STOCKHOLM – Swiss coach Sean Simpson has reason to be happy. His team jells quite well together and has won all four of its World Championship games thus far. Much credit goes to the work of his top line of Simon Moser, Nino Niederreiter and Martin Plüss.
When the Swiss travelled to Stockholm on May 1st, things didn’t look so promising in the Swiss press. Journalists were speculating that this could be Simpson’s last World Championship if the team missed the quarter-finals for the third straight year. He was also criticized for cutting diminutive forward Ivo Rüthemann, an accomplished veteran with the most national team game experience behind Mathias Seger.
One week later the critics fell silent and the small Alpine country is baffled about the team’s sudden success.
There are many reasons for this. As in previous years the Swiss showed that goaltending is not an issue with former NHLer Martin Gerber and future Calgary Flame Reto Berra between the pipes. The defence around them works well too.
What is quite different though is the offensive success. The Swiss create chances and have learned to score the ugly goals. This is due to more physical players, including Nino Niederreiter, who has been playing in North America for the last few years, and his linemates Simon Moser and Martin Plüss.
“We have a good team and great chemistry,” Niederreiter said. “Moser and me are kind of new here but we both same the same style of a power forward while Plüss has lots of experience. He’s a great player and helps us a lot.”
Niederreiter took his own path to the NHL. While Swiss stars like Jonas Hiller, Mark Streit or Damien Brunner transferred to the NHL after maturing at home, “El Nino” left as a junior. The 20-year-old was the highest drafted Swiss player ever when the New York Islanders picked him fifth overall in 2010. But since then the path to Long Island has been rocky for the Chur native.
Last season Niederreiter got little ice time with the big club. This season the Islanders kept Niederreiter with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the entire season and didn’t add him to the playoff roster. Niederreiter used the opportunity to join the Swiss national team and score goals on the world stage.
While there has been some discussion in the media about his absence from the Islanders roster, Niederreiter cherishes the time in Bridgeport.
“I had a strong season in the AHL and had lot of confidence there and it went pretty well for me here, but every player looks great when the team is winning,” Niederreiter said.
So far the Swiss have won against Sweden, Canada, the Czech Republic and Slovenia before facing Denmark today.
“I played a lot of minutes in the AHL and like that I was able to score goals. I was a little bit disappointed that I wasn’t called to play in the NHL but was mentally prepared for each situation,” Niederreiter said.
“I hope I can play for the Isles next year and I’ll do everything I can to be on the team, but right now I focus on the World Championship.”
So far the Swiss have the best record of all 16 teams in Stockholm and Helsinki. Fans dream of reaching the quarter-finals, or maybe even more. The last time the Swiss made it to the semi-finals was in 1998 when they were the host country.
While his centre Martin Plüss played his first World Championship that year on home ice in Zurich and Basel, Niederreiter, was just six at that time and remembers little of what happened then.
Also Simon Moser, who is three years older, only remembers the surprise on home ice vaguely.
“I followed it on TV but don’t remember so much. What I still know is that they defeated Russia,” Moser said. “I followed each World Championship on TV and now I’m part of it.”
Moser is in a special situation. He and his brother played for years for the SCL Tigers Langnau but couldn’t save the team from relegation to the National League B this spring. His contract is void and the 24-year-old will be looking for a new challenge once the World Championship is over.
Same as with Niederreiter this is the third World Championship appearance for Moser. Being on this successful team is a chance for Moser not only to make up for the otherwise bad season he had but also to showcase himself against world-class opponents while looking for a new employer.
“My goals are to become champion and to make it to the NHL and soon we’ll see which path I will take,” Moser said. “Right now the situation is great for me. Our team is in the international media after four wins and that helps all players. I try to present myself from the best side.”
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, Moser said about his line. In Stockholm he’s lucky and it’s fun for him to play with Niederreiter and Plüss.
“The pucks go in more often. In Switzerland we focused more on going to the net and being ready for rebounds in recent years, also during the international breaks with the national team,” Moser said.
Plüss echoed the feeling.
“We score more ugly goals because we have physical forwards like Moser and Niederreiter who are strong in front of the net,” the 36-year-old said. “It’s also a consequence of bringing the puck in front of the net and we had luck.”
Plüss brings lots of skill and experience to his line. He’s taking part in his 12th World Championship.
“I had a great feeling from the beginning about the line. I played with Moser before and when Nino came I noticed quickly that he’s in good shape,” Plüss said.
“Maybe I have a bit more experience and can guide the play more as a centre, but otherwise I don’t feel an age difference. They both go with a lot of energy. With these two players our line can succeed both with skill and power.”
With their 4-0 record the Swiss have almost made the final round. Their success in the three remaining games against Denmark, Norway and Belarus will determine whom they will eventually face in the next stage. But that’s still some days away.
“We don’t think about who we play in the quarter-finals right now, we just think of the next game,” Niederreiter said.
“We’re the hunted team now. Everybody wants to beat us. Denmark will come out strong since they don’t want to get relegated. Everybody can beat everybody here.”
The underdog Swiss side has shown that in an impressive way so far.