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Finland tries to avoid upset by Austria

by Brian Compton

FINLAND vs. AUSTRIA

When: Thursday, 3 a.m. ET (NBCSN, SNET)

Where: Bolshoy Ice Dome

What's at stake: This is the opening game for each team in Group B. Finland is coming off a bronze-medal finish at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and will face a country that is back in the tournament for the first time since 2002. For the Finns, it is imperative they come strong out of the gate and avoid what would be a huge upset.

Finland: Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has established himself as one of the League's best this season, tied for fifth in the NHL with 25 wins while boasting a 2.11 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. The 26-year-old gets his first taste of Olympic hockey and will have to be sharp to maintain playing time considering his country has Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks and Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars as viable alternatives.

"I'm sure it's going to be a great experience," Rask told the Bruins website. "I think every time you get to play with your countrymen, it's something special. I'm really looking forward to that. Hopefully we'll win some games too so it's not just a vacation."

Austria: Three NHL players will compete for Austria at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and two of them skate for the same team in North America. New York Islanders forwards Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner will represent their native country, along with Philadelphia Flyers forward Michael Raffl.

Vanek knows his country has a tough task ahead, but is excited for the challenge.

"It's an honor to play for your country, especially on a stage like this," Vanek told the Islanders website. "For us, it's fun to be there. We have a tough task ahead of us. It comes down to goaltending and we'll have to play smart, but we have some guys in the lineup that can make plays. Are we going to be huge underdogs? We will be, but we have to play smart."

What's next: Group B play continues for each team Friday. Finland faces Norway in another game it should win before its huge showdown with Canada on Sunday. Austria will have to deal with the Canadians on Friday before facing Norway on Sunday.

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