How long can someone be an underdog?
We’re about to find out.
Switzerland heads to Winter Olympics pegged by many as the tournament darkhorse, a squad capable of pulling upsets and possibly getting into medal contention. There’s just one problem: Switzerland might actually be too good to sneak up on anyone anymore.
“Things have changed quite a bit,” Vancouver defenseman Raphael Diaz said, per NHL.com. “I’m in the NHL and my country has more NHLers now, and I really think Switzerland is recognized as a better team.
“I’m sure other countries notice that and they prepare harder, so I’m not sure we can surprise them.”
As Diaz mentioned, Switzerland’s firmly established itself both in North American and abroad. Eleven Swiss players have appeared in NHL games this season — three fewer than Slovakia, for comparison’s sake — and that group includes veteran defenseman Mark Streit, Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller and Minnesota forward Nino Niederreiter, the highest-drafted Swiss player in NHL history (fifth overall, 2010).
Internationally, Switzerland has been coming on strong as of late.
The Swiss won silver at the 2013 World Hockey Championships, medaling for the first time since 1953. They recorded wins over the Czech Republic (twice), Canada and the U.S. before falling to Sweden in the gold medal match, and this was no pushover tournament — Henrik Sedin and Paul Stastny made the all-star team, while Steve Stamkos and Ilya Kovalchuk led the Canadian and Russian teams in scoring.
For Canucks defenseman Yannick Weber — who missed the Worlds to injury, but will be playing in Sochi — the result was historic.
“It was phenomenal for Swiss hockey,” he said, per The Province. “It’s not the Olympics and people here [North America] don’t take it as seriously, but it’s still a good tournament and some of the best players are there.
“We’ve had some success in the past, beating one of the big teams once in a while, but going to that final and pretty much dominating every opponent, it helped Swiss hockey have confidence.”
The problem for Switzerland, though, is that it no longer holds minnow status. Opponents are aware of how good the Swiss have been in international competition, especially on the Olympic stage. In Vancouver four years ago, Switzerland took the Canadians to a shootout and lost a pair of hard-fought, two-goal games to the Americans.
Opponents have also likely done homework on how to beat Hiller, arguably Switzerland’s most important player.
The Anaheim goalie, enjoying a banner campaign in which he was a star of the month in December and star of the week in January, will likely carry Switzerland in these Olympics. He memorably posted 43 saves in the shootout loss Canada four years ago that stood as one of the tourney’s best performances, and his stellar play this year (25-9-4, 2.34 GAA, .917 save percentage, four shutouts) is key, because he’ll need to keep slamming the door in Sochi.
The Swiss don’t have a ton of offense — Niederreiter (11 goals, 29 points) and New Jersey’s Damien Brunner (nine goals, 17 points) will carry the load — and generally tend to play in low-scoring affairs, taking a conservative approach while frequently clogging the neutral zone.
Hiller’s aware of how vital a role he’s going to play.
“Our players can play with anybody in the world, and goaltending can always win a game,” he said, per the Globe and Mail. “Sometimes goaltending can equal out a lot of other things that a bigger team might have going for it.
“We need our best game out of everybody to have a chance to compete with the big teams, and hope that they don’t play their best. But if you have that game and the other team doesn’t, who knows?”