TORONTO - When San Jose defenseman Mirco Mueller joined the Swiss junior national team last week for his third straight appearance in the world junior championship, he set a simple goal for himself and his teammates.
He is desperate to make this year decidedly different than his previous two trips - and truly historic for Swiss hockey. He wants to leave with a medal.
He believes it's a realistic objective, despite the fact that Switzerland has been on the podium only once before in the near four-decade history of the event, winning a bronze in 1998.
SHARKS AT WORLD JUNIORS
But if the team's 5-2 victory Saturday over the Czech Republic is any indication, the usual contending nations had best be wary of both the Swiss team and particularly its San Jose connection, which includes not just Mueller, but also fellow Shark prospect Noah Rod.
Both played essential roles in Switzerland's emphatic upset win over the Czechs.
With the game tied at two less than a minute into the second period, Rod scored what would end up being the decider - banging home a rebound for the biggest goal of his hockey life.
"I am very happy to put in my first ever goal in the World Junior," said Rod, an 18-year-old who was selected by the Sharks in the second round of last year's entry draft. "But I am most excited about the win. We played very well and that's nice for the team and for Switzerland."
With the team up 4-2, Rod was also instrumental in setting up a power play goal later in the second period that served as a final dagger for the Czechs' hopes. In fact, both he and Mueller demonstrated their offensive skills on the play.
Rod carried the puck deep into the Czech zone at full speed. He stopped abruptly and fired a pass across to an open Mueller, who then one-timed a tape-to-tape pass to an open Luca Fazzini. He then buried it past the glove hand of Czech goalie Vitek Vanecek.
"We made a pretty good break on the play and I stopped," said the 19-year-old Mueller. "I was yelling for the puck and Noah just made a perfect pass and Fazzini scored as he's supposed to."
For Mueller, who is being counted on to be a defensive stalwart for the Swiss, as well as a leader in the dressing room, it felt great to get on the score sheet.
"I just try to chip in offensively as well," said Mueller, who has picked up a goal and two assists in 24 games with San Jose this season. "It's important just to join the rush, I think, maybe you get a puck like that.
But I think it also helps defensively to keep your gaps up when the forwards turn and you're right on their toes. It's good, trying to get a rhythm going like that."
Mueller joined the team in time for the squad's last exhibition game, a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of a powerful Team Canada playing in front of a raucous home crowd. That loss may have been a blessing in disguise for Team Switzerland - taking the pressure off as most observers felt this Swiss team might be like so many others that came before, where sneaking into the quarterfinals and finishing seventh or eighth would be the expectation.
"I think we were maybe a little nervous playing Canada; it is always a huge thing for every player, always a top contender for medals, and in the big arena, a lot of guys hadn't played in front of such big crowds before, so we made some mistakes I think in that game," said Mueller, who is the team's tallest player at six-foot-three. "But luckily for us that game didn't count. We just regrouped as a team and we played really smart against the Czechs, I thought."
As for Rod - who this year is playing with Geneve-Servette in Switzerland's top league - he's happy to have Mueller on the team, enjoying the chance to get advice about what it's like to play with the Sharks.
And Rod is excited to have his dad come watch him play in the tournament. In 1984, his father played in the World Juniors, on a Swiss team that lost all seven of its games, being outscored 72-16.
"My objective is to do better than my father," Rod joked, adding that what he feels makes this year's Swiss team special is that not only do they much more offensive firepower than in previous years, but it's a very close group who are like one big family.
Next up for Team Switzerland is Russia on Sunday, a perennial contender and offensive threat, especially with the likes of Nikolay Goldobin, San Jose's first-round draft pick last year, on the squad.
Mueller said he is up for the challenge.
"Goldobin is a great offensive player. He's got a lot of skill. He makes great plays and sees the game really well," said Mueller. "But we'll be ready. We're just going to play our game and try and win."
He added that Team Switzerland's motto this year is "winning is a choice."
"In these kinds of tournaments, I think you can beat anyone if you have a good day - if you work hard and if you play hard. I think you really can choose if you want to win or not."