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Team Switzerland surprises with scoring punch

by Bill Meltzer

Team Switzerland forward Paul DiPietro, a former member of the Montreal Canadiens, has five points thus far at the 2008 World Championships.
Switzerland produces only a handful of NHL players, but the Swiss national team usually holds its own in international competition. That's because the Swiss hockey program produces high-quality goaltending and trains players to play a defensively sound style of hockey. Team Switzerland usually stays competitive in games.

What Team Switzerland hasn't been able to do -- at least until now -- is score goals. Through six games at the 2008 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Halifax and Quebec City, the Swiss have scored 20 goals for an average 3.33 goals per game.

While that may seem modest compared with the high-powered attacks of Canada, Russia and other medal favorites, it has been sufficient for the Swiss to win four of their six games to date. And the Swiss have done it without the services of high-scoring Montreal Canadiens defenseman/forward Mark Streit.

Switzerland shocked Sweden, 4-2, to win Preliminary Round Group A with a perfect 3-0 record. Despite getting blown out (5-0) by the Czech Republic, the Swiss rebounded to rout Denmark (7-2) and give Russia some anxious moments in a 5-3 Russian victory. The Swiss and Russians will square off again today in the medal-round quarterfinals.

Defense remains the foundation

Over the last decade, Switzerland has emerged from being a Division I (formerly called Pool B) nation to being a top-10 fixture at the elite level. In eight of the last 10 World Championships, the Swiss have finished eighth or ninth. Its best semi-recent showing was sixth in 2000.

When Team Switzerland can frustrate its opponents' top scorers, it can scratch out wins against even elite opponents The real international coming out party for the Swiss national team took place at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. En route to a respectable sixth-place showing, Switzerland beat the Czech Republic and Canada on successive days. Ever since, opposing teams have realized they can't simply dismiss the Swiss.

"Switzerland's hockey program has come as far as any country, and I think that's a feather in their cap," said St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray, who previously coached in Switzerland and later guided Team Canada to three World Championship gold medals. "They've improved tremendously at all levels.”

Strong goaltending and a commitment to team defense has become a hallmark of Team Switzerland, and this year's Worlds are no exception. The Swiss, coached since 1998 by Ralph Krueger, boast two NHL goaltenders in the Ottawa Senators' Martin Gerber and the Anaheim Ducks' Jonas Hiller. Gerber has won three of his four starts, posting a 2.25 goals-against average and a solid .912 save percentage, while Hiller (3.06 GAA, .909 save percentage) has split his two starts.

The Swiss usually defend their goaltenders by playing a classically European defensive system that relies on positional play and skating. Heading into this year's World Championships, which are being played on the smaller North American ice surface, many questioned how well Switzerland's style would translate to the smaller ice.

As it turns out, they've done fine. Krueger has a more offensively talented group of players available to him than in past years and, in crafting his roster, looked toward bigger and stronger players than he has in the past. For that reason, he left some veteran national-team stalwarts off the final roster, such as 5-foot-7 right wing Ivo Rüthemann (a top scorer for SC Bern) and  5-8 center Martin Plüss (a solid offensive player in Sweden's Elitserien for the Frölunda Indians).

Nevertheless, Team Switzerland still relies on 5-foot-8, 37-year-old passport player Paul DiPietro to provide timely scoring. The Canadian-born former NHLer – who won the 1993 Stanley Cup as a member of the Montreal Canadiens – still rises to the occasion in international play. 

DiPietro scored both Swiss goals in the win against Canada at the 2006 Olympics and provided three goals and five points at the World Championships in Russia last year. In six games at this year's tournament, he has posted five points.

Among the native-born-and-trained Swiss on Krueger's 2008 squad, Minnesota Wild draftee Julien Sprunger (HC Fribourg-Gotternon) and former Pittsburgh Penguins draftee Patrik Bärtschi (SC Bern) have emerged as two of the better scorers in the Swiss league. The Swiss blue line features two of the top offensive-minded defensemen in the domestic league. Former Phoenix Coyotes blueliner Goran Bezina (Servette Geneva) was the top all-around defenseman in the Nationalliga this year. Twenty-five-year-old former Phoenix Coyotes prospect Beat Forster (Zurich Lions) tallied 14 goals this season.

Sprunger, who scored 27 goals and 47 points in 49 domestic league games this season, has been Switzerland's most dangerous scoring threat in this tournament. He's been especially dangerous on the power play. Through six games, he has tallied three goals (all on the man advantage) and added two assists.

Julien Sprunger has three goals and two assists so far at the 2008 Worlds.
Foster has brought the hoped-for punch from the back line. He has scored a pair of goals and chipped in two assists. He has also posted a plus-two rating while playing heavy minutes (21:03 on average) for Krueger. Bärtschi, who recorded a combined 41 goals and 74 points in the last two Swiss Nationalliga seasons, has a goal and three points so far in tournament, while Bezina has a pair of assists and has logged 21:27 of ice time.

The Swiss have also gotten strong play from former Columbus Blue Jackets center prospect Raffaele Sannitz (HC Lugano) and forward Andres Ambühl (HC Davos).

The 25-year-old Sannitz, who tallied just 16 points during the Swiss season and has never reached double-digit goals in his pro career, has scored twice and added two assists in the tourney. Ambühl, 24, has chipped in a pair of goals and three assists.

Team Switzerland has also gotten balanced scoring, with 14 players scoring at least one goal in the preliminary and playoff-qualification rounds. The squad is also applying more forechecking pressure than past versions of the national team, and has generated more shots on goal as a result.

Dangerous underdog

Entering the medal-round quarterfinals, Switzerland remains a huge underdog against Russia. But the Swiss have already fashioned an upset win against Sweden in the preliminary round and have twice stunned Russia in past World Championship meetings over the last decade, including a 3-2 win in the 2000 tournament in St. Petersburg.

The current version of Team Russia is considerably deeper and more stacked with top-end NHL talent than the ones that got upset by the Swiss in 1998 and 2000. Even so, Team Switzerland has demonstrated to the Russians that it won't go away quietly.

The two teams met on Monday in their final medal-round qualification games. The Russians steamrolled the Swiss in the first period. Russia scored three goals and outshot Switzerland by a 14-4 count. A goal by Sergei Fedorov midway through the second period made it 4-0, and the shots were 28-8 through the first 40 minutes.

But Russia made the mistake of shutting down its engine in the third period, and the Swiss threw a scare into them. The Swiss came back to shave two goals off the deficit on a power-play goal by Sannitz and a shorthanded tally by Julien Vauclair. Romano Lemm later added a third goal as the Swiss made things respectable in a 5-3 loss. Switzerland outshot Russia in the final period, 14-9.

With a spot in the medal-round semifinals up for grabs, Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov has stressed the need to play hard for 60 minutes against Krueger's team, not 40 minutes. Meanwhile, Switzerland has clinched its best finish since 1991. The Swiss can finish no lower than seventh in the tournament, and could beat out Team USA (which is entirely comprised of NHL players) if the Americans lose their quarterfinal grudge match with Team Finland.

But Krueger isn't ready to concede anything to Russia in the quarterfinals, and isn't content with the Swiss program being a half-step ahead of the likes of Germany but still a step behind the top five or six nations. He's also not prepared yet to look ahead to next year, when Switzerland will play host to the 2009 Worlds. Instead, he's solely focused on trying to shock the Russians and the entire hockey world.

"We want to beat another country where no one thinks we have a chance,” he said to Martin Merk of

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