Switzerland Hockey Emerging as a Medal Contender at 2014 Winter Olympics

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IFebruary 16, 2014

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Jonas Hiller is steadily transforming Switzerland into a legitimate contender.

The Switzerland men's hockey team sports just eight NHL players and a national population less than the Chicago metro area. Offensively, the Swiss have managed only two goals in three games—a production rate that won't exactly keep up with the likes of Canada or the United States.

Yet Hiller remains perfect on the stat sheet entering the elimination rounds, and Switzerland will emerge as the second seed in Group C after defeating the Czech Republic, 1-0.

Jonas Hiller #1 of Switzerland tends goal against Czech Republic during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group C game on day eight of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 15, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Julio Cortez -
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The 32-year-old Anaheim Ducks backstop and native of Felben-Wellhausen, Switzerlanda small village that's just minutes from the German border—stopped all 21 shots he faced on Wednesday vs. Latvia and then turned away 26 bids from the Czechs on Saturday.

Backup netminder Reto Berra, a Calgary Flames product, stopped 30 of 31 shots in Switzerland's one loss to Sweden.

In the 2013-14 NHL season, a mere 21 of the 880 games played so far (about 2.4 percent) ended with a final score of 1-0. In the last three Winter Olympics, only three of 133 games (2.3 percent) finished 1-0.

In three group-stage games in 2014, Switzerland has played to a final score of 1-0 all three times. Twice, they've won.

First-line forward Damien Brunner spoke to reporters about his team on Saturday afternoon, per NHL.com's Corey Masisak:

I think we have enough chances to score maybe one or two more goals, but now we have two wins and we're in a good spot. We play really solid defensively. We don't allow a lot of good scoring chances, and our goaltending has been outstanding.

The expectations, they continue to grow in Switzerland. We have young players and new goals. We go into games and don't want to hide. We want to go and play right with those top teams.

There truly exists no comparable for the ideology by which this team is playing and succeeding.

The last three gold-medal winners (Canada in 2010, Sweden in 2006 and Canada in 2002) averaged 5.0, 3.5 and 3.7 goals per game, respectively. Switzerland in 2014 is averaging 0.67 goals per game. Somehow, though, the team is making such a lack of firepower seem like a minor argument against its potential.

After all, this Swiss squad—never flush on NHL superstars but always full of determinationhas put far more prominent teams on upset watch before.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Hiller stopped 44 of 46 shots, including 18 in the third period alone, and took Canada to the fourth round of a shootout in the 2010 group stage before finally falling 3-2. Switzerland then kept it close with the eventual silver-medal-winning Americans in the quarterfinals but dropped a 2-0 decision.

2006 was even more impressive, as Switzerland defeated both Canada and the Czech Republic in the group stage before being knocked off in the quarterfinals by Sweden, which went on to win the entire tournament.

This year, it's feasible that a third straight elimination in the quarterfinals would be viewed as a disappointment.

With a defense supported by a respectable core of NHL regulars, including Philadelphia's Mark Streit, Nashville's Roman Josi, and Vancouver's Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz, in front of Hiller, it's quite possible that No. 1's blue crease of perfection could still hold up against the dazzling offensive stars of more well-known contenders.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 15:  Simon Bodenmann #23 of Switzerland celebrates with his teammates after scoring a goal in the first period against Ondrej Pavelec #31 of the Czech Republic during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group C game on day eigh
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The offense also has more skill than the box score may indicate.

Former fifth overall draft pick Nino Niederreiter has experienced a career breakout campaign with the Minnesota Wild this season. Brunner is just one year removed from ranking fifth on the Red Wings in points. Roman Wick and Luca Cunti are two of the top three scorers in Switzerland's professional league, ahead of former NHL-ers like Peter Mueller, Matthew Lombardi and Rob Schremp.

Arguably the biggest factor in favor of a Switzerland dark-horse run, however, is the team's very identity.

Few fans remember that the Swiss have earned at least one point in two consecutive meetings with Canada, and it's doubtful that many players or coaches in this Olympics remember it either.

Even fewer realize just how unbeatable Jonas Hiller—shrouded under the radar by years in the non-traditional Anaheim marketcan be.

And three 1-0 games to kick off the tournament haven't attracted much attention, either.

The Swiss strategy could be bested in the qualification round by a far inferior opponent, when the only key to victory is not the simple task of protecting the net but rather lighting the lamp at least a couple of times on the other end.

The Swiss strategy could also prove a brilliantly crafted obstacle in the ambitious paths of the U.S., Canada and Russia and perhaps yield a medal of its own.

Regardless, Switzerland should not be ignored as the 2014 Winter Olympics progress into the elimination rounds.

They've proved themselves worthy of an audience.


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