Saturday, 2 January 2010

No Longer A Neutral Country

There have been upsets in hockey that truly define a country. America's "Miracle On Ice" is one such defining moment, and it marked the first time that hockey was brought into the mainstream for the entire country of USA. Tonight, we may have witnessed another such moment in the game between Switzerland and Russia at the World Junior Championships. Switzerland's only claim to hockey fame was at this point were two upsets wins over the Czech Republic and Canada at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. Today, Swiss hockey took another step forward in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with their 3-2 overtime win over hockey powerhouse Russia.

Let's point one thing out before we talk about the Swiss victory. Russia appeared to be the superior team in every department. They had one player who has already played in the NHL in Nikita Filatov, and they have a number of highly-skilled players. Switzerland, on the other hand, was missing its top two defensemen in Luca Sbisa and Roman Josi who were out with injuries, but could boast a strong team game that starts with goaltender Benjamin Conz.

Switzerland opened the scoring despite being outshot badly. Michael Loichat fired a puck past Igor Bobkov after Russian defenseman Anton Klementyev coughed up the puck behind his own net. With the trapping style of play that the Swiss were employing to slow down the slick-skating Russians, a one-goal lead midway through the second period looked like it may be enough.

However, the Russians responded with two quick goals as draft-eligible Vladimir Tarasenko roofed a puck over Conz with 1:16 left in the second period. Islanders' draft pick Kirill Petrov put the Russians ahead just sixteen seconds later as he one-timed a Filatov pass to the back of the net. Suddenly, the Russians had seized both momentum and control of the game.

Nino Niederreiter was the star of the third period. The patchwork line-up that the Swiss iced was proving its mettle as they hung around with the Russians at 2-1. With Benjamin Conz on the bench, Nino Niederreiter, a forward for the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, made his World Junior Championship memory as his shot with 32.3 seconds left deflected off a Russian defenseman and past Bobkov to tie the game at 2-2. The non-neutral crowd in Saskatoon went nuts as the Swiss pushed the game to overtime.

In overtime, the pro-Swiss crowd of 12,278 cheered on the players with chants of "go Swiss go", "go home Russia", and "Nino". And wouldn't you know it? Nino added to his World Junior Championship legacy. With time winding down and the Russians apparently content with going to the shootout, the Swiss forward struck again. Niederreiter's low shot with 14.2 seconds to play appeared to be deflected by Patrick Geering, but the goal was awarded to Niederreiter, and the Swiss had defeated the Russians for the first time at the World Junior Championships.

"We played well defensively and scored the first goal. We allowed two unnecessary goals, but we came back and turned the game around," said Niederreiter, who was named first star of the game. "We were fighting for our injured guys. It was so amazing to win. Speaking about us, some people were talking about Swiss cheese. But now we've showed everybody that we may be from a small country, but we can play hockey."

Benjamin Conz, the game's second star, ended the game with 50 saves on 52 shots - an amazing save total considering the opportunities that the Russians had. Midway through the second period, Conz made an amazing save on Nikita Filatov on a breakaway to keep his team in the game. Saves like that are the reason that this Swiss team were able to persevere. Conz plays for the Swiss A-league team Langnau where the 18 year-old is the starter.

"This victory was something extraordinary for the whole team. It’s impossible to describe the feelings when we scored in overtime. Our team has never beaten Russia before. I just wanted to join my teammates and celebrate," Conz said to Martin Merk of the IIHF.

Where this story really takes a turn in terms of how much these Swiss players have improved, the Swiss were relegated to the Division-I World Junior Championships after finishing a disappointing ninth in 2008. Now, they have a shot at a medal through plucky team play and a "never say die" attitude.

"It’s so nice to see my players celebrating. They worked so hard. We lost three of our best players with Berger, Josi and Sbisa," Swiss coach Jakob Kölliker said to Merk. "But the team is so strong together, and the spirit we have in this team is our key to success."

Here are the highlights, courtesy of TSN, of this historic Swiss win. Check out the save by Conz at the :20 mark:

Congratulations to Switzerland, and good luck against Canada tomorrow! I'll be cheering for Canada, but this game will be the memory of the tournament. And one that Nino Niederreiter, Benjamin Conz, or any of the other Swiss players will never forget.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

real estate Richmond BC said...

I like Switzerland's hockey team. They play nice, constructive and technical hockey with some good defending, and they're very good in the neutral zone. And they're getting better every year. Beating them is not going to be easy.