Diaz, 32, has been a rock on defence so far for coach Patrick Fischer’s team. He’s averaging the second-most ice time (21:24) after top-pairing partner Roman Josi (22:03), who has played just two games in Denmark after arriving from the Nashville Predators.
Crediting his teammates for their smarts in the 5-1 win over France that lifted Switzerland into the final eight, Diaz said: “I think our performance was overall really good. We played with confidence, and we played with puck protection. We kept the puck. We wanted to make some plays. They had two good chances in the first period, one breakaway, and [goalie Leonardo] Genoni kept us in the game really well. I think this was a big key save for us, for the whole team.”
Diaz also captains Zug in the Swiss NL, (5-25-30 in 48 games this season) and the 189-cm, 89-kg veteran’s respect for the sport he plays isn’t hard to see. After defeating France, he joined his teammates and opposing players in saluting French head coach Dave Henderson and his assistant Pierre Pousse. That duo is stepping down after a successful run that has seen Les Bleus stay in the top division every year since Quebec City 2008.
“We showed respect to the coach there, of course,” Diaz said. “I think he was 13 years there as the head coach of France. Of course the whole team of Switzerland was showing respect for the head coach for 13 years of a team. They earned respect for sure!”
The smooth-skating 23-year-old had four assists in 28 NHL games this season, but has picked up the pace with a goal and five assists in seven World Championship games – which puts him one point ahead of Diaz (1-4-5). Muller also owns a team-high +9 plus-minus rating, and Diaz is loving this pleasant surprise.
“It’s amazing,” said Diaz. “It’s his first World Championship and he plays so solid. You see his experience in the NHL. He plays like six years in North America: junior, the AHL, and then NHL. I think you see he plays with confidence. He plays really simple and makes good plays. He’s a big part of our defence.”
Against the explosive Finns, defence will be essential. Coach Lauri Marjamaki’s squad has racked up 38 goals at the 2018 Worlds, compared to 25 for Switzerland.
The Swiss came sixth at last year’s tournament in Diaz’s first stint as captain. If they want a shot at their first medal since 2013’s surprising silver run (in which Diaz also took part), what’s the key?
“Just go out there and play our game,” said Diaz. “I think this is really important. I think we have to keep the puck if we can. We have to support each other really well, especially in the D-zone. The D-zone is key, I always say, because there you win the game or you lose the game. So far, I think we’ve played pretty well defensively.”
If there’s one area where the Swiss may be able to compete effectively, it’s on special teams. Switzerland’s power play (8-for-29) is neck-and-neck with Finland’s (9-for-31). Shorthanded opportunities could also provide an interesting storyline. Finland’s five shorthanded goals lead the tournament, while the Swiss have capitalized twice in that situation.
Yet according to Diaz, it’s not about forcing the play.
“I mean, it’s a big point to have patience. Stay in the game and penalties will come, power plays will come. Then you can get the momentum and score some goals and have the momentum on your side.”
When Diaz speaks, it’s easy to tell that hockey is in his blood. Even on a 2018 Swiss roster that includes current NHL skaters such as Josi, Nino Nieddereiter, Kevin Fiala, Timo Meier, and Sven Andrighetto, he’s a cornerstone piece.
This man has suited up for some of the NHL’s most passionately followed clubs, including the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks, and Calgary Flames. His sister Daniela, the former Swiss national team forward, served as the head coach of the 2018 Olympic women’s team.
Could it be time for Raphael Diaz to help write a new chapter in Swiss hockey history in his fifth Worlds? Stay tuned for Thursday’s drama.