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2006 OLYMPICS: Gold Medal Race Down To Four

by Staff Writer / Colorado Avalanche
TORINO, Italy (AP) -- The Czech Republic knocked previously unbeaten Slovakia out of the Olympic men's hockey tournament with a 3-1 victory on Wednesday, securing the final spot in the semifinals. The Czechs will play Sweden in one semifinal on Friday while Finland will meet Russia in the other.

Martin Rucinsky scored a short-handed goal and third-string goalie Milan Hnilicka made 20 saves as the Czechs rebounded impressively after a mediocre preliminary round.

The win isn't surprising for a Czech team expected to be a top medal contender -- but the loss is crushing to the Slovaks, who had more than Olympic glory riding on this game against the elite, star-studded half of the former Czechoslovakia.

Slovakia roared through the preliminary round with five straight victories, winning its group. When the Slovaks learned of their matchup, they were excited by the opportunity -- perhaps too excited. Forward Miroslav Satan acknowledged his nation's reputation as the "little brother" to the Czechs in hockey circles, but said they harbored dreams that the Olympic meeting would be "the biggest day in the history of Slovakia."

The Czechs had all the poise, passion and crisp execution that the Slovaks lacked. With sharp passing and occasionally brilliant defense, the Czechs dominated the first two periods and held on in the third.

Milan Hejduk also scored and Martin Straka added an empty-net goal for the Czechs, who will face Sweden on Friday. Finland meets Russia in the other semifinal.

The Czechs went 2-3 in the preliminary round, including a loss to Switzerland, but they were strong from the opening faceoff against Slovakia. Rucinsky scored after intercepting Satan's pass in the first period, and Hejduk added a goal on a rebound of Rucinsky's shot in the second.

The Slovaks finally scored when Czech defenseman Marek Zidlicky fell down in the third period, and Marian Gaborik converted when he had an unobstructed look at the net.

Hnilicka was sturdy in place of injured Dominik Hasek and struggling Tomas Vokoun. Moments after Hnilicka covered a loose puck in the crease with his back, Straka scored the clincher -- and Slovakia's Richard Kapus snapped his stick on the bench in frustration.

Czechoslovakia existed from 1918 until Jan. 1, 1993, when it peacefully split into two nations. It was a hockey power, winning four Olympic silver medals, four bronzes and six world championships from 1920-92.

The Czechs emerged from the split in better hockey shape, winning the gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Games and at the following three world championships from 1999-01 -- and again last year. Slovakia had few players on the final Czechoslovak team, but has made steady international progress to a top-tier world ranking.

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