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Swiss shoot to spread around Olympic offense

by Bill Meltzer
For two glorious days during the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Switzerland was the toast of the hockey world. In successive games, the lightly regarded Swiss team upended the Czech Republic, 3-2, and then shut out Canada, 2-0. Although Switzerland fell to eventual gold-medalist Sweden in the medal round, the team earned universal acclaim for its performance in the tournament.

Come next year in Vancouver, the Swiss will stare at the immense challenge of duplicating or exceeding their efforts from 2006. Ranked seventh in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation, Switzerland got a tough draw in the preliminary round of the 2010 tournament, opening against the U.S., followed by Canada and bracket underdog Norway.

Switzerland’s top domestic league (Nationalliga A) widely is considered to be one of the top four leagues in Europe in terms of the caliber of talent on display. However, much of the talent is imported; the scoring charts generally are dominated by foreign players. In international hockey, Switzerland often struggles to produce offense against top teams. If the Swiss have any hope of winning, they need to play mistake-free defense and receive outstanding goaltending.

Where will the goals come from for the Swiss in the Olympics? The team's deadliest weapon will be offensive defenseman Mark Streit. The New York Islanders' blueliner has a rocket of a shot that can overpower any goaltender or produce rebound opportunities for teammates hovering near the slot.

Beyond Streit, however, it's anyone’s guess who will step to the forefront of the Swiss attack. For many years, former NHLer Paul DiPietro has been a clutch performer and emotional leader for coach Ralph Krueger's team. The Canadian-born DiPietro scratched out both Swiss goals in the victory against Canada in Turin. The diminutive veteran center will be 39 years old when the 2010 Games start, but he almost certainly will answer the call again for Switzerland.

Switzerland also will look to right wing Julian Sprunger to provide some offensive spark. The former Minnesota Wild draftee (fourth round, 2004) has emerged as one of the top homegrown talents in the Nationalliga. Sprunger, 23, is a star for Fribourg-Gotteron, and experienced international success at the most recent IIHF World Championships. He led the Swiss with 3 goals and tied with DiPietro for the team lead with 5 points.

Strong team defense is Switzerland's hallmark. While it can't match firepower with any of the top teams in an international tournament, if the Swiss are to advance to the medal round again in Vancouver, they will need some additional offensive support beyond the aforementioned players.

Forwards such as former Columbus Blue Jackets hopeful Raffaele Sannitz and fellow Nationalliga players Patrik Bartschi and Andres Ambuhl all are capable of chipping in offensively from time to time. The same goes for defenseman Beat Forster, a one-time Phoenix Coyotes draftee who has become the top offensive defenseman in the Swiss league.

Assuming both players are healthy, Streit and Forster are locks to earn starting spots on the Swiss blue line. The team almost certainly will look to youngsters Yannick Weber and Luca Sbisa to provide quality minutes. Nationalliga players such as Goran Bezina and Severin Blindenbacher will round out the starting defense.

Goaltending is the one area where Switzerland legitimately can claim to match up with most of the teams in the tournament. In the 2006 Olympics, Martin Gerber played the game of his life in the shutout against Canada. Meanwhile, David Aebischer (currently Swiss club HC Lugano) cranked up a dandy in the win against the Czechs. 

Next year, however, the Swiss starting goaltender spot seems most likely to go to Jonas Hiller. The Anaheim Ducks goalie has outplayed Gerber by a significant margin throughout the current hockey season.

Whoever is in goal likely will see a lot of rubber when the Swiss play against the U.S. Canada in the first round of the tournament. While Switzerland once again will be significant underdogs, it would be foolish to discount their chances of producing another upset or two along the way.
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