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Italy vs. Finland

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Missing key components in goal and on defense, Finland entered the Olympics overlooked as a possible medal contender.

Following a strong showing in their opener, however, the Finns may have erased some doubts and now look to stay undefeated in Group A when they face Italy on Thursday.

Antero Niittymaki, a late addition to the Finnish squad, passed his first test by making 24 saves in Finland's 5-0 rout of Switzerland on Wednesday. Teemu Selanne and Olli Jokinen each had two goals and an assist to make things easier on the 25-year-old Philadelphia Flyers netminder.

Niittymaki, who replaced Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff on the team and got the starting job when Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen withdrew before the beginning of the games, had 12 saves during the second period of his Olympic debut.

His strong play plus an offensive outburst gave the Finns just the start they were looking for in their quest to earn a medal after losing in the quarterfinals in 2002. Finland opens with two of the weaker teams in Group A before facing Canada on Saturday.

"I think tomorrow will be the same type of game," said Jokinen, the Florida Panthers captain. "We're going to be the favorites against Italy. We need to find a way to score goals early in the game, otherwise it could be a tough night. You can't take any countries lightly, and they're going to have the home crowd behind them."

Following Jokinen's goal in the first period, Teppo Numminen scored early in the second and Finland added three more quick goals to put the game out of reach.

"I think after the second goal we kind of took the momentum away from them and just didn't give them much," said Finnish captain Saku Koivu, who assisted on Selanne's first goal.

Besides the two goalies, the Finns also are missing injured defenseman Joni Pitkanen, an offensive threat from the blue line, but the absences didn't seem to affect Finland in its opening game.

"The most important thing is that our players are ready to play mentally and physically," Finnish coach Erkka Westerlund said of the expectations on his team.

Italy was easily beaten 7-2 by heavy favorite Canada in its opener on Wednesday, but the host team did nothing to disappoint its fans.

The Italians tied the game at one just 43 seconds into the second period on a power-play goal from Jason Cirone before the Canadians regrouped and scored five straight goals. Still, scoring two goals was considered a success for Italy.

"I looked up, and looked all around. It was beautiful the way the fans were going wild," Italy goalie Jason Muzzatti said of the reaction to Cirone's tying goal. "I wondered if that would be the moment of the match for us. It turned out it was."

The Italians were outshot 50-20 by Canada and gave up 28 shots in the second period.

Italy finished 12th out of 14 teams in 1998, and didn't compete in 2002. The team avoided qualifying this year because it is the host team, but a lack of NHL experience hurt the Italians against the deeper, talented Canadian team. Nearly half of the Italian team was born in North America, but only Muzzatti has played in the NHL.

"That's the difference - that's what we told our players," said Italy coach Mickey Goulet, who coached at the University of Ottawa for 14 years. "The NHL players, they move the puck."

Italy faces long odds to advance out of Group A, which also includes another gold medal contender, the Czech Republic. The Italians haven't won more than one game in the Olympics since 1964.

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