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A pressure-proof team for Switzerland

by Risto Pakarinen /
Switzerland has taken long strides toward the top, first ousting Germany from the "Big Eight," and then practically edging Slovakia out of the mix to make it to the "Big Seven."

Now that's on the World Championship level, where most countries compete without their top NHL talent. The Olympics are a different story. Fortunately for Switzerland, its four NHLers are in key positions -- on defense and in goal.

This is the team that was supposed to take another step toward the top of the hockey world at their home World Championship last May, but that somehow crumbled under the pressure.

With a good nine hours between the team when it reports to Vancouver and the fans at home, head coach Ralph Krueger can make sure the team stays focused on the task at hand. By the way, Krueger has been coaching Switzerland since 1998, but will leave at the end of the season.

In the 2006 Olympics, Switzerland beat first the Czech Republic (3-2) and then, two days later, Canada (2-0). Then, however, it tied in its games against minnows Italy and Germany. Those are growing pains, friends.    

Here, though, is the team that I believe will not crumble.

I've picked several of Krueger's trusted players, and practically all eligible Swiss-Canadian players for two reasons. The Canadians will obviously give their all for their new country, they'll leave everything on the ice playing in Canada. And secondly, the veteran players who've traveled together with Krueger will also absolutely want to make sure that their Canadian-born head coach will get the sendoff he deserves.

Heart is what this team has. And soul. And maybe a little blues, due to Krueger's last Olympic hurrah.

And of course, speed and skill.

Right, Ralph?

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks -- OK, this is a no-brainer. The only Swiss-born starting goalie in the NHL is definitely also the Team Switzerland starter -- especially when he's playing well.

Martin Gerber, Atlant Mystishi (KHL) -- The former NHLer, and a native son of Emmental, the home of the famous Swiss cheese, played all the games at the most recent Worlds, and played well. He's having a solid season in the KHL and is also important for the team, thanks to his experience in big games.

Marco Buhrer, SC Bern (NLA)
-- If everything goes well, the third goalie won't see any action. However, Brührer is having a good season, and has international experience so he can get the job done, if needed.

Mark Streit, N.Y. Islanders -- The heart and soul of the Swiss team, Streit clocked the most minutes on ice at the 2009 World Championship, averaging 28 minutes a game. His ability to dominate, especially on offensive end, is key.
Severin Blindenbacher, Farjestad (SEL) -- When Streit takes off on a rush, Blindenbacher -- with one of the greatest names in the hockey world -- shores up the defensive end and makes sure the Swiss aren't left vulnerable to the counter attack.

Mathias Seger, Zurich (NLA) -- The captain of Zurich Lions, the reigning Victoria Cup champions, is a defenseman who makes few mistakes. An excellent quarterback on the power play, Seger also boasts a heavy shot.

Luca Sbisa, Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL) -- The young defenseman has huge potential, even if the early season hasn't been going like a dance -- capped by his tough-to-take demotion from Anaheim back to junior hockey late last month. Still, Sbisa has the skill. Krueger will bring the confidence.

Yannick Weber, Montreal Canadiens -- A right-shooting defenseman gives more options for the second power-play unit. Weber is a young defenseman, but he is already well acquainted with the secrets of the NHL-sized rink, having played in North America since his major junior days.

Goran Bezina, Geneve-Servette HC (NLA) -- Bezina is a top-four defenseman for Chris McSorley in the Swiss League, but he will be a bottom-pair defender here, which may complement his back-to-basics game. Bezina's focus is on defense, so no end-to-end rushes are expected.

Roman Josi, SC Bern (NLA) -- Just 19, Josi is already among the best offensive defenseman in Switzerland. Josi, a second-round pick of Nashville in 2008, is third in scoring in the Swiss National League A, behind Martin Pluss and Ivo Ruthemann.

Philippe Furrer, SC Bern (NLA) -- One errant slap shot into the own net, at the 2008 World Championships, did not discourage Krueger from naming him to his squad for the next tournament. And why would it have? A great defenseman when healthy.

Paul DiPietro, EV Zug (NLA) -- The veteran forward has bounced back from a knee injury, and will be useful in a number of situations. The 1993 Stanley Cup champion's drive and grit will be an asset in a short tournament like this.

Ryan Gardner, ZSC Lions (NLA) -- DiPietro brings grit, Gardner, another Canadian -born forward, brings size. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound winger is good around the net, a skill needed by this team -- especially in games played on the smaller ice surface.

Hnat Domenichelli, Lugano (NLA) -- He's sporting a brand new Swiss passport and the Olympics are in his native Canada? That's a recipe for success for Lugano's best forward to shine. He played well at the recent Deutschland Cup and is the natural scorer Switzerland needs.

Ivo Ruthemann, SC Bern (NLA) -- This Bern star is fast, skilled, been around a few hockey blocks. Ruthemann and Martin Pluss were the core of Switzerland's power play at the Worlds; and, as teammates in Bern, they know each other well.

Martin Pluss, SC Bern (NLA) -- The 32-year-old center fell out of step with Krueger, missed a few World Championships, but has now returned to Team Switzerland. Pluss, who will be playing in his 15th international tournament, a run that started at the World Juniors, leads the Swiss league in game-winning goals.

Andres Ambuhl, Hartford (AHL) -- A tiny ball of fire is what Ambuhl is. A national team regular for the past five years, Ambuhl will be on the ice when Krueger wants something to happen. Anything.

Thibaut Monnet, ZSC Lions (NLA) -- The reliable Monnet is a third-liner on this team, with the potential to score a big goal thanks to a good shot -- and an excellent work ethic.

Patrik Bartschi, ZSC Lions (NLA) -- In October, Bartschi brought down the Chicago Blackhawks in the Victoria Cup. He's a skilled stickhandler with a great hockey sense, speed, and the ability to do the unexpected.

Romano Lemm, Lugano (NLA) -- Together with Blindenbacher, Bartschi, and Ambuhl, Lemm was a part of the 2001 team that won silver at the World Under-18 Championship. He is a multi-faceted forward who had a pair of goals in last year's World Championships.

Thierry Paterlini, Rapperswil (NLA) -- The captain of Rapperswil has more than 50 World Championship games under his belt, and had a good tournament in Switzerland last May. Besides, Switerland needs some of that Italian flair.

Julien Sprunger, Fribourg (NLA) -- Sprunger, a fourth-round selection of the Minnesota Wild in 2004, was injured badly a the 2009 World Championship. He has recovered and is back in action -- a testament to his strong will. He's a strong skater with a big body that has been a point-per-game pLayer in Switzerland for the past two years.    

Sandy Jeannin, Fribourg (NLA) -- The 33-year-old winger played for Team Switzerland before Ralph Krueger was head coach, and that's a while ago. Entering his 20th international tournament, Jeannin's 19:25 minutes per game were most for forwards on Team Switzerland at the Worlds in May.

Risto Pakarinen is a Stockholm-based contributor to fluent in both Swiss hockey and Swiss cheese. He was in Zurich to document ZSC's historic victory against Chicago in the Victoria Cup in October.

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