Finland\'s Pekka Rinne stops Canada\'s Jason Spezza in the shootout. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
BERN – It took 11 days to sort out the best eight teams in the tournament, but we’re finally there. Outside of Switzerland and maybe Slovakia falling short, few were shocked to see the top six nations – Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, the U.S. and the Czech Republic – among the eight quarterfinal teams.
That Latvia and Belarus join them as the fourth-seeded teams in each group is somewhat surprising, or at least untraditional. Slovakia - 2002 World Champions and 2003 bronze medalists - took their only win against Hungary and even that one was close; Slovakia scored the winner just 13 seconds before the end.
The shock of being left outside the playoff stage of the tournament was even bigger for the host nation, Switzerland, who became the latest victim of the “home-ice curse.” No team has managed to win the World Championship in their home tournament since 1986 when the Soviet Union won gold in Moscow.
Last time Switzerland hosted the tournament, in 1998, it overachieved, making the semifinal. This time around, Swiss coach Ralph Krueger couldn’t get his team to fly. Instead, they crumbled under the pressure of the home crowd’s expectations.
Switzerland scored just 12 goals in six games, four of them in their last game against the U.S.
Even after their 2-1 loss to Latvia, Switzerland was in control to the very end. A win over Sweden or a regulation win against the U.S. would have lifted them to the top eight where – as we know – anything is possible. Switzerland got as close as possible without making it, losing to Sweden before getting a bittersweet win over the U.S. in overtime.
“It was a heartbreaking win,” said Team Switzerland’s captain, Mark Streit.
The quarterfinal matchups are Canada vs. Latvia, Russia vs. Belarus, Finland vs. USA and Sweden vs. Czech Republic.
TOP OF THE CLASS
Russia and Canada enter the playoff stage as the top-seeded teams in their respective groups. Russia lost only one point – in an overtime win against Sweden – en route to the pool title. Canada lost its last game to Finland in a penalty shootout that saw 14 players try their luck.
Canada rallied back from a two-goal deficit in a game where Finland had more than 12 minutes of power play time and fired 54 shots on Canada’s goal.
Russia’s trail to the quarterfinal has been fairly undramatic, with the game against Sweden – a 6-5 OT win – the only little speed bump along the way.
Ilya Kovalchuk leads the team in scoring with 10 points in six games and is tied for second in the tournament behind Canada’s Martin St-Louis, who has tallied 14 points in six games.
The Americans have shown a lot of discipline and with their speed and quick passing they’ve managed to draw a lot of penalties from teams such as Austria and Latvia.
However, in their last group stage game against Switzerland, the Americans seemed to lose their cool, especially after David Backes got a game misconduct for boarding Switzerland’s Julien Sprunger a few minutes into the game.
Sprunger was left lying on the ice after Backes shoved him to the boards when Sprunger – who had fallen to the ice after a Swiss odd-man rush – was getting up. According to early reports, the 23-year-old forward sustained short-term paralysis, but Swiss coach Krueger said the MRI showed no neck injury.
Backes’ game misconduct threw the Americans off and the Swiss team tried to intimidate their way back into the game.
“I don’t know how you can call a boarding when the guy is looking at you,” said Ron Hainsey, who scored two of Team USA’s three goals in the game against Switzerland. “Now, after that, we did take some stupid penalties and that really hurt us. You can’t do that. They’ve got Streit out there and he’s an all-star.”
While the U.S. team got off to a good start in the tournament by beating Latvia in their first game, they also lost their games against Russia, Sweden and Switzerland.
“To be honest, it would feel better if we had won the game against Switzerland or maybe against Sweden – that loss wasn’t ideal, either – so we could feel better,” Hainsey said. “However, we’re in the (quarterfinal), finishing third and there are no easy games here. Whether we play Canada, Finland or Czechs, we’re ready to go.
“We’re young and we’ve backed off when we’ve had the lead, letting teams in to our end too much. When they play there for a period of time, bad stuff happens. We have to change that. At least we’re doing a good job getting the lead.”
Aside from the game against France, U.S. coach Ron Wilson has played Robert Esche throughout and said he’d be confident riding Esche as long as possible. New Jersey Devils netminder Scott Clemmensen has arrived and backed up Esche in the game against Switzerland.
But Esche’s save percentage is nothing to phone home about. At .870, he is ranked 17th or lower when compared to goaltenders who have played more than 60 percent of their team’s games at the World Championship.
After the Americans’ game against Switzerland, Wilson was overheard saying, “I couldn’t play [Clemmensen], he just got here, but he’s had a really good season in New Jersey.”
Wilson may be ready for a change.
RUSSIAN BEAR ON THE LOOSE
Maybe last year’s World Championship gold took the weight off the Russian players’ shoulders, because in Bern, the team has been more relaxed and loose than before.
After Russia’s game against Latvia, coaches Vyacheslav Bykov and Olegs Znaroks entered the press conference with their arms around each other’s necks, with huge grins on their faces, looking ready to burst into a Greek dance number.
“Our game against the U.S. gave us a lot of confidence - we have a good chance to do well if we work as a team,” said Kovalchuk. “We have so many talented players that it doesn’t matter who plays on the Russian team.
“We have a great atmosphere in the locker room, we have just the right coaching staff for the team, they know how to use us, and hopefully we’ll do well.”
The feeling of trust is mutual between player and coach.
“The most important things are that the guys are being creative on the ice and that they have fun – while playing for the team,” said coach Bykov.
THN's European correspondant Risto Pakarinen is at the World Championship in Switzerland and will be filing reports regularly throughout the tournament.
Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he's probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Go to THN's World Championship Central HERE.