Benjamin Conz of Team Switzerland stopped 50 shots to upset Team Russia and advance to the WJC semifinal against Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
SASKATOON – Ho-lee cow. Do you believe in miracles? The Swiss, missing their top two defenseman and facing the mighty Russians, nonetheless punched their ticket to the semifinal and a date with Canada with a shocking 3-2 overtime win thanks to Portland Winterhawks left winger Nino Niederreiter.
Niederreiter, who also tied the game with the goalie pulled late in the third, spun around with the puck in the dying seconds of OT, sliding a shot between a pair of skaters in front of the net and past Russian goalie Igor Bobkov for the win.
The Swiss played stingy defensive hockey all game long, lapsing only for 16 seconds in the second period, when Russia scored both its goals. The victory was made all the more remarkable by the fact the Swiss were missing top blueliners Luca Sbisa and Roman Josi.
“We fight for those two guys,” Niederreiter said. “Before the game Sbisa told us to play every shift the best we can and Roman said the same things.”
Along with Niederreiter, the Swiss got an otherworldly performance from goaltender Benjamin Conz, who faced 52 shots in the game and was rock-solid.
“No one would bet on us before the game,” said Conz through a translator. “Especially with those two defenseman out.”
The Saskatoon crowd cheered the Swiss from the outset and even had chants for Niederreiter, who looked like a man possessed when the game was hanging in the balance.
Asked if the Swiss should be mentioned alongside hockey’s ‘Big 7’ nations, Niederreiter agreed.
“It’s our passion to play ice hockey,” he said. “We’re a really small country, but we’re getting better.”
The Russians weren’t awful on the day, but they couldn’t break the Swiss zone defense. Only Kirill Petrov found a seam on the team’s second goal. Nikita Filatov also played well and definitely looked like the captain of the team, killing penalties and driving the Swiss net constantly.
In the second quarterfinal of the night, the U.S. iced Finland 6-2 in a game that was closer than the score indicated. Jerry D’Amigo (Rensselaer, NCAA) had two goals for the U.S., who put the Finns on their heels early and kept up a consistent physical presence. The gritty Finns didn’t shrink from the contact, but it did disrupt a lot of their offensive flow.
Jordan Schroeder (University of Minnesota, NCAA) also became the all-time scoring leader for Americans at the tourney when he notched his 26th career point. With the tough Swedes on tap, Schroeder pointed to his team’s comfort on big stages as a rallying point.
“We’ve got a lot of heart in there,” he said of his teammates. “We’ve had a lot of guys play in these types of tournaments, under-18, under-17, so they know what international competition is and they have a lot of character.”
Young Finn Mikael Granlund, who is draft eligible this season, didn’t score, but played a very defensively responsible game, which is good to see of an offensive player when he’s not hitting the scoresheet. Granlund was disappointed with the loss, but will no doubt be a big part of next year’s squad.
The Slovaks beat Austria 3-2 in the day’s first game, but they weren’t exactly happy about it. For a ‘Big 7’ nation, the Slovaks expected to at least be in the medal round after last year’s brush with bronze, but instead found themselves in the relegation round. Austria, an underdog fan favorite, made the game closer than it should have been and the Slovaks blamed themselves.
“I feel bad,” said left winger Richard Panik, who plays for the Ontario League’s Windsor Spitfires. “We won, but we didn’t play good. We scored two goals in the first period then we stopped playing.”
Center Tomas Tatar, a Detroit Red Wings draft pick playing for the American League’s Grand Rapids Griffins, echoed the sentiment.
“I think it was a terrible game,” he said. “We always play bad (this year). I don’t know if it’s something in the dressing room, but we must do something and I hope we do better.”
Asked if the smaller ice surface was a factor, Panik noted that his European mates practised on North American-sized rinks back home in preparation, though Tatar thought it might have been a factor.
“Maybe there’s the problem,” Tatar said. “There are many battles in the corners and nobody’s moving. We lose nearly every battle in the corners…it’s terrible.”
Despite the down feelings, Tatar, Panik and linemate Marek Viedensky (also in North America with the Western League’s Prince George Cougars) have been amazing in Saskatoon and carried the Slovaks on the day. Both Tatar and Panik scored early.
Another Slovak to watch in the future is defenseman Peter Hrasko, who has thrown his body around in this tournament despite standing just 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds. Hrasko plays the point on the power play and was great against Canada in the round robin. Left winger Andreas Kristler had a two-point game for the Austrians and looked solid.
VIDEO: Semifinals set at 2010 WJC
Last night, in quarterfinal action, the U.S. beat Finland 6-2 led by Maple Leafs prospect Jerry D’Amigo’s two goals. The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy caught up with the Americans after their big win over the outmatched Finns and also tees up the semifinal match-ups. PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
Ryan Kennedy is in Saskatoon for the World Junior Championship and will be filing daily reports through to the end of the tournament.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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