By Andy Potts – IIHF.com
Team Switzerland picked the perfect time for its first win in Beijing. Tuesday’s 4-2 verdict over Czechia puts the Swiss into a quarter final against Finland and sent the Czechs home. Veteran Andres Ambuhl, playing in his fifth Games, got his first Olympic goal to tie the scores in the first period and after that, his team never looked back, grabbing swift revenge for a shoot-out loss against this opposition in Group B play. That was the only point Switzerland achieved in the group stage, suffering losses against Denmark and ROC, but the qualification round offered a reprieve that was eagerly accepted.
Swiss captain Raphael Diaz summed up how things had changed. “The first two games in the group, I think it was okay but we couldn’t get it done,” he said. “We made some good plays but we couldn’t score, and everybody knew we needed more. We needed more defence, especially after the last game … as a group that was unacceptable.
“Today, we played really tight defensively, everybody came back, we blocked shots, we boxed them out, we won puck battles. [Leonardo] Genoni had a hell of a game – he always stopped the first shot and we cleared the rebounds. I think it was a good, strong effort from the whole team.”
For the Czechs, it’s yet more big tournament frustration. Without a medal in Olympic or World Championship play since 2012, Czechia produced a memorable 6-5 OT victory over Team ROC here, but also suffered a shock defeat in its opening game against unheralded Denmark.
“We had our chances but we didn’t score. That was our problem,” said Roman Cervenka, Czechia’s captain. “It was a tough game. We started well but they scored two quick goals which gave them wings. It was hard for us after that.
“We were feeling good, but then 13 seconds later we’re losing.”
Switzerland was limited to just 18 shots at Simon Hrubec in the Czech net, but came up with four goals. However, Gaetan Haas dismissed any suggestion that fortune favoured the Swiss. “We did everything we had to do to win the game. I think we deserve this one,” he said. “We played hard for 60 minutes and, in the end, we got the result.
“The turning point came when we took the lead. Then they had to open the game and we were able to play tough defence, and in the end we won. That’s the only thing that matters.”
The early stages of this game were cagey, with both teams aware how tight that previous meeting was. But the action began to heat up midway through the frame. Czechia got the puck in the net when Lukas Sedlak stuffed home from close range, but the whistle had gone some time before the Traktor Chelyabinsk forward snaffled a loose puck. David Krejci had made contact with Swiss goalie Genoni when he looked to convert Sedlak’s feed from behind the net.
Soon afterwards, the Czechs had a legitimate goal. Defenceman Lukas Klok broke the deadlock with a thunderous shot from the point after good work from Cervenka and Klok’s Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk clubmate Ronald Knot in the Swiss zone.
Jan Kovar played a big part on Klok’s goal, screening Genoni as the shot came in. But the EV Zug forward became the villain of the piece in the 15th minute when he took the game’s first penalty for boarding on Yannick Weber. It was a needless offensive zone foul, and the power play brought Switzerland level. Enzo Corvi’s feed was tipped against the foot of the post by Calvin Thurkauf and the rebound fell perfectly for Ambuhl to fire into a wide open net.
That was Ambuhl’s first goal in Olympic play – a surprising stat for a man at his fifth Games. At 38, the Swiss veteran is the oldest player here in Beijing. He’s not the oldest player to score at the Olympics for the first time – Swedish defenceman Borje Salming scored four goals at the age of 40 in 1992 – but he is the first man to score his debut Olympic goal at his fifth Olympic tournament.
“It’s nice to score my first goal at Olympics but it was great especially for the team,” Ambuhl said. “We somehow didn’t manage to bury the pucks before and today they bounced our way. Nobody was happy with the preliminary round so we wanted to show that we can play hockey and win too. We wanted to show this reaction. Now we have to continue like that without getting over excited.”
Personal landmarks aside, the Swiss alternate captain had more to celebrate just 13 seconds later as his team went ahead. Straight from the face-off, play went back to the Czech zone and Dennis Hollenstein’s shot deflected off a defender’s skate for Killian Mottet to pounce from in front of the net.
A Czech power play at the start of the second period saw Krejci force a good save out of Genoni. Then, just as Michael Fora returned to the ice, Jiri Smejkal had a great chance to tie the scores. His initial shot was well saved, but the Finnish-based 25-year-old collected the rebound out wide and fired the puck dangerously across the face of the net. Swiss captain Diaz had to be alert avoid steering it into his own goal.
Switzerland’s power play then struck again as Denis Malgin increased the lead midway through the game, exchanging passes with Santeri Alatalo before rifling home a one-timer from the left-hand circle.
“We have always known that we can score,” said Malgin, who plays his hockey for the ZSC Lions. “Before, the pucks just didn’t go in or we didn’t have the luck. But we know what we’re able to do and today we showed it.”
Kovar was gracious in defeat. “It was a tough game,” the Czech centre said. “They play tough, the play well. They have a good team over there. They were better today.”
And Cervenka added: “We didn’t play badly, I think we were ready for this game. It’s hard to say what went wrong right now.”
The third period saw plenty of opportunities at both ends and that two-goal advantage looked vulnerable at times. However, in the 55th minute Switzerland took control. More typically strong forechecking from Sven Andrighetto keep an attack alive and set up Diaz at the right point to smash a shot past Hrubec.
“I just closed my eyes and shot,” laughed the Swiss captain. “Sometimes that’s the best thing to do! It went in to make it 4-1 but we knew they were going to come at us. We took the penalty and they made it 4-2 but at the end I think it was a real good team effort and we’re really proud to get our first win here.”
Now, the Czechs had too much to do, despite a brave effort. Head coach Filip Pesan called a time-out and pulled goalie Hrubec with more than four minutes to play. There was an immediate reward with a power play, which led to a goal from Cervenka. He’s another veteran forward, and he currently plays in the Swiss League. But even his experience and knowledge of the opposition was not enough to trigger an improbable fightback as Switzerland celebrates a return to the quarter-finals for the first time since 2010.