QUEBEC – The Swiss are starting to look comfortable among the top eight in international hockey.
Once a B-pool regular, Switzerland displaced Germany in 2003 as the No. 8 team in the world behind the long-established Big-7 – Canada, Russia, the Czech Republic, the United States, Sweden, Finland and Slovakia, in no particular order.
And Slovakia’s failure to get past the preliminary round at the IIHF World Hockey Championship this week will see the Swiss move at least a spot or two higher in the next world rankings of hockey-playing countries.
“To pass Slovakia is a monumental step,” said Ralph Krueger, the Winnipeg native who has coached Switzerland since 1997. “It’s something I thought I’d never see in my time as coach.”
A 7-2 drubbing of lowly Denmark on Sunday guaranteed at least third place in their qualifying round group, thanks to an upset 4-2 victory over Sweden earlier in the tournament.
In other games Sunday, Latvia beat Norway 4-1, Finland beat the United States 3-2 in Halifax and Sweden downed the Czech Republic 5-3 in Quebec City.
Switzerland plays its last round robin game Monday against Russia.
The Swiss were coming off a deflating 5-0 loss to the Czechs and stormed out against Denmark, taking an early 2-0 lead then outshooting them 54-20 enroute to a lopsided win.
“We had a few days to regroup and I’m really pleased with how we started,” said Krueger. “We’re excited to be back in the quarter-finals.
“It’s great for our program. It could have ruined the week if we had a bad game today.”
Switzerland’s rise as a hockey power has come through strong youth programs and a good national pro league.
Only one player on the world championship team, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native Paul DiPietro, was developed outside the country, and the former NHL forward plays for Zug in the Swiss league and has had Swiss citizenship for several years.
What is surprising about this year’s team is that they are winning without a handful of long-time national team stalwarts, including their only full-time NHL skater – Montreal Canadien Mark Streit.
Streit, who had 62 points playing forward and defence for Montreal, is out with a back injury.
“It was a huge challenge for us when Mark couldn’t come,” said Krueger. “He averaged 30 minutes of ice time.
“But we had young players step in. And we don’t think about players who aren’t here, only the players we have.”
Krueger also initiated a youth movement, leaving veterans like former Edmonton Oiler Michel Riesen, ex-Chicago Blackhawk Reto Van Arx, Martin Pluss and Patrick Fischer off the team.
Changes were in order after the team barely managed to finish eighth at last year’s world championship in Moscow.
As well as adding young players like defencemen Philippe Furrer and Raphael Diaz, Krueger also got his team out of its long-standing defensive shell and allowed his players to go on attack more.
“We play a very simple game,” said Furrer. “We play as a team and we know we’re strong when we do that and that we’ll get our chances.
“Each guy does his job and we trust each other. And we’ve got good goaltending.”
With Ottawa Senators starter Martin Gerber and Anaheim Ducks back-up Jonas Hiller, Switzerland doesn’t even need former NHL goalie David Aebischer.
Long-time Swiss hockey writer Klaus Zaugg jokes that Krueger introduced “glasnost” by lightening the team’s defensive-oriented hockey after the Moscow tournament.
“He had to do something because Switzerland will be host (of the world championships) next year and because of the poor performance in Moscow,” said Zaugg. “I think last year was the most boring Swiss team ever.”
This year’s side looks a little bigger and lot more poised than past Swiss teams.
Their 2-0 victory over Canada’s best at the 2006 Winter Olympics, which needed a 49-save effort from Gerber, remains the country’s biggest win ever, but beating a top team is not quite as huge an upset as it once was.
They’ll shoot for another against Alexander Ovechkin and the Russians, although with a quarter-final spot secured, Krueger said he will rest some players who are playing with minor injuries, who of course he didn’t name.
“We respect teams, but we’re a good team, too,” added Furrer. “We’re top-8.
“We want to beat the Russians. It doesn’t matter if their players are from the NHL or from Norway or anywhere else, we just want to win the game.”
Andres Ambuhl, Sandy Jeannin, Marc Reichert, Thierry Paterlini, Paul DiPietro, Philippe Furrer and Beat Forster scored for the Swiss against Denmark before an announced crowd of 8,338 at Pepsi Colisee.
With Switzerland leading 6-0 in the third period, Denmark scored twice. Morten Madsen scored on a shot that went in off Swiss defenceman Goran Bezina’s leg and Kim Staal beat Gerber on a penalty shot.
Denmark plays Belarus on Monday looking for a win and a chance to finish 10th, which will allow them to play host next year to the qualifying tournament for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
In Halifax, Mikko Koivu’s goal with 3:50 left in regulation capped a wild comeback as Finland rallied for three third-period goals in a 3-2 win over the U.S.
The Americans took a two-goal lead to the third after scoring twice in the second. But in the final period it was all Finns, as they scored three times on 25 shots. With Finland enjoying a power play, Koivu took the puck from the end boards, came out front and stuffed the puck past American netminder Robert Esche.
In a night game before 7,864 in Quebec City, Patric Hornqvist broke a tie with 4:53 left to play to give Sweden the 5-3 victory over the Czechs.
After a scoreless first period, the Swedes took one-goal leads in the second period on tallies by Anton Stralman and Marcus Nilson only to see the Czechs tie it each time on power-play goals by Patrick Elias and Ales Kotalik.
Mattias Weinhandl gave Sweden another lead 1:14 into the third period, but Tomas Fleischman, playing on the top line after Patrick Elias suffered an unknown injury, got it back at 9:41 as he shated out from behind the net, spun and beat Henrik Lundqvist with a wrist shot.
But Hornqvist’s fifth goal of the tournament on a rebound from the slot at 15:07 gave Sweden the decisive lead and Nilson got his second of the game into an empty net with 26 seconds left to play.
Czech coach Alois Hadamczik said Elias suffered a sore knee when he crashed into the net. He said the injury did not appear to be serious and he expects Elias to play in the quarter-finals on Wednesday.
The Swedes, who had Niclas Wallin back from a two-game suspension but were without suspended blue-liner Douglas Murray, killed a 1:06 two-man Czech advantage in the first period.