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2006 OLYMPICS: It's Finland And Sweden For Gold

Friday, 02.24.2006 / 12:00 AM / News
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2006 OLYMPICS: It\'s Finland And Sweden For Gold
TURIN, Italy (AP) - Finland has knocked off yet another world hockey power in its unlikely run through the Olympic tournament.

Saku Koivu and Ville Peltonen each scored a goal and set up another as Finland beat Russia 4-0 in the men's semifinals Friday night, setting up an all-Nordic gold-medal game with neighboring Sweden. The Swedes eliminated the world champion Czech Republic 7-3 in the other semifinal.

How good is this for the two bordering countries, where the long, dark winters naturally lead many of their best athletes to the ice?

The combined population of Finland and Sweden is less than metropolitan New York City, yet they will play for the gold while the big boys - Canada, the United States, Russia and the Czechs - all sit out. Finland has now beaten all of those teams in the tournament.

Much like the Swedes did against the Czechs by scoring on their first shot, Finland seized the momentum early on with Peltonen's goal at 6:13 of the first and never let go. With a trapping-style defense, they refused to let Russia's fleet forwards get the time or space to create the numerous odd-man rushes they enjoyed in beating Canada 2-0 in the quarterfinals.

The Finns visibly frustrated Russia's top playmakers - Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk - with their defensive persistence, always seeming to have a defender within a stick's length of them no matter where they were on the ice.

The Russians, winners of five in a row going into the semifinals, may have had a natural letdown after eliminating Canada. Or they may have missed 19-year-old forward Evgeni Malkin, who was barred from playing Friday because he was ejected against Canada for kicking Vincent Lecavalier late in that game.

Or maybe it was Philadelphia Flyers rookie Antero Niittymaki, supposedly only the third-best goalie on Finland's roster but one of the surprise stars of these Winter Games. He made 21 saves in outplaying Evgeni Nabokov, who had previously allowed only two goals in five games. Niittymaki became the starter only because goalies Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen pulled out with injuries.

Whatever the reason, the Finns so discouraged the Russians that Kovalchuk and defenseman Darius Kasparaitis each took 4-minute penalties late in the game, the outcome long since decided.

Long before that, Finland got its first goal on a power play with Russia's Sergei Gonchar off for interference, as point man Kimmo Timonen's shot from the blue line deflected off Peltonen's stick and past Nabokov. Both Peltonen and Teemu Selanne were in front of the net and in position to tip it in.

It was a familiar start for Finland, which trailed only once in winning its first six games in Turin, the only team to do so.

Toni Lydman made it 2-0 midway through the second, with a left-handed one-timer from the high slot off Koivu's backhand pass. Right about then, their inability to solve Finland's tight defense was beginning to show on the discouraged Russians' faces.

Koivu effectively put it away with a tip-in off a Timonen shot that ricocheted off the rear boards. Olli Jokinen added his sixth of the tournament midway through the third.

Russia, which has gotten a medal in all but one Olympic men's tournament since 1956, now must beat the Czechs to match the bronze they won in Salt Lake City.

Finland and Sweden last played in the medal round in 1998, a 2-1 victory by Finland in the quarterfinals of the first Olympics with mostly NHL players. Finland has never won a gold - Sweden did in 1994 - but did get the silver in 1988.

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TURIN, Italy (AP) - Tell the Swedish post office to dust off that old Peter Forsberg stamp - the men's hockey team is one win from another gold medal.

Forsberg set up a goal 34 seconds into the game and Sweden scored four times in the second period to defeat the world champion Czech Republic 7-3 in an Olympic semifinal on Friday night.

The Swedes will face Finland on Sunday for the title. They're guaranteed an Olympic medal for the first time since taking gold in 1994, when Forsberg scored the winning goal to beat Canada in a gold-medal shootout and the country put his image on a postage stamp.

Earning at least a silver medal will help the Swedes erase the bitter memories of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games when they were upset by Belarus and knocked out in the quarterfinal round for the second straight time.

Fredrik Modin scored on the game's first shot and set Sweden off and running. P.J. Axelsson and Daniel Alfredsson each had a goal and assist.

"We came out hard on the ice and showed them we wanted to win," Forsberg said.

The Swedes charged from all angles and used brilliant passing that sliced the offensive zone from end to end and side to side. Even though both rosters are full of NHL stars, the European style shone through on the large Olympic playing surface.

Henrik Sedin, Christian Backman, Jorgen Jonsson, and Alfredsson scored in the second period for Sweden, which built a 5-1 lead over its lethargic opponents.

"I think that we probably had our best first period," Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin said. "We've had so many ifs and buts in this tournament and we have not had strong starts, so today we focused on trying to get an early lead."

Ales Hemsky and Vinny Prospal scored 45 seconds apart midway through the middle period to give the Czechs life and hope. But Alfredsson snuffed that out when he found the net from the slot with one knee on the ice with a minute remaining in the period to make it 6-3.

Sweden coach Bengt Ake Gustafsson was widely criticized when he suggested his club would be better off losing its final preliminary round game to get an easier quarterfinal matchup against Switzerland.

His thinking turned out to be right as Sweden easily handled the Swiss 6-2 on Wednesday while the Czechs were in a grinding battle with neighboring Slovakia that wasn't settled until an empty-net goal in the final seconds.

Milan Hnilicka, a former NHL player, got his second straight start in the Czech net over Nashville's Tomas Vokoun but the move didn't pay off this time.

In 100 previous minutes in the tournament, Hnilicka yielded only one goal on 29 shots. Yet he was driven to the bench 7:54 into the second period when Jonsson deftly deflected a pass from his brother, Kenny, into the net.

Hnilicka made only 15 saves on 20 shots before being replaced by Vokoun, who led the Czechs to the world title last year and was expected to get the bulk of the playing time after Dominik Hasek was injured in the opening minutes of the tournament.

Hasek was in goal when the Czechs won gold in 1998, the first time the NHL halted its season for the Olympics.

Henrik Lundqvist made 21 saves to earn the victory. He wasn't really challenged by his four New York Rangers teammates in the Czech lineup, who combined for two assists - one each by Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka.

The scoring started quickly when Forsberg crossed a pass in front of Sundin and onto the stick of Modin, who one-timed a shot that sailed cleanly beyond Hnilicka.

The Czechs answered less than 3 minutes later when Filip Kuba fired Martin Straka's drop pass off the left post. The drive ricocheted against the underside of Lundqvist's leg and careened back into the net at 3:11.

Sweden grabbed the lead back with 6:23 left in the opening period after a pair of Detroit Red Wings defensemen set up Axelsson's third goal of the tournament.

Axelsson completed the play when he deflected in Nicklas Lidstrom's left-point shot while he was surrounded by four red jerseys with his back to the net. Detroit rookie Niklas Kronwall earned the second assist, one day after being added to Sweden's roster to replace Mattias Ohlund, who broke a rib Wednesday against Switzerland.

Sedin converted a rebound of his twin brother Daniel's shot 1:16 into the second, and Backman made it 4-1 at 3:54.

Tomas Holmstrom closed the scoring with 3:55 remaining in the game, taking a pass from Henrik Zetterberg and beating Vokoun.

The Czechs will play the loser of the Russia-Finland game for the bronze medal on Saturday.

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