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Mats, Sweden Onto the Final

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

February 24, 2006

TURIN, Italy (CP) -- Twelve long years after its greatest Olympic moment, Team Sweden is back in the gold medal game.

Daniel Alfredsson and P.J. Axelsson each scored a goal and set up another as the Swedes routed the Czech Republic 7-3 in the semifinals on Friday.

In Sunday's gold medal game, Sweden will play the winner of a semifinal later Friday between Russia and Finland.

"Hopefully, we can play one more great game,'' said Alfredsson.

Alfredsson was 21, watching on television with his parents, when Peter Forsberg scored in a shootout to give Sweden's its only hockey gold medal at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

Now, the Swedes have a chance to make their country proud again.

"That (1994) win was the biggest for sure,'' he said. "The way it ended, too, with the penalty shot goal and the big save after. They made a stamp of it for a reason, I guess.''

What was expected to be a tight-checking semifinal turned into a romp for Sweden as starting goaltender Milan Hnilicka struggled and the Czechs played an unusually loose defensive game before 8,071 at Palasport Olympico.

"They had lots of room in the middle and that was the difference,'' said Czech defenceman Tomas Kaberle. "They had a lot of open, one-time shots and it was difficult to defend.

"You can't say it was goaltending. It was all of us. The whole team.''

The Czechs will play the Russia/Finland loser for the bronze medal on Saturday.

"A bronze medal would be nice too, but it's a big disappointment,'' added Kaberle.

Fredrik Modin, Henrik Sedin, Christian Backman, Jorgen Jonsson and Tomas Holmstrom also scored for Sweden.

Filip Kuba, Ales Hemsky and Vaclav Prospal scored for the Czech Republic, the 2005 world champions.

The Swedes have had little but disappointment since their 1994 Olympic win and hit rock bottom at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City when they lost 4-3 to lowly Belarus in the quarter-finals. They also lost in the quarters at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, the first with full NHL participation.

"It means a lot,'' said defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom. "It's a huge thing being in the final again and just having a chance to play for the gold medal.''

Goaltending has been headache for the Czechs. No. 1 Dominik Hasek was injured nine minutes into their tournament opener. Tomas Vokoun took over in goal but was pulled in favour of Hnilicka after allowing three goals in the first period of a 3-2 loss to Canada.

Hnilicka was sharp as the Czechs posted a quarter-final win over Slovakia, but he was weak against Sweden.

It didn't help that the Czechs, who normally play a disciplined trap, left wide open spaces for the Swedes to breeze through the neutral zone and blast shots from prime scoring areas.

"We wanted to try to get more shots at the net, especially with their goalie,'' said Lidstrom. "We heard that he might leave some rebounds.

"Especially in the first period, they were backing off more than we anticipated,'' he added. "We thought they'd play tighter in the neutral zone, but we were able to skate through the neutral zone with good speed.''

The Swedes scored on their first shot on Hnilicka as Forsberg carried the puck into the Czech zone and fed Modin for a one-timer inside the near post only 34 seconds into the game.

It was Henrik Lundqvist's turn to give up a weak goal at 3:11 when Kuba's medium-speed shot trickled between his pads and into the net.

But Axelsson put Sweden back in front at 13:37, redirecting Lidstrom's a diagonal pass from the left point over Hnilicka.

The Swedes piled on three more goals in the opening 7:54 of the middle period to chase Hnilicka in favour of Vokoun.

Henrik Sedin banged in the rebound of brother Daniel's shot on a two-on-one at 1:16, Backman scored on a long shot that Hnilicka didn't see at 3:54 and Jonsson redirected a shot from in front at 7:54 on a power play.

The Czechs didn't lie down. Hemsky knocked in a rebound off the end boards on a power play at 10:40 and Prospal lifted a nifty backhand over Lundqvist from in close at 11:25.

A backbreaker goal came at 19:00, as Axelsson took the puck into the Czech zone, beat defenceman Pavel Kubina for the puck behind the net and fed Alfredsson for a 6-3 lead.

The Swedes protected their lead in the third period and allowed few good chances in what was a quiet game for Czech star Jaromir Jagr.

Holmstrom added another goal with 3:55 left to play on a feed from Henrik Zetterberg.

Notes: The Swedes shifted Jorgen Jonsson onto a line with the Sedins and put the twins' former linemate Mikael Samuelsson on an all-Detroit Red Wing line with Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom. ... Niklas Kronwall saw his first Olympic action replacing injured Mattias Ohlund. ... It was only the second Olympic meeting between the two countries since the Czechs split with Slovakia. Sweden beat the Czechs 2-1 in round robin play in 2002.

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