SOCHI, Russia – It was the third game of the Olympics for the Canadians in Torino, Italy when the wall of Martin Gerber emerged in shocking fashion. Gerber stopped each and every one of the 49 shots peppered by Team Canada en route to a highly improbable 2-0 victory for Switzerland.
In a two-week tournament like the Olympics, goaltending performances of that caliber have the potential to shock, rattle and awe even the most powerful foes, hindering medal hopes with save after unlikely save. Eight years after Gerber shook up what was an ultimately doomed 2006 Canadian bid – they finished seventh – lies another Swiss goaltender in Jonas Hiller capable of doing the same, if not more, at the Sochi Olympics.
"Every year at a tournament like this you need a good goalkeeper to have success," said Andreas Ambuhl, a winger for Switzerland and teammate of Hiller for years with Davos in the Swiss League, "especially a team like us."
Switzerland is still buzzing from a silver medal finish at the 2013 World Championships – the now 39-year-old Gerber teaming with Calgary netminder Reto Berra – and though they have no grand illusions about their chances at these Olympics, possession of a goaltender like Hiller poses at least the possibility of a little unlikely noise.
Hiller is back to top form in Anaheim after a couple bumpy seasons punctuated by injuries. The 31-year-old stopped 36 of 38 shots in his final game before the Olympics and owns a .943 save percentage in his last five starts.
"There's no doubt," said Swiss head coach Sean Simpson, a Canadian and former Chicago Blackhawks draft pick who has yet to actually coach Hiller during his four-year run as bench boss of Switzerland's national program. "Any of the goalies, they stand on their head they can make a difference in a one-game scenario that's for sure."
Simpson would consider a trip to the quarterfinals as success for his squad, which sits in a group with Sweden, Latvia and the Czech Republic. In the past 50 years the Swiss have never finished higher than sixth which they managed during that unlikely '06 run with Gerber at the forefront.
Sizzling efforts in goal have the potential to alter the face of the Olympics, both for powerhouses like Canada, who must decide between Carey Price and Roberto Luongo, and lesser limelight squads like the Swiss.
It's why Finland still holds dark-horse medal potential despite losing potential captain Mikko Koivu and second centre Valteri Filpulla to injury. With Tuukka Rask, Antii Niemi and Kari Lehtonen as sterling options between the pipes, the Finns have the goods in goal to rattle more than a few cages.
It was during those same '06 Olympics in Torino that then-Flyers goaltender and Finnish product Antero Niittymaki carried his country to a silver medal – they fell to Sweden, who was led by Henrik Lundqvist – leading the tournament with a mighty .951 save percentage.
One need only remember the heroic efforts of Dominik Hasek in 1998. Hasek allowed just six goals in Nagano – posting a crazy .971 save percentage – willing the Czech Republic to their first and only gold medal.
"There's going to be lots of strong goalies here," said Simpson. "Jonas, he's got a great personality and he's going to give the team a lot of confidence when he's in net there for sure."