-- No nation has come as far in terms of Olympic competitiveness over the past eight years than the Swiss. Remember their shutout of Canada in Torino in 2006? Or taking Canada to a shootout in the preliminary round in Vancouver four years later? They might not be quite on par with the Super Seven, but the Swiss have definitely moved into the realm of medal dark horse.
Five things to watch
1. Go back to the years when Canadian Ralph Krueger (who has scouted internationally for Team Canada heading into the Sochi tournament) coached the Swiss national team and helped introduce a style of play that allowed it to compete with far more skilled teams at world championships and Olympics. That tradition has been carried forward and was on display in Vancouver, where the Swiss were a handful right to the end, finally bowing to the U.S. 2-0 in the quarterfinals. The Swiss system will be on full display in Sochi once again, with 15 skaters on the Swiss roster who play in the Swiss elite league. Traditionally, the team plays a conservative, low-risk kind of game that can frustrate more high-powered opponents, especially as it clogs the neutral zone.
2. The Swiss will boast as much NHL talent as they've ever had at one of these tournaments, with two NHL goaltenders in Jonas Hiller and Reto Berra and six skaters who play in the NHL. The NHL presence is concentrated on the blue line, where four big leaguers will be in the Swiss lineup, including veteran Mark Streit, Raphael Diaz (who was dealt from Montreal to Vancouver just before the Olympic break), Yannick Weber and Roman Josi. Those players will help add some offensive flair from the back end and will be needed to help pump up the Swiss power play. The NHL experience should put them in good stead when playing more high-powered offenses such as those iced by the Canadians, Swedes, Russians and the U.S.
3. So, who will score? That's the issue for the Swiss, who should be able to keep it close defensively. Damien Brunner of the New Jersey Devils and Nino Niederreiter, who has blossomed in Minnesota with the Wild after things went off the rails for him with the New York Islanders, will shoulder a significant burden offensively. This offensive group will have to be highly opportunistic, as it is likely to be outchanced by a wide margin in games against the more established nations. The Swiss will also need to take advantage of whatever power-play opportunities they are given.
4. Hiller will have to be at his very best for the Swiss to continue to make life difficult for higher-profile hockey nations. After a slow start to the regular season that led to some discussion about whether the Anaheim Ducks would try to deal the netminder, who could become an unrestricted free agent in July, Hiller has become a force in the Ducks' net, helping guide them to the NHL's top record as we head toward the NHL's Olympic break. He's played on this stage before -- he was 2-3 in Vancouver in 2010 -- so he has the résumé to keep the Swiss in it again as long as he stays on top of his game.
5. Given the way the Olympic tournament is set up with three groups of four teams, getting a bye into the quarterfinals by winning one of the groups or having the next-best point total is key to opening up the best path to a medal. The Swiss have a good shot of at least avoiding a top team in the first elimination round by virtue of playing in a group with Sweden, the Czech Republic and Latvia. With the Czechs in a bit of a transition in terms of their depth, it's not beyond the realm of possibility the Swiss could knock them off in the preliminary round. Of course, taking anything for granted against the Latvians or, frankly, anyone in this tournament is a recipe for an early exit. The ability of the Swiss to balance higher expectations than ever before with that reality will say much about the final outcome for them.
Breakthrough player to watch: Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
This skilled defender has been able to hone his skills in Nashville, playing for long stretches with captain Shea Weber. The duo play the points on the Predators' top power-play unit, and he hits the Olympic break on a hot streak with four goals and six assists in his previous nine games at the time of this writing.
We like the Swiss to once again compete in the quarterfinals, but in our grid, we have them falling to the United States. Eliminated in quarterfinals.