What team has impressed you the most?
LA: It has to be Switzerland. This year, they’ve matched their 2013 preliminary-round record of six regulation wins and one win in extra time. They weren’t perfect in their wins over fellow contenders Canada (6-3) and Germany (4-3, in a shootout), but they showed great resilience, and that’s what you need in the elimination games. Captain Nico Hischier and Timo Meier are playing up to their potential, and Denis Malgin is overachieving with his tournament-leading 12 points. And even without a Roman Josi on the back end, that top pairing of Jonas Siegenthaler and Dean Kukan has been highly reliable and has combined for 11 points as well. Good solid goaltending from both Leonard Genoni and Reto Berra, both past silver medalists. Switzerland is in a really good place right now.
AP: Agreed. What can you say about Switzerland? They beat Canada soundly. They battled Slovakia. They came back from 2-0 down to France. Berra and Genoni have been interchangeable rocks in goal, and Malgin has been sensational up front. In 2013, people might have thought their trip to the gold-medal game was a bit of a fluke. But then they “fluked” again in 2018. They could do it again this year, too, I think. And they never take the easy way. They fight for everything they get, shift by shift.
What about a particular player?
AP: I’m going with two, one up, one back. Up, Nico Hischier. He has this explosive speed and great shot. He can pass, make plays, drive to the net. He has it all. And because of all this, he’s just fun to watch, and that’s the point, isn’t it? At the back end, I’m enjoying Moritz Seider. He’s bigger than I thought, and he controls the pace of play. Sometimes he moves so slowly he’s almost standing still, and then he blows out of his skates to make a quick move or pass and no one can react to do anything about it. And both of these guys are kids! They’re going to get better and better and help turn countries that used to be satisfied with top-8 finish into countries looking for medals. Exciting times.
LA: For me, Juraj Slafkovsky is proving that his Olympic MVP performance wasn’t just a flash in the pan. The 18-year-old winger leads Slovakia in scoring with nine points (3+6=9). He may not end up with seven goals in Finland as he did in Beijing, but he’s just so comfortable handling the puck, seeing the ice, competing against men. I loved the solo dash that drew his penalty shot in the 4-3 win over Kazakhstan – and the total coolness with which he then beat goalie Andrei Shutov high to the stick side. Slafkovsky also gave credit afterwards to Peter Cehlarik for inspiring his deke in that situation, showing a nice willingness to learn from the veterans. The Montreal Canadiens scouting department must have a serious internal conversation about the possibility of drafting Slafkovsky first overall in June, with all due respect to centre Shane Wright of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. Everything I’ve seen so far indicates that Slafkovsky will step in and be a true impact player in the NHL.
LA: This may be a weird pick, but despite the euphoria of Denmark’s historic 3-2 win over Canada, it was a little disappointing to see their fatigued team fall 7-1 to Slovakia the following day and miss the quarter-finals. After the seventh-place finish in their Olympic debut in February, it would have been exciting to see them build on that here in Finland.
AP: I’ll go with a player instead of a team. It’s the Tim Stutzle injury. I think he would have taken Germany to that next level, given them some offence that you don’t usually associate with the Germans. With him, the team is a serious medal threat. Without him, I’m not sure they can get much further than their quarter-finals game.
Has there been one story that has stood out for you?
AP: I don’t think enough people appreciate Andres Ambuhl’s games played record. He’s at 122 now, which is crazy. To catch him, someone would have to go to the gold-medal game 12 times, or play the preliminary round for 18 years! He’s played in 17 World Championships, another record, and this on a team that is getting more and more world class every year. As well, he’s not a passenger, not a “sympathy choice.” He’s contributing and helping the offence, which tied with Canada for the most goals in the preliminary round (34). I will always think it special that I was in the building when he broke the record at 120.
LA: Great minds…! I get a kick out of the fact that Ambuhl has scored in each of Switzerland’s games since being honoured for passing Germany’s Udo Kiessling as the all-time World Championship leader in games played. Ambuhl obviously realizes that now he’s in Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton territory and will get those media questions: “How does it feel to be a wizened greybeard of 38? Will you play another year?” He’s answering by showing that he absolutely belongs as a player, not just a figurehead. He got the winning goal in the 5-2 victory over France and opened the scoring in the 4-3 win over Germany. Let’s see if he keeps the streak going next year!
Group B in Tampere has seen some notable late additions to rosters (not so much Group A). Do you like this idea, or should there be a “roster freeze” prior to game one?
LA: No freeze. Let the players come if they’re available and there is roster space. I think it keeps things interesting in terms of heightening star power, and it’s also good to have a back-up plan in case of injury or illness. I would be absolutely opposed to the introduction of trades or unrestricted free agency, however!
