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Behind Hiller and Streit, Swiss can surprise

Sunday, 02.14.2010 / 9:00 AM / All-Access Vancouver

By Risto Pakarinen - NHL.com Correspondent

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Behind Hiller and Streit, Swiss can surprise
The Swiss have been known to produce some unpleasant surprises for Olympic foes, a trait they look to continue in 2010.
It may be an overstatement to say that Switzerland's men's ice hockey team -- as it's called in Olympic speak -- goes from being the center of attention (having been the host of the 2009 World Championships) to obscurity, but in a country full of alpine skiers, snowboarders, skiers, and gold medal hopefuls, the hockey team's not the focal point of their Vancouver experience.

And that's a good thing for the team that obviously didn't like the home ice pressure in Berne and placed a disappointing ninth. This time around, the Swiss can come to Vancouver, after a short camp in Winnipeg, and just play.

The tournament marks also the end of Ralph Krueger's era at the helm of Team Switzerland. The Manitoba-born coach has agreed to step down after the Olympic tournament. Naturally, he would like to end his 13-year career as the national team coach on the highest possible note: a medal.

In Torino four years ago, Switzerland beat the Czech Republic 3-2 and two days later shocked Canada 2-0, with Martin Gerber getting the shutout. In the quarterfinal, Switzerland was eliminated with a 6-2 loss to Sweden, which went on to Olympic gold while the Swiss finished sixth.

Goalies

Anaheim's Jonas Hiller was always going to be the starter in this tournament, but Martin Gerber's neck injury in a Russian KHL league game earlier this season did take down a good backup. Now the team is Hiller's to carry, and the Anaheim Duck who turns 28 on the day of the Olympic opening ceremony is surely a big enough man to handle the pressure.

Hiller recently signed a four-year contract extension with the Ducks, which made Jean-Sebastien Giguere the odd man out. Hiller's 25 wins in 44 games ranks tenth in the NHL. His 12 wins since Jan. 1 are second-best in the League. In the Olympics, he needs to get -- at the worst best-case scenario -- just three, to win a medal for Switzerland.

Defense

The Islanders' Mark Streit is coach Krueger's go-to guy. At the 2009 World Championships he received the most ice time of all players in the tournament, and led the team in scoring with 5 points in six games. Streit will be the man on the point of the power play and he'll quarterback the action from there.

Severin Blindenbacher and Mathias Seger will also see power play time, and Seger has a heavy shot that will surely be of use. Luca Sbisa, 20, is an interesting player on the Swiss blue line. Just two months ago he played for Switzerland in the World Junior Championship.

Forwards

Even if there's no current NHL experience on the Swiss offense, there's a lot of experience. Martin Pluss and Ivo Ruthemann have been around a block or two, and Hnat Domenichelli has played over 200 games in the NHL for the Whalers, Flames, Thrashers and Wild. When the Swiss National League A went on its Olympic break, the Edmonton-born Domenichelli was second in scoring with 27 goals and 59 points in 48 games. In Vancouver, he'll be making his true international debut wearing the Swiss jersey, and to do it in Canada will be special for him.

Switzerland isn't known to be a high-scoring team, and at least year's World Championship, the team scored just 12 goals in six games. In 2008 championship, the Swiss scored 20 in seven games.

Star gazing

The Ducks thought Hiller was the man of the future, so they signed him to a four-year contract extension. Hiller's new deal also made him the second-best paid Swiss athlete in the world, behind tennis star Roger Federer.

A low-scoring, disciplined team like Switzerland builds its team on solid goaltending, and in Hiller, they have it.

Striking it rich

Even if the odds are heavily against Switzerland, anything is possible. The gap between the top nations and Switzerland has narrowed in recent years, and while Switzerland probably wouldn't win a best-of-seven series against any of the top-six ranked teams, it just as likely wouldn't loose in a sweep, either. And with the Olympic tournament coming down to a few one-game eliminations, Switzerland has a chance to surprise.

Of course, if that is to happen, Hiller must be on top of his game, Streit must play inspired and he must bring an extra set of lungs because he will be playing a lot, and the forwards must score on their chances. A few calls in Switzerland's favor, an effective power play, and the team can shut down any opponent.