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Berg, Finland go for Gold

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
February 25, 2006

TURIN, Italy (CP) -- Saku Koivu is one win away from delivering the greatest hockey victory in his country's history. And Finland's captain knows even Hollywood couldn't have scripted it better with rival Sweden standing in the way of Olympic gold Sunday.

"It's the dream final, a dream come true,'' the Montreal Canadiens captain said after scoring in Finland's 4-0 upset win over Russia in the semifinals.

"Whenever you play against them, it's a game that you don't want to lose,'' added Koivu. "For the fans back in Finland, I think it's the most hated country when you talk about hockey and that's going to be a wild game on Sunday.''

Florida Panthers centre Olli Jokinen, who capped the scoring Friday, says his country will stand still Sunday.

"We've got 5-6 million people in our country and I'll bet every single one will watch the game on TV,'' Jokinen said.

Swiss leaguer Ville Peltonen and Tony Lydman of the Buffalo Sabres also scored for Finland, silver medallist in 1988 at Calgary but in the gold medal final for the first time since the playoff system was instituted before the 1992 Games.

Finnish forward Ville Nieminen of the New York Rangers didn't blink when asked if he was surprised his underdog country reached the gold medal game: "Of course, aren't you?''

The Finns are a perfect 7-0-0 in the Olympics despite losing seven NHLers off their original roster before the puck was even dropped for the first game. Top defenceman Sami Salo of the Vancouver Canucks made it eight when he injured his shoulder in the quarter-finals and was knocked out of the Olympics.

"I don't think there's any people outside our locker-room who believed we could go this far,'' said Jokinen. "I told my teammates back in Florida when I'd be back and I told them on Tuesday morning. A couple of guys smiled, I don't know if they believed me.''

The Swedes thumped the defending IIHF world champion Czech Republic 7-3 in the earlier semifinal to set up a Sunday final few had ever dreamed of.

"Sweden and Finland, that's huge,'' said star Swedish blue-liner Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings. "We've had great battles in the past.''

The Swedes and Finns last met for gold at the 1998 world championship, Sweden prevailing for its last world title to date. But the Finns beat Sweden for gold in 1995 to capture its only world title its history. There was also the quarter-finals at the 2003 world championship in Helsinki, when host Finland led 5-1 only to lose 6-5 to Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg's hated Swedes in a memorable game that still aches in the hearts of Finnish hockey fans.

"It's hard to put into words,'' Jokinen said of the rivalry. "It's pretty similar to when Canada and the Soviet Union played the Summit Series. It's like that every time for us against them.''

Added Koivu: "People are going nuts back home, having an Olympic gold medal game against Sweden, it doesn't get any bigger.''

Before dreaming of facing the Swedes the Finns had to dispose of the tournament's most dangerous offence. And what a job Finland's defensive system did on the high-powered Russians, smothering super Washington Capitals rookie Alexander Ovechkin as well as the top line of Montreal's Alexei Kovalev, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk - limiting the Russians to 21 shots on goal.

The Finns, just like they did in a 2-0 win over Team Canada during the round-robin, played a tight five-man unit in the neutral zone and picked off passes Russian defencemen tried to get on the sticks of their skilled forwards. They also collapsed as a five-man box in front of Philadelphia Flyers rookie goalie Antero Niittymaki, who was solid but was helped with his teammates blocking many shots and clearing away rebounds.

The Finns have incredibly only given up five goals in seven games.

"The way this team is working to protect the net and helping out teammates, it's probably been the best that I've ever seen,'' said Koivu, who also had an assist.

The Russians had a glorious chance to make a game of it with a 5-on-3 power play for 1:49 late in the second period, but barely threatened despite a mezmerizing collage of talent on the ice consisting of Ovechkin, Kovalev, Kovalchuk, Datsyuk and Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar.

"It didn't go well for us,'' said Russian centre Alexei Yashin of the New York Islanders. "We had so many turnovers in the neutral zone and we didn't really have a lot of scoring chances.''

Russia, which beat Canada 2-0 in the quarter-finals, was hoping to reach its first Olympic final since 1998 in Nagano when it lost to the Czechs but instead will face those same Czechs for bronze Saturday. Russia beat Belarus for bronze at Salt Lake City four years ago.

Perhaps showing off the parity in men's international hockey, six different countries will have now paired off in the gold medal final since the NHL began participating in 1998, the Czechs beating Russia at Nagano, Canada over the U.S. in 2002 at Salt Lake City and now Sweden and Finland.

The veteran Peltonen, a fixture on Finland's national team over the last decade, opened the scoring 6:13 into the game on a power play when he deflected a Kimmo Timonen point shot past a screened Evgeni Nabokov.

Koivu dug the puck out of the corner at 9:33 of the period and fed it back to Lydman, who drilled a one-timer from the top of the left faceoff circle that beat Nabokov top corner on the glove side. Selanne jumped for joy in celebration as the Finns pounced on Lydman. The upset was in the making.

The Finns felt they need to capitalize on the power play in order to have a chance to win and they did it again at 13:51 of the second period, Koivu knocking in a rebound off the back boards past a sprawled Nabokov to make it 3-0. The handful of Finnish fans on hand, surrounded by thousands of Russians, danced wildly in the stands as they contemplated what could be.

The result was no longer in doubt when Peltonen fed Jokinen on a 2-on-1 break midway through the third period, the Panthers centre one-timing the nice pass past a helpless Nabokov and suddenly they were dancing in the bars of Helsinki.

Notes: Finland has reached the final in the second straight best-on-best tournament, losing 3-2 to Canada in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey at Air Canada Centre in Toronto ... Russia was down to 11 forwards after Evgeni Malkin served his one-game suspension for attempting to kick Canada's Vincent Lecavalier in Wednesday's quarter-final game. Joked Russian GM Pavel Bure before the game: "We've got an extra roster spot so maybe I'll go change now.'' ... Montreal teammates Koivu and Kovalev met at centre ice before the game for the traditional exchange of national pennants but there were no smiles or words exchanged. They had their game faces on.

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