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Winter Olympics hockey: Switzerland, the team nobody wants to play

Switzerland may not have a lot of NHL players on their roster, but they are the last team you should want to face in an elimination game.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2014 Winter Olympic Coverage

It should no longer be a surprise when Switzerland keeps it close against one of the hockey super powers. It should also no longer be a major upset when they actually they beat one of them, as it's been starting to happen a little more frequently.

Fact is, they're good, and they're getting better.

When their consistent improvement as a program over the past decade is combined with the slow and steady decline of teams like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it probably isn't a stretch to argue that the Swiss are currently the sixth best team in the world when it comes to international hockey. They're not quite at the level of Canada, the United States, Sweden, Russia or Finland, but the gap is closing.

Entering knockout play on Tuesday they should be one of the teams that nobody in the tournament wants to face in an elimination game.

Their success at the 2014 Sochi games, where they finished group play with a 2-1-0 record and limited their opponents to just a single goal (Sweden's Daniel Alfredsson scored on a rebound late in the third period of their second game), not only isn't a fluke, it's probably something that should be expected at this point because they've been doing it for the past three Olympics.

Maybe not quite to the level of allowing one goal every three games, but the fact is they've been able to not only hang with the big boys, but also shut them down and occasionally beat them. Consider that in their past eight Olympic games (dating back to the 2010 games in Vancouver) Switzerland has allowed just 14 goals. Going as far back as 2006 in Torino, they've allowed just 32 goals in 14 games and have a 6-5-3 record.

For a team that doesn't have a huge NHL talent pool, those are some impressive numbers. So how have they been able to do it?

Goaltending has certainly played a big role in it, as the four goalies the team has used over that stretch (David Aebischer, Martin Gerber, Reto Berra and Jonas Hiller) have combined for a .929 save percentage, four 40-save performances and three shutouts. That includes a 49-save shutout from Gerber in a 2006 win over Canada.

But goaltending is just a part of it.

As a team, the Swiss are extremely disciplined defensively and do an incredible job sucking the life out of offense (both their offense and the oppositions) and reducing the game to something that can come down to one bounce or call going a certain way at the right time.

Over the past three tournaments, including this year's preliminary round, nine of their 14 games have been decided by a single goal or less (there were a couple of ties at the 2006 tournament). Three of them have been decided by just two goals, including one game, a 2010 quarterfinal contest with the United States, that was 1-0 until a last second empty net goal pushed it to 2-0. Only two games, both of which came in 2006, were decided by more than two goals.

That is keeping it close, and it doesn't matter who the opponent is or how much talent they happen to have. Sometimes it falls their way, sometimes it doesn't. They're essentially making the game a coin flip.

Is that a chance you want to take in a game where the loser gets sent packing?

The Swiss are a shining example as to how the bigger ice surface can sometimes (and perhaps more often than anybody wants to realize or admit) actually be more beneficial to the defense than it is to the offense. If your team is effective at mucking up the neutral zone and packing it in between the dots in the defensive zone, keeping the play wide, it's only going to make it that much more difficult for the attacking team to score. Sometimes that extra space just forces teams further away from the net, and the Swiss seem like they've been able to do it quite well.

They're perfectly happy to keep it close, lean on their goalies, and lull you to sleep. In a one-game playoff setting where you lose and you go home, that has to be a terrifying prospect for any team, especially given Switzerland's propensity for pushing even the best teams in the world to their limits, and even beating them from time to time. It's the stuff of nightmares for a team that is favored.

It all starts for them against Latvia, a team that was already shut out by Hiller in this very tournament. With a win there it would be on to Canada, a team that's become all too familiar with how frustrating Switzerland can be in these tournaments having lost to them in 2006, and then needing overtime to beat them in 2010.

They may not be terribly exciting, but they've turned themselves into a dark horse medal contender and a team that is perfectly capable of ruining another team's fun.

More on the Winter Olympics:

SB Nation's Winter Olympics medal tracker | Meet Team USA

Team USA beats Russia in shootout | How T.J. Oshie became a hero

Female snowboarder has "good luck mustache" | #Lookit

Remembering the 1980 Miracle on Ice | Longform: Team USA's disaster in 1984

Hockey: Men’s schedule | All 12 men’s rosters | USA roster analysis