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2006 OLYMPICS: Semifinals Preview

by Staff Writer / Colorado Avalanche
Sweden vs. Czech Republic Preview

Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky and Henrik Lundqvist are all teammates with the NHL's New York Rangers.

But when they take the ice on Friday, they'll be on opposite sides as the Czech Republic and Sweden meet in an Olympic semifinal matchup.

Lundqvist, a rookie goalie who has led the surprising Rangers to the top of the Atlantic Division, stopped 27 shots as the Swedes beat Switzerland 6-2 in Wednesday's quarterfinals.

Expected to be a gold-medal contender, the Czechs struggled in group play before rebounding to beat their former countrymen Slovakia 3-1 in another quarterfinal. Third-string goalie Milan Hnilicka made 20 saves while the Czechs got goals from Milan Hejduk, Rucinsky and an empty-netter from Straka.

Jagr, Rucinsky and Straka are the top scoring threats for the Rangers and the Czech Republic. Straka leads the Czechs with six points, while Jagr is second with five and Rucinsky is tied for third with four.

Jagr, who leads the NHL with 40 goals and 88 points, tried to downplay the meeting with his NHL teammate Lundqvist, who is 25-7-6 with a 2.09 goals-against average with the Rangers.

"It doesn't matter. We just have to face Sweden," Jagr said. "I know him, and he's a big part of our hockey club and it's going to be a big challenge."

Sweden has already accomplished one big challenge by getting past the quarterfinal round.

With the victory over Switzerland, the Swedes erased memories of 2002, when they were upset by Belarus in the quarterfinals. Sweden also lost in the quarters in 1998.

"We had some pressure on us, and I thought we responded," Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said. "It's good to get past this hurdle."

Mats Sundin had two goals and Daniel Alfredsson had three assists Wednesday for Sweden, which backed up coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson's claim that the Swedes would be better off playing Switzerland rather than one of the traditional hockey powers.

"We have only one goal," said Alfredsson, who leads the team with eight points, "and that's gold. We don't care who we meet in the semifinals."

Sweden will have to play the rest of the tournament without defenseman Mattias Ohlund, who suffered a broken rib when he crashed into the boards during Wednesday's victory. His roster spot has been taken by Detroit's Niklas Kronwall, who has played only three NHL games this season.

The Czech Republic, whose speed and talent are among the best in the world, finally played a complete game in beating Slovakia, which had gone 5-0 in group play.

"At the beginning of the tournament, we weren't playing as a team," Rucinsky said. "We weren't satisfied, but just before the Canada game, we sat down and talked about just going out and playing our game. Since then, we've been building momentum, and it carried over."

Hnilicka, who played well at the end of the 3-2 loss to the Canadians in the finale of group play, was a surprise starter in place of Tomas Vokoun, who has been inconsistent replacing the injured Dominik Hasek.

"I was a little bit surprised to get the start but I didn't think about it much," said Hnilicka, who led the Czechs to World Championships in 1999 and 2001. "Last night I just got ready. I wanted to make sure I wouldn't get too nervous. I wanted to do my best."

Sweden beat the Czech Republic in group play in 2002, but the countries haven't met in a medal-round game since 1992, when the former Czechoslovakia beat Sweden 3-1 in the quarterfinals.

With a victory Friday, Sweden would assure itself of a medal for the first time since it won gold in 1994.

The Czechs, the reigning world champs, won gold in 1998 with Hasek in net, but lost in the quarterfinals to Russia in 2002.

Russia and Finland meet in the other semifinal Friday.

Finland vs. Russia Preview

Since 1924, Russia has won 12 Olympic medals in hockey, including a record eight golds. Finland has only one silver and two bronzes - all since 1980.

But history may be the only difference between the teams when the surprising Finns meet perennial power Russia on Friday in the semifinals.

Finland's medal history in Olympic hockey is brief. At the 1980 Lake Placid Games, the Finns lost to the "Miracle on Ice" U.S. team in the gold-medal game. At the 1994 Lillehammer Games, Finland settled for a bronze with a 4-0 win over Russia.

And despite the participation of NHL players starting in 1998, Finland again took home bronze after a 3-2 win over Canada in Nagano. The Finns were beaten in the quarterfinals at the 2002 Salt Lake Games by eventual gold-medal winner Canada.

This time, the Finnish squad seems to have put it together at both ends of the ice. Finland was a perfect 5-0 in round-robin play, which included convincing wins over traditional powers Canada and the Czechs, and routs of Germany and host Italy.

The Finns' 19 goals scored - including a tournament-best six by Teemu Selanne - in the preliminary round were second behind Russia's 23.

But Finland was not given much of a chance to make it to the medal round, especially without NHL goaltenders Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen, who pulled out before the Games with injuries.

Philadelphia's Antero Niittymaki and Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Fredrik Norrena, however, have combined to be a big surprise in net.

Niittymaki is 4-0-0 with a 1.25 goals-against average and two shutouts, and Norrena has stopped all 34 shots he's faced while recording two shutouts.

The Finns also boast the best special-teams play at these Games, killing off 22-of-23 short-handed situations while scoring 13 power-play goals in 40 opportunities.

Olli Jokinen has scored four of his five goals on the power play, with two of those tallies coming in the second period of Wednesday's 4-3 quarterfinal win over the United States.

With the score tied 2-2 and with American defenseman Bret Hedican serving a hooking penalty, Jokinen - the Florida Panthers' leading scorer - scored his fourth goal of the Games.

Jokinen scored again with less than three minutes to play in the period to make it 4-2, and Niittymaki made 15 of his 26 saves in the third period.

"We know we can beat anybody when we play on our level, and we didn't even have to play that well tonight," Selanne said.

Russia advanced after knocking off defending gold-medal champion Canada 2-0 on Wednesday. NHL rookie Alexander Ovechkin snapped a scoreless tie with a power-play goal 90 seconds into the third period.

But as it moves on to meet Finland, defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said Russia must quickly forget about one of its biggest Olympic victories in years.

"We want to have a gold medal," Kasparaitis said. "That's what we want. And when we win that, then we're going to remember we beat Canada."

Ovechkin, who has 36 goals for the Washington Capitals, leads Russia with five goals.

Team captain Alexei Kovalev added a power-play goal in the final minute and Evgeni Nabokov made 27 saves to improve to 5-0-0 with a 0.50 GAA and three shutouts.

Russia will be without forward Evgeni Malkin for this contest after he was suspended early Thursday by the tournament directorate for an attempted kick of Canada forward Vincent Lecavalier.

Malkin, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, has two goals, four assists, a plus-6 rating and team-high 29 penalty minutes in six games.

Russia got off to a slow start in Turin, losing 5-3 on Feb. 15 to Slovakia. Since then, however, it's outscored its opponents 22-6 in winning five straight.

The Russians posted shutouts over Sweden and Kazakhstan, had the most goals in one game during this Olympics with a 9-2 rout of Latvia, then topped the U.S. and Canada.

Sweden and the Czech Republic will meet in the other semifinal on Friday.

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