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Swiss, Belarus battle for right to play U.S.

by Bob Condor
No. 8 SWITZERLAND (0-1-1-1) vs. No. 9 BELARUS (1-0-0-2)

Last game: Belarus beat Germany, 5-3, to earn third place in Group C. Switzerland beat Norway, 5-4 in overtime, to take third place in Group A. Both teams finished the preliminary round with three points; Switzerland is the No. 8 seed based on goal differential.

What to expect: Look for a meaningful third period. Belarus gave Sweden a hard go in the prelims, keeping things undecided until the final minutes of a 4-2 loss. The Swiss worried the No. 1 seed Americans well into third and, just tip of the iceberg stuff for Canada, took the host country to the fourth round of a shootout.

Team Reports:

Belarus: Sergei Kostitsyn has delivered the goods for Belarus as one of only three NHL players on the country’s roster. He has two goals and three assists in three games, one of seven Olympians with 5 points at the top of scoring leaders list.

Another NHLer, team captain Ruslan Salei (Colorado), has been a steady influence from his defensive post. After a 5-3 Germany win, Salei was quick to discuss how all of his young teammates need to understand that a two-goal is no time to let up. He used two German goals in 39 seconds to tie it 3-3 in the third period to prove his point about letdowns. Salei scoring the game-winner doesn’t hurt his credibility.

A player to watch on the Belarus side is Alexsei Kalyuzhny, who plays for Dynamo Moscow. He’s smaller than most of his teammates, but skates harder and faster, turning in many of the best shifts up and down the ice each game. He scored two big goals in the German win.

Switzerland: Success begins and ends with goalie Jonas Hiller, the Anaheim Ducks star who can steal a game pretty any night he plays. He scuffled against Norway (which last won at the 1994 Winter Games on home ice in Lillehammer), but looked super-sharp against USA and Canada. After the Norway nail-biter, he was already shaking off any ill effects and conceding that maybe his defensemen missed a few too many assignments and didn’t hit a lot of people.

Mark Streit of the New York Islanders is Switzerland’s team captain and, like Salei, figured post-game that his fellow countrymen learned from a Norway they were supposed to easily win. He talked about how most of teammates had never played in such a high-intensity job as last Thursday’s shootout loss to Canada. Strait said he was not surprised many of the Swiss forgot about cycling the puck. So Strait took matters in his own hands, starting the play on two vital Switzerland goals. No doubt the Swiss won’t repeat any letdown in this win-or-go-home game.

Total NHL players on rosters: Switzerland 2, Belarus 2.

Puck Drop: Belarus has been a crowd favorite here in Vancouver. “It has been amazing,” said Salei, who is leading his squad with more than 24 minutes of ice time. “It has surprised me and the whole team. It almost feels like we are playing at home. I can’t thank the fans enough.” We’ll see if the underdog rooting continues against another underdog. Prediction: Belarus has the more potent offense, but Hiller will be up to the task in Tuesday’s qualifying round opener. It will be tight, maybe even a shootout, but the Swiss will get a second chance against the U.S. That’s probably not what the American team is wishing. Every player, coach and GM connected with Team USA can probably tell you are Jonas Hiller steal-a-game story.
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