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Finns, Swedes look to settle scores in semifinals

by Brad Holland

Finnish goaltender Niklas Backstrom has been playing to a .910 save percentage and a 2.31 goals-against average in six starts.
If revenge is a dish best served cold, then a hockey rink is an appropriate place to dish it out. And the Russians will be looking to serve up a heaping helping of vengeance when they meet the Finns on Friday in Quebec City in a rematch of last year's World Championship semifinal game.

The Finns won last year's game, 2-1, on Russian home soil, before being defeated by the Canadians, 4-2, in the gold-medal game.

Team Finland knows it will have its hands full with the Russians this time around, as the slick-skating Russians have scored 27 goals in this tournament and allowed only 13 on the way to a perfect 6-0 record.

But Finland owns a confidence built from a team-first approach, and will not be pushovers.

"The strength we have is the team game and the team chemistry we have," said Saku Koivu, the Finnish captain. "It doesn't matter if you're Teemu Selanne and you've scored 50 or 60 goals in the NHL, we'll be responsible defensively. We know we have to bring a team defensive game in order to compete. And the goaltending and special teams in one game play a big role."

Goaltending has been a strong point for both teams in the tournament.

Finnish goaltender Niklas Backstrom has been outstanding, playing to a .910 save percentage and a 2.31 goals-against average in six starts. Russian netminder Evgeni Nabokov, a nominee for the 2008 Vezina Trophy, has been slightly better in his four starts, playing to a sparkling 1.67 GAA and a.932 save percentage.

The Finns did geta  break though for this game. The Russian side will be without superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, who was suspended one game for receiving two game misconducts in the tournament.

Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov knows that Kovalchuk will be tough to replace, even with scorers like Sergei Fedorov, Alex Ovechkin, Maxim Afinogenov and Alexander Semin still in the lineup.

Despite the loss of Kovalchuk, the Russians are confident. They know this game will not likely be an offense-dominated affair. The Finns pride themselves on a defense-first approach. It will be up to the Russians to match that commitment.

"We have to be disciplined," said Nabokov. "That will be the most important part. We don't want to put ourselves in a position where we have to kill a lot of penalties. In my mind, it's always the team that plays better defensively that will win the game."


In the 2008 World Championships, Team Sweden arrived without most of its superstars. Club team playoff commitments, injuries and declined invitations have Sweden playing without players like Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin; they've also had no Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Mats Naslund, Nick Lidstrom or even one of the Sedin twins.

No superstars? No problem. The Swedes have played to a 3-2 record through the preliminary and qualification rounds. Wednesday, the Swedes beat the Czechs, 3-2, in the quarterfinals.

Their only blemishes have come at the hands of the Swiss – a 4-2 shocker that produced all kinds of questions about the Swedish team's ability – and to the Russians, 3-2, in the qualification round, a loss that could be avenged Friday night.

Sweden has been doing it without most of its usual star power. Instead, it has been relying heavily on a King.

Henrik Lundqvist, a man who has been nominated for the NHL's Vezina trophy as the League's top goaltender in each of his first three seasons is no stranger to international competition. A member of the gold medal-winning Swedish side at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Lundqvist, known as the "King" to Ranger fans, may be the foundation on which the Swedish medal hopes rest.

He will be facing Canadian shooters who have put up the most goals in the tournament -- 38 in six games -- and the line that has caused the most damage in the tournament –Dany Heatley, Ryan Getzlaf and Rick Nash. That line has combined for 17 goals and 39 points.

They make up three of the top four scorers in the tournament.

The Swedes do have the potential advantage of having played all of their games in the Colisee Pepsi, in Quebec City, where the semifinal games are being played. The Canadians, by comparison, spent the qualifying round and played their first playoff game at the Halifax Metro Centre.

"It's going to be something new for us because they've been playing in Quebec and we're kind of unfamiliar with how they play," goaltender Cam Ward told reporters Wednesday. "But we have a great coaching staff who'll prepare us well, I'm sure. And we played two pre-tournament games there to know what to expect with the rink and the atmosphere."

Ward was in net for Canada's 8-2 shellacking of Norway in Game 1 of the single-elimination playoff round. However it will be Pascal Leclaire, the tournament's goaltending leader in save percentage (.945) and GAA  (1.33), who will start against the Swedes.

By comparison, Lundqvist has played to a .938 save percentage and a 2.22 GAA in his own four starts. He played perhaps his best game in a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Russians in which he was called upon to make 39 saves on 42 shots. He held a 2-1 lead entering the third period but could not hold back the Russian attack as they poured 15 shots on goal in the third period to Sweden's five, getting goals from Washington Capitals' teammates Alex Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov.

However the Russians' attack, while impressive, may not be as potent as the Canadians, and so King Henrik will likely be called upon to provide his best performance thus far.

News and Notes – In the best-of-3 series for relegation, Team Slovakia defeated Team Slovenia two games to none and Team France downed Team Italy, 2-0. Therefore, Slovenia and Italy will be relegated to Division 1 for the 2009 World Championships. The two teams replacing them will be Austria and Hungary, who led their respective groups at the 2008 IIHF World Championship Division 1 tournament. Team Canada forward Eric Staal, who left the tournament after the death of his grandfather, has returned and will be back in the lineup against the Swedes. … Team USA forward Patrick Kane looked sharp in his first World Championship, scoring three goals and 10 points in six games. He was involved in a number of highlight-reel goals, including a spin-o-rama, behind-the-back pass to teammate Phil Kessel against Team Norway. … Russian forward Sergei Fedorov has looked rejuvenated since being traded to Washington and playing with several of his countrymen, and that trend has continued in this tournament. The 38-year-old Fedorov has scored four goals and nine points, and played to a plus-8 rating in seven games. He is second on the Russian team in scoring behind Alex Ovechkin, who also has nine points but has scored six goals. … The order of finish, aside from the top four spots is set. From bottom-to-top: Italy (relegated), Slovenia (relegated), France, Slovakia, Denmark, Latvia, Germany, Belarus, Norway, Switzerland, USA, Czech Republic.

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