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Surprising Finland, stalwart Russia to meet in men's hockey semifinal

NHL.com @NHL

Since 1924, Russia has won 12 Olympic medals in hockey, including a record eight golds. Finland has only one silver and two bronzes - all since 1980.

But history may be the only difference between the teams when the surprising Finns meet perennial power Russia on Friday in the semifinals.

Finland's medal history in Olympic hockey is brief. At the 1980 Lake Placid Games, the Finns lost to the "Miracle on Ice" U.S. team in the gold-medal game. At the 1994 Lillehammer Games, Finland settled for a bronze with a 4-0 win over Russia.

And despite the participation of NHL players starting in 1998, Finland again took home bronze after a 3-2 win over Canada in Nagano. The Finns were beaten in the quarterfinals at the 2002 Salt Lake Games by eventual gold-medal winner Canada.

This time, the Finnish squad seems to have put it together at both ends of the ice. Finland was a perfect 5-0 in round-robin play, which included convincing wins over traditional powers Canada and the Czechs, and routs of lightly regarded Germany and host Italy.

The Finns' 19 goals scored - including a tournament-best six by Teemu Selanne - in the preliminary round were second behind Russia's 23.

But Finland was not given much of a chance to make it to the medal round, especially without NHL goaltenders Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen, who pulled out before the Games with injuries.

Philadelphia's Antero Niittymaki and Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Fredrik Norrena, however, have combined to be a big surprise in net.

Niittymaki is 4-0-0 with a 1.25 goals-against average and two shutouts, and Norrena has stopped all 34 shots he's faced while recording two shutouts.

The Finns also boast the best special-teams play at these Games, killing off 22-of-23 short-handed situations while scoring 13 power-play goals in 40 opportunities.

Olli Jokinen has scored four of his five goals on the power play, with two of those tallies coming in the second period of Wednesday's 4-3 quarterfinal win over the United States.

With the score tied 2-2 and with American defenseman Bret Hedican serving a hooking penalty, Jokinen - the Florida Panthers' leading scorer - scored his fourth goal of the Games.

Jokinen scored again with less than three minutes to play in the period to make it 4-2, and Niittymaki made 15 of his 26 saves in the third period.

"We know we can beat anybody when we play on our level, and we didn't even have to play that well tonight," Selanne said.

Russia advanced after knocking off defending gold-medal champion Canada 2-0 on Wednesday. NHL rookie Alexander Ovechkin snapped a scoreless tie with a power-play goal 90 seconds into the third period.

But as it moves on to meet Finland, defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said Russia must quickly forget about one of its biggest Olympic victories in years.

"We want to have a gold medal," Kasparaitis said. "That's what we want. And when we win that, then we're going to remember we beat Canada."

Ovechkin, who has 36 goals for the Washington Capitals, leads Russia with five goals.

Team captain Alexei Kovalev added a power-play goal in the final minute and Evgeni Nabokov made 27 saves to improve to 5-0-0 with a 0.50 GAA and three shutouts.

Russia will be without forward Evgeni Malkin for this contest after he was suspended early Thursday by the tournament directorate for an attempted kick of Canada forward Vincent Lecavalier.

Malkin, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, has two goals, four assists, a plus-6 rating and team-high 29 penalty minutes in six games.

Russia got off to a slow start in Turin, losing 5-3 on Feb. 15 to Slovakia. Since then, however, it's outscored its opponents 22-6 in winning five straight.

The Russians posted shutouts over Sweden and Kazakhstan, had the most goals in one game during this Olympics with a 9-2 rout of Latvia, then topped the U.S. and Canada.

Sweden and the Czech Republic will meet in the other semifinal on Friday.

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