AP: There are arguments both ways, but I like the additions. It generates a little buzz every day, and there is also a bit of an unknown. Yes, you can bring in a superstar, but if the team is on a roll and playing well, his inclusion can be a bit of a distraction and change the dynamic of the team. It’s not a given he’ll make the team better, although that happens, too, of course. Keep this rule as is!
Any surprises by the teams being relegated?
AP: Not really. Italy and Great Britain got more experience than they might have hoped for because of covid and no relegations the last couple of years, so hopefully they can leverage that extra time to improve their programs and get more people playing, more arenas built. But not a surprise.
LA: To see Italy relegated in Group A was not surprising, but you can certainly argue that France dodged a bullet this year. Coach Philippe Bozon’s squad was missing key NHL veterans like Antoine Roussel and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. They were also just over a minute away from losing 1-0 to Italy a week ago before rallying to win it with captain Sacha Treille’s equalizer and Hugo Gallet’s overtime marker. We’ll have to wait and see if this kicks off another 12-year run in the top division for France, like 2008 to 2019.
Have the goalkeepers been the difference-makers so far?
LA: So far, the Group A goalies that have stood out to me have been the plucky heroes under siege: Italy’s Andreas Bernard, Kazakhstan’s Andrei Shutov, Denmark’s Sebastian Dahm. These guys are fun to watch and you hope they have access to the best fluids and massage therapy money can buy, because they work so hard. But by the same token, none of them made enough of a difference to pull his team into the playoffs. Conversely, the top playoff-bound Group A goalie, by the numbers, is Germany’s Philipp Grubauer (2.23 GAA, 91.5 save percentage). The Seattle Kraken veteran has been good, but not jaw-dropping.
AP: There have been a number of solid performances in the blue ice. Berra has been one, as well as Grubauer and Dahm. There haven’t been any Mike Smith-type goals yet (!), but at this level sometimes it’s about making a big save at the right time. Sometimes it’s about solid, reliable goaltending that gives the team confidence. But the bigger the games, the more important the ‘tenders become, so the best is still to come.
Switzerland is now 7-0, as hot as they were in 2013. Is this the year they win gold?
AP: They are certainly contenders. And if they win – which would be for the first time ever, by the way – it wouldn’t be a complete shock. They really have played well in all zones. With the exceptions of 1933 (United States) and 2002 (Slovakia), only six nations have ever won gold, so it would be great to welcome a new country to the list of gold medallists.
LA: If you’re Switzerland, you ask yourself the classic question: “Why not us?” On paper, the Swiss have every right to believe this could be their year. You can argue that Hischier and Meier – in terms of what they bring right now – are bigger stars, bigger key players than anyone on the 2022 Finnish Olympic roster that won gold in Beijing. Anything less than a medal this year should be a big disappointment for Switzerland. But for gold specifically? I still lean toward the host Finns as the favourites, with Sweden and Canada also in the running.
Who will win the Helsinki quarters?
LA: Germany-Czechia is a tough one to call. The Czechs have been better defensively through the preliminary round, allowing just 13 goals to Germany’s 20. Also, with the addition of David Pastrnak, the Czechs have a game-breaker that Germany can’t match. However, the Germans have better balanced scoring: so far, seven Germans have recorded five points or more, compared to just four Czechs. I also really like the way coach Toni Soderholm’s blue line is performing, led by 2021 tournament all-star and 2022 Calder Trophy candidate Moritz Seider of the Detroit Red Wings. I’ll take Germany in a close one, say, 3-2 or 4-3. As for Switzerland-U.S., the Swiss have clearly been the better team from Day One with seven wins. The Americans have beaten one true contender in Sweden, 3-2 in overtime, but also surrendered a point to underdog Austria, 3-2 in overtime. Credit where credit is due: the U.S. has been very good defensively with just 10 goals allowed, and has also gotten offensive flair from team scoring leaders Alex Galchenyuk and Adam Gaudette (five points apiece). With that said, the Swiss have the tournament’s top power play (8-for-22, 36.3 percent) and second-best penalty-killing (just two goals allowed). They’re just better-balanced overall. Here, a 4-2 Swiss win wouldn’t be a shocker.
AP: I'll dip into the other Group as well. Finland is playing Czech-2000-era hockey and looks pretty invincible, so they’re the easy choice. Sweden, now they have Nylander, get my vote to beat Canada, although Canada, as everyone knows, has a knack for rising to the occasion. Agree, I think the Swiss can eliminate the Americans. Germany-Czechia is the toughest to call…but I’ll go with Germany in what would be a bit of an upset perhaps.