawed examples of his recent predecessors, never changing anything until it’s too late?
10. WILL FLASH AND DASH BEAT GRIND AND CRASH? In other words, who will dictate the tone of the game? This is the most important question. If the Russians turn the quarter-final into an end-to-end, skating affair, forcing the Swiss to take a ton of penalties and denying them puck possession, it’s Russia’s game. If the Swiss manage to “kill the game” by tying up the neutral zone, forcing dangerous Russian attackers to the outside, and keeping the score close for as long as possible, they have a chance.