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Finland 4, Russia 0 @NHLdotcom

TURIN, Italy (AP) - The Finns are playing as a team, not as selfish stars, in an Olympics where they have eliminated all the big countries and many of hockey's big names.

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.

"Obviously, if you were born in Finland, you want to play Sweden. That's the ultimate," Ville Nieminen said. "The situation can't get any better, can't get any more exciting."

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

The combined population of Sweden (9 million) and Finland (5 million) 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 beaten all of those teams in the tournament.

And they're doing it by following the most basic of concepts in team play: togetherness can win out over superior talent.

While U.S. star Mike Modano was complaining about playing time, and Canada coach Pat Quinn said his roster-full of big stars never meshed, the Finns have played like they have been together for 10 years, not 10 days.

"I've never been on a team that's so tight and together," Kimmo Timonen said. "Everybody's doing their job and working very hard and now this is a big thing we've done as a group for our country."

The day before the semifinals, Czech star Jaromir Jagr said the Russians were the best team remaining - but only if they played as a team, a common problem for them in recent years. They didn't on Friday, and now they're back in the bronze medal game for a second consecutive Olympics.

"We got what we deserved," goalie Evgeni Nabokov said. "I think the score pretty much sums it up. We did not play well and we did not deserve to win. They were hungrier than we were and I don't know why."

Maybe it's because Finland has played that way from the start, winning all seven games in Turin starting with a 5-0 decision over Switzerland. Five of their seven victories have been shutouts.

"When we started right in the first game it was tough - no practices at all," Jere Lehtinen said. "But coming in we showed we could play as a team right away. The first game started the whole tournament."

Finland seized the momentum early in the game with Peltonen's goal at 6:13 of the first and never let go. With a trapping-style defense, they didn't allow Russia's fleet forwards 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.

"We couldn't break their defense," coach Vladimir Krikunov said.

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

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.

Niittymaki made 21 saves in outplaying fellow rookie 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 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 has trailed only once in the tournament.

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.

"They didn't give us any opportunities to create any scoring chances," Alexei Yashin said.

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 bronze in 1988.

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