SASKATOON – Newly-promoted Switzerland is headed to the World U20 quarterfinal after a nip-and-tuck, hard-fought 4-1 victory against Slovakia. The loss sends Slovakia to the relegation round. The game was much closer than the final score indicates as the Swiss scored twice in the last five minutes to surge ahead to the win.
Nino Niederreiter scored the two key Swiss goals in the victory to give the fresh-form-Division I-Swiss their first berth to the quarterfinals since 2001. For the Slovaks the trip to the relegation round is a blow after a surprising fourth-place finish at last year’s U20s.
Switzerland will have to await the result from tonight’s game in Regina for its quarterfinal opponent, either the Czech Republic or Russia. Slovakia joins Latvia, Austria and likely the loser of tonight’s Czech-Russia game in the relegation round.
After an even and scoreless first period, Niederreiter broke the scoring silence 7:27 into the second with an even strength marker. It was a huge moral victory for the Swiss, who were using all their energy to keep the Slovaks from taking an early lead.
Slovakia loomed in front of the Swiss net more and more as the game wore on, but Swiss netminder Benjamin Conz stood his ground, most notably on a one-on-one Slovak breakaway mid-period. Tomas Tatar also hit a post late in the period, further frustrating the Slovaks’ hopes for the quarterfinals.
Tatar put a goal in on the first shift of the third period, but again had bad luck when his goal was disallowed for a high stick. Conz again came up with a few sprawling key saves at just the right moments to keep Switzerland in the hunt. The Swiss chances were becoming fewer and further between when Niederreiter struck with his second goal, crashing the net for the 2-0 lead.
Richard Panik gave the Slovaks hope and the Swiss reason to panic when he cut the lead in half on a picture-perfect shot in the last seven minutes of regulation. The goal gave the Slovaks renewed energy, but it was quickly killed when Tristan Scherwey knocked in a puck mid-air to restore the two goals lead in the waning moments of the game, killing any thoughts of a Slovak comeback.
Slovakia pulled goaltender Tomas Halasz after the goal, but it only resulted in the empty-netter for the Swiss, brining the final score to a deceiving 4-1.
It is the Slovaks’ first appearance in the relegation round since 2007, when they finished in eighth place. The best finish Switzerland has ever had at the World Juniors was a bronze medal in 1998.
(Nathan also is a writer for Maineiacs Post to Post and the Maine Hockey Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com)