Underdogs are ready to bite
by Andy Potts|23 MAY 2019
Germany's Gerrit Fauser (#43) and Marc Michaelis (#65) share a laugh after a 4-2 win over Finland.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
On paper, Germany and Switzerland are the underdogs in the quarter-finals. As always, the big six nations are picked out as the top contenders. But last year showed that the gap might be closing. Germany’s Olympic silver and Switzerland’s World Championship final appearance has given both nations renewed belief that in 2019, the podium isn’t a closed shop.

In a hugely competitive Group A, Germany sprung a small surprise by claiming third place ahead of the USA. Despite a heavy loss to Canada, the Germans were otherwise fully in the battles against the Americans (losing 1-3 to late goals in their group stage meeting) and the Finns (wrapping up with a 4-2 victory to go to the knock-out stages full of confidence).

It’s a continuation of the progress we saw in PyeongChang, where an unfancied German roster came from nowhere to reach the Olympic final – and came within seconds of leaving with a fairytale gold medal.

For Marc Michaelis, that was something of a turning point for German hockey.

“It showed us that we’re a top eight nation as of right now and we want to compete with the best teams in the world,” he said. “It comes from the staff and then the leadership group among the players. We’ve kind of created a culture of competing, of giving our best against every country.

“We’ve improved for skill as well. If you compare this German team with the German teams of the past five or six years, there’s way more skilled players. But, for a country like ours, we can only beat the big teams when we bring that work ethic as well.

“I think we have that culture now and it just flows throughout the team.”
Also silver medals shine: Germany's Bjorn Krupp, Jonas Muller and Yasin Ehliz after earning the silver medals at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Switzerland, meanwhile, goes into a repeat of last year’s semi-final against Canada on a run of three losses against the big hitters in Group B, but lifted by the arrival of Nino Niederreiter. The flying forward scored in the 4-5 loss against the Czech Republic and adds another dimension to Patrick Fischer’s offensive options at the start of the knock-out phase.

He joins a roster with plenty of NHL talent – and with hopes of repeating last year’s medal run. As Kevin Fiala, another NHLer with Minnesota Wild, explained, the progress in Swiss hockey is being noticed outside the national program.

“We’re much better than five years ago,” he said. “We’re pushing up. I’m proud of the team because everyone sees this now. Those of us in the room, we knew it was coming but outside the room I don’t think anyone else was expecting it. But now, especially since last year, everyone thinks a bit more highly of us.”
Kevin Fiala is among the returnees of Switzerland’s silver-medal team at last year’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
The stats bear our Fiala’s confidence. After a long medal drought, Switzerland won silver in 2013 and 2018. Results against the leading nations have become more competitive: yesterday’s narrow loss to the Czechs, for example, made it four wins apiece in recent meetings between the two after years of Czech dominance. Wins over Finland and Canada last year, plus a battle all the way to a shoot-out against Sweden in the final, reinforced that progress.

And it’s a point not lost on Switzerland’s opponent on Thursday. Stepping away from the bland ‘respect every team’ response that is traditional when asked about an upcoming opponent, Canada’s Sean Couturier spoke highly of the Swiss.

“I think it’s going to be a good game,” he said. “You look at their line-up, they’ve got a few NHL players, a few real stars, there’s a lot of skill, a lot of talent. They’re a dangerous team, we’ll have to be ready, we’ll have to come out strong.”

Switzerland plays Canada in the afternoon game in Kosice, face off 16:15 local time. Germany travels to Bratislava to face the Czech Republic in the evening fixture, starting at 20:15 local time.