THN in Sochi: Swiss staking out new position in world order

Perhaps we should referring to the Swiss as underdogs. Because they way they’ve played, combined with poor showings by both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have altered the balance of power in the hockey universe.

SOCHI – There was a time not too long ago when a Swiss win over Czech Republic would have been considered a huge upset. Not anymore and certainly not at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

A couple of reasons for that. First, the Swiss hockey program is on the rise and the Czechs are on the decline. Second, when you pick the players Czech coach Alois Hadamczik selected and ignore players such as Jiri Hudler and Tomas Fleischmann, you pretty much deserve to be beaten. (It certainly didn’t help that Patrik Elias missed the game with a sore throat/cold/flu and is apparently taking antibiotics, even though what he has sounds more viral than an infection.)

And as a result, the Czechs couldn’t score against a team that can’t score. After beating the Czechs 1-0 in their third preliminary round game, the Swiss have the incredibly identical numbers in their win-loss record (2-1) as they do in their goals for and against. Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller – what is it about these guys playing for California teams? – stopping all 44 shots he’s faced in two games certainly has a lot to do with that. But it’s also clear that for the Swiss to have success, they’re going to have to continue playing a style and relying on the kind of goaltending that produces soccer scores.

“I don’t think we have the skill set to be able to play a game of trading chances,” Hiller said. “We were talking about it before the game. We don’t want to go back and forth trading chances against the Czechs. I think we did a really good job of frustrating them…having them to dump pucks, which is out of their comfort zone and I think it worked really well.”

The Swiss win capped a wild day in Sochi, which started off with Slovenia shocking Slovakia 3-1, then continued with a wildly entertaining 3-2 win for USA over Russia in which T.J. Oshie scored four shootout goals. Even Latvia got into the act, scaring the living daylights out of Sweden before losing 5-3.

The way the Swiss have played of late, it’s clearly time to stop referring to them as underdogs. It’s also probably time they took their rightful place ahead of the Czechs and Slovakia in terms of being a world hockey power. Winners of the silver medal in last year’s World Championship, the Swiss are really coming on as a program, in part because a number of their young players are coming to play in the Canadian Hockey League instead of collecting far bigger paychecks in the Swiss League, a loop that has a high level itself because it is such a desired destination for ex-NHLers and those who would rather play there than in the American League.

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In fact, Swiss coach Sean Simpson is one of those guys himself. The 53-year-old native of Brampton, Ont., had two 100-point seasons in the Ontario League and played briefly in the American League and the Canadian national team before taking his career to Europe. He landed as a coach in Switzerland, where his Zurich Lions shocked the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 in a pre-season game in 2010. Earlier that year, Canada needed a shootout to beat Switzerland at the Olympics in Vancouver.

“A lot of people in North America don’t know how good the Swiss League is,” Simpson said. “The guys who come out of that league…it’s a fast league and they can really play.”

The Swiss currently have nine skaters and two goalies who have played in the NHL this season and nine of those players are with this team. But even with a significant contingent, the Swiss know they have to be at their best every shift of every game. They’re not good enough to take time off and they know it.

“I thought today in the first period I didn’t like our compete level and we lost a lot of 1-on-1 battles,” Simpson said. “Teams like Sweden and Czech are strong on the puck and our guys have to be reminded sometimes to always be strong on the puck. They can be, but sometimes they need to be reminded of that at this level.”

It’s strange because keeping teams to the outside and away from the dangerous scoring areas, clogging up the neutral zone and getting all-world goaltending was the precise recipe the Czechs used in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Swiss appear to have stolen and perfected that blueprint and are now beginning to look at the Czechs in their rearview mirror.