- Associated Press - Monday, February 17, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - Jonas Hiller has a prime spot to watch Switzerland’s rise as a hockey power, and the goalie who hasn’t allowed a goal at the Olympics is thrilled by what he sees.

He just expresses it with his typical Swiss modesty.

“I think Swiss hockey is definitely going in the right direction, and it’s been going that way for a while,” the Anaheim Ducks goalie said. “We’re a team that’s going to be tough for anybody, but only if we play our style.”

With yet another strong showing for Switzerland at a high-profile tournament, it’s clear the Alpine nation of roughly 8 million people is on the rise in the Winter Olympics’ biggest team sport.

Switzerland has allowed just one goal in three games in Sochi heading into its qualification-round meeting with Latvia on Tuesday. Hiller and his teammates shut out the Czech Republic and the Latvians, while star-studded Sweden needed a late goal from Daniel Alfredsson to squeak out a 1-0 victory.

Sure, the Swiss have only scored two goals of their own, playing three consecutive 1-0 games. With their defensive prowess and rising confidence, they’re still a nightmare opponent for any of the five top teams - and Canada likely gets the Swiss test in the quarterfinals.

Switzerland’s success is the fruit of serious investment in youth hockey 20 years ago, according to Sean Simpson, its Canadian coach. The players have mostly known each other since childhood or played together in Switzerland’s strong domestic pro league.

“We’ve got 10 or 11 players that are in the NHL,” Simpson said. “We’ve got a really good league. It’s one of the best in Europe, and we have a solid national team. Their work at the youth level is really paying off now. They’re very organized. It’s a smaller country, so everything can be really compactly organized.”

Nine of those Swiss NHL players are in Sochi, up from just two - Hiller and defenseman Mark Streit - at the Vancouver Games. The NHL players have slipped seamlessly back into the disciplined Swiss style, which pushes talented opponents to the edges of the big international ice and counts on Hiller to make big saves.

“I think Switzerland has taken the best from the Canadian system, or the Finnish system, or the Swedish,” Simpson said. “We’ve taken a bit from everybody, and sort of blended their own way, their own style of developing the youth, and it’s paying off now.”

Hiller hasn’t played in the Swiss league since 2007, but he’s impressed by the homegrown talent climbing over the Olympic boards.

“Back when I played (for HC Davos), it was always the foreign players, the import players who had the key roles (on Swiss teams),” Hiller said. “More and more, you have Swiss players who lead the team in points, who have important roles on offense or defense. That’s the key thing. You need those guys to have the confidence they can play their best if the team counts on them.”

The Swiss have been causing trouble for bigger nations since 2006, when goalie Martin Gerber posted a 49-save shutout of Canada in Turin. Switzerland finished a surprising second at the world championships last summer, beating the U.S., Sweden and Canada along the way.

Switzerland’s rise comes at a point when there’s an opportunity to move up in the world rankings. The aging Czech Republic team has struggled in Sochi, while once-powerful Slovakia’s veterans are openly lamenting the lack of strong young players in their system.

Enter the Swiss and their cheering section in Sochi, waving red-and-white flags and chanting “Hopp Schwiiz!” - or “Hop Suisse!” for the Francophone portion of the multilingual nation - during their games at Bolshoy Ice Dome.

Simpson said expectations back home are “through the roof” for the Swiss, and they’ve delivered so far - at least defensively. While the Swiss aren’t cocky about their chances in the quarterfinals, they’re growing increasingly confident.

“If you guys want to call us underdogs, that’s how it’s going to be,” said Minnesota forward Nino Niederreiter, the highest-drafted Swiss player in NHL history four years ago. “But if we’re underdogs or the guys who (are supposed) to win, it’s possible to medal for us.”

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