While many top teams such as Canada, Russia, Sweden and Finland have performed as well as expected during the early portion of the 2013 World Hockey Championships, there are several other teams that have surprised observers by playing better or worse than most experts predicted.
International play is often a crapshoot as the names on the rosters don't tell the entire story. Canada is chock full of NHL All-Stars, and that is often the case, but the Canadians have struggled in this tournament in recent years. Squads that play as a team rather than a collection of individuals almost always thrive at the World Hockey Championships.
Here are three teams that have either fared much better or much worse than their collection of talent would suggest.
Switzerland may only have a few players on its roster with NHL experience, but that hasn't stopped them from going 3-0 to start the tournament. It isn't as if Switzerland has beaten up on the cellar dwellers in Group S either as it has already defeated Sweden, Czech Republic and Canada, who were considered by most to be the three best teams in the group. They have been so impressive that Shawn Hutcheon of TheFourthPeriod.com wonders if they should be rated among the big boys when it comes to international hockey.
One thing that Switzerland has is a roster full of players that is used to playing together internationally. Not only have many of them been on the same team in the Swiss National League, but Switzerland tends to send the same team to the World Hockey Championships every year, so there is a great deal of chemistry and synergy.
Switzerland is actually without many of its best players such as forward Damien Brunner, defenseman Luca Sbisa and goaltender Jonas Hiller as they are currently competing in the NHL playoffs. Despite that, Switzerland is in the driver's seat in Group S and the only things standing between it and a first-place finish are games against Norway, Belarus, Denmark and Slovenia. If the Swiss continue to play this way, it could very well be the top overall seed in the elimination round.
While Switzerland has performed well above expectations, the Czech Republic has been extremely disappointing thus far. Due to a roster featuring plenty of NHL talent, the Czechs were expected to contend for a gold medal. They still may, but they have gotten off to a rocky start. The Czech Republic is 1-2 after losses to Sweden and Switzerland, and while it isn't in danger of missing the elimination round, it needs to find its stride.
The Czechs still have games coming up against Norway, Denmark and Slovenia, so there are definitely wins to be had. At the same time, the Czech Republic will want to avoid finishing fourth in Group S because it would then have to play a top seed in the elimination round. The Czechs definitely have enough talent to flip the switch as NHL stars such as Tomas Fleischmann, Radim Vrbata, Jakub Voracek and many more.
Offense is the Czech Republic's strength on paper, but it has struggled to score consistently. The Czechs are part of a handful of teams with a real shot at winning it all, however, that simply hasn't been apparent. If they don't play to their potential soon, it could mean a quick and unexpected exit for the perennial contenders.
Norway is one of those teams that always qualifies for the World Hockey Championships and is always in the hunt to some degree, but never finds a way to advance past the preliminary round. Perhaps that will change this year, though, as the Norwegians won their first two games over Slovenia and Denmark. While those are admittedly teams that Norway should beat, playing against them early is a positive as it can possibly give them confidence moving forward.
Although Norway isn't as talented as Switzerland, the teams are quite similar as many of Norway's players are very familiar with each other. That is one thing that the smaller nations have over Canada, the United States and other large countries. Norway's players are committed to playing in international competitions and they play together quite often, so there is no gelling process needed early in the tournament.
It seems like Norway is in direct competition with the Czech Republic for the final qualifying spot in Group S, so it could all come down to their meeting on May 14. The Polar Bears are probably secretly rooting against the New York Rangers in the playoffs as they own the rights to Norway's best player in Mats Zuccarello. If the Rangers are eliminated and Zuccarello makes the trip to Sweden, then Norway could potentially shock the world by making the top eight.
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