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Finland vs. Switzerland

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Goaltender Antero Niittymaki wasn't Finland's first or even second choice to start in Torino, but he finds himself in that position Wednesday when the Finns begin preliminary-round play against Switzerland.

Niittymaki was handed the starting job when Miikka Kiprusoff declined to participate in the Olympics due to a hip problem. Kiprusoff, who led the Finns to a second-place finish in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, is 29-14-7 with a 2.23 goals-against average and league-leading six shutouts this season for the Calgary Flames.

Twenty players from that World Cup team are on the roster in Torino, but Kiprusoff's exit has caused a stir because Atlanta Thrashers rookie netminder Kari Lehtonen was expected to be the No. 1 goaltender, but he also withdrew as he continues to recover from a groin injury.

The 25-year-old Niittymaki, who's 18-10-6 with a 2.95 GAA for the Philadelphia Flyers this season, feels up to the challenge of capturing Finland's first Olympic medal since winning the bronze in Nagano in 1998.

"If we play like we think we can, I don't think it's going to be a problem," said Niittymaki. "Kiprusoff, I think, is a top-three goalie in the league right now, and you're going to miss a guy like that. But if we can play at the level we know we can play, I don't think it's going to be that big a factor."

The Finns have never won Olympic gold. In Salt Lake City in 2002, Finland went 2-1-0 in a tough Group D that included the United States and Russia before losing 2-1 in the quarterfinals to eventual gold medal-winning Canada.

Two-thirds of the top line from that team is still intact, as Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Jere Lehtinen of the Dallas Stars will skate alongside Saku Koivu of the Montreal Canadiens in Torino.

Selanne, who has 478 goals in 13 NHL seasons, played in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville and on the bronze-winning 1998 team.

"We have always played together on the national team," Selanne said. "It has been a lot of fun to play with those guys. I think the biggest thing is we are all unselfish players. We really want to play well together. We want to make the difference."

Backing the top line is a solid core of NHL players, including Olli Jokinen of the Florida Panthers, Jussi Jokinen of the Stars, Jarkko Ruutu and Sami Salo of the Vancouver Canucks, Teppo Numminen of the Buffalo Sabres, Aki Berg of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Joni Pitkanen of the Flyers and Kimmo Timonen of the Nashville Predators.

Koivu's younger brother, Mikko, of the Minnesota Wild, also is on the team.

Those names aren't as big as the ones sported on the rosters of powerhouses like Canada, Russia, Sweden, the United States and the Czech Republic, but the elder Koivu feels his team is good enough to contend for a medal.

"We're not as deep as the other big countries," he said. "We know we have a chance, but we have to bring our best game to the table to do so."

Koivu has six goals and 11 assists in 14 career Olympic games and tied Selanne with 10 points in Nagano.

Switzerland has not won a medal in a major tournament since earning a bronze at the 1953 World Championships and has just two Olympic medals to its credit - winning bronze in both the 1928 and 1948 games in St. Moritz.

The Swiss haven't finished higher than fifth place in any Olympics thereafter and went 1-1-1 in the 2002 games en route to an 11th-place finish.

Goaltender Martin Gerber of the Carolina Hurricanes is one of three NHL players on the roster, joining fellow goalie David Aebischer of the Colorado Avalanche and defenseman Mark Streit of the Canadiens.

Gerber, 28-9-2 with a 2.73 GAA for the Hurricanes this season, posted a 1-1-1 mark and Olympic-best 1.52 GAA in three games in Salt Lake City, while Aebischer went 1-0-0 with a 4.43 GAA in a backup role.

Aebischer is 22-13-2 with a 3.12 GAA for the Avalanche in 2005-06.

Streit, named the team's Olympic captain, played in the Swiss Elite League for nine years and in seven World Championships, the last in 2005 when the Swiss finished eighth.

He has a goal and six assists in 32 games for the Canadiens this season.

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