Two cycles ago Switzerland’s U20 ice hockey team was best-known for a viral fail.
Former head coach Christian Wohlwend created a whirlwind of headlines when he predicted his own team’s blow-out loss to Canada at the 2018 World Juniors. When asked if there was any way Switzerland could hang with a roster of blue-chip NHL draft picks, Wohlwend had thrown his head back in laughter – sharing the take of state-side pundits on the prospect.
That was then. Switzerland soon blossomed into a Men’s U20 medal contender, mounting 4 memorable upset bids during the 2019 WJC in British Columbia. Switzerland led Russia after 1 period, lost to Canada 3-2 and took the Czech Republic to overtime, then upset Sweden in the quarterfinals to seal the program’s best U20 finish in 9 years. Wohlwend has since moved on from the junior ranks, leaving Thierry Paterlini to coach the upstarts.
Paterlini’s 2020 squad will look for a hot debut at the WJC, facing-off with Team Kazakhstan in Thursday’s opening contest at Werk Arena in Třinec.
For Kazakhstan, Thursday’s game will be a test of whether GK Vladislav Nurek and his supporting cast can weather the storm against elite speed and skill. Switzerland’s defense corps is led by Nico Gross, a 19-year-old New York Rangers draft choice who is exceptional in the OHL. 8 of the Swiss have won roles for domestic “National League” clubs, including goaltender Luca Hollenstein – who’s having an amazing rookie season with EV Zug.
There are no major surprises on the Kazakhstan roster. But the organization “USHL” stands out among the MHL and domestic league teams. Kazakh-American defenseman Temirlan Gaitamirov plays for the Des Moines Buccaneers and has managed to be a plus-player throughout his junior career despite long dry spells on the score sheet.
Swiss teams are not overly physical, and if Team KAZ blue liners are able to move the puck quickly in transition, then a Day 1 upset could be possible.
But if the underdogs lose the battle for puck possession, it could be Switzerland’s time to shine on offense. Swiss skaters only scored 4 goals against relegated Denmark in last year’s Group stage. In 2018, Switzerland barely scraped past Belarus in Group B play. Those results may have been a product of youth and inexperience. Team SWI is all grown-up in 2020, as only 5 roster slots are filled with athletes under 19 years old. Gian-Marco Wetter is a former U18 sniper for whom slight size causes issues in even the IIHF-like National League. At age 19, however, Wetter could be primed to break-out against a Kazakhstani squad full of role-players and undersized checkers.
Notes and Prediction for Team SWI vs Team KAZ
As always, it will be a team effort for Switzerland on the attack. Will the Swiss clobber the Kazakhstanis like the Slovaks clobbered them in 2019? Maybe, but don’t be surprised to see a cautious 1st period followed by a methodical Switzerland power-play goal or 2 to get things rolling in the 2nd period. This isn’t my usual prediction blog, but 5-1 with the 2019 semi-finalists on top sounds like a final score.
Also keep an eye-out for Colgate forward Matthew Verboon potentially skating for the Swiss. Verboon has shined in recent friendlies but doesn’t always stay out of the penalty box when allowed to roam freely down the wing.
Switzerland’s “upperclass” of a U20 lineup is filled with big, imposing athletes who could score 4 times or go into invisible-mode. Without a Kappo Kakko-type of superstar to dominate Group A, the Swiss must stay at even strength (or a man-advantage) to reap the benefits of strong goaltending and coaching.
Kazakhstan’s opener vs Switzerland drops at 9 AM EST and will not be broadcast on NHL Network.
Photo Credit: Twitter.com/NYRangers