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Americans Continue Amazing Journey Into Semifinals Against Finland

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Brooks Orpik and the United States Men’s Hockey Team continue their amazing run towards a gold medal on Friday when they take on an experienced Finnish squad at 3 p.m. on NBC for the right to play in Sunday’s championship game.

Both teams are coming off 2-0 shutout victories in Wednesday’s quarterfinal round.

Orpik and the Americans were stymied for 40 minutes by Switzerland netminder Jonas Hiller, but Zach Parise scored an early power-play goal in the third period and added an empty-net tally with 12 seconds remaining as the U.S. remained the lone undefeated team in Vancouver.

Finland survived a dogfight of their own against the Czech Republic. Niklas Hagman broke a scoreless tie with 6:26 to play in the final period by deflecting a Janne Niskala shot past Tomas Vokoun for the game-winner. Valtteri Filppula later scored into an empty net and Miikka Kiprusoff made 31 saves to post the shutout.

Friday’s matchup at Hockey Canada Place can best be described as New School vs. Old School as the up-and-coming Americans square off with a battle-test Finnish team.

These Games represent the dawning of America’s ‘next generation’ with superstars such as Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Paul Stastny all making their Olympic debuts.

In fact, only captain Jamie Langenbrunner, alternate Brian Rafalski and Chris Drury had previous Olympic experience heading into Vancouver. With such a novice roster, not much was expected from the United States.

Whereas the Americans have their best days still in front of them, the 2010 Games are a last chance for Finland’s old guard to capture the country’s first-ever gold medal.

Teemu Selanne (39-years-old), Jere Lehtinen (36) and Saku Koivu (35) have been the leaders of the Finnish attack for the better part of the past decade, and huge reasons why the Finns took home a silver medal in the 2006 Turino Games.

Head coach Ron Wilson’s American troops took care of business, as expected, during their first two games of the preliminary round by defeating Switzerland, 3-1, and Norway, 6-1. Expectations rose for the red, white and blue following an epic 5-3 upset of heavily-favored Canada, which gave the Americans the top seed in the tournament heading into the medal round.

Following a bye through the qualification round, the U.S. found themselves in a rematch with the Swiss. Thanks to Parise’s two goals and a 19-save shutout by Ryan Miller, the Americans withstood Switzerland to earn their first trip to the semifinal round since the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

Finland also breezed through their first two contests in the preliminary round. They opened the tournament with a 5-1 drubbing of Belarus, then shut out the Germans, 5-0. Finland suffered their only setback thus far when Sweden blanked them, 3-0, to conclude the round robin portion of the tournament.

As the No. 4 seed, Finland also received a bye into the quarterfinal round, where as mentioned above they bested the Czech Republic, 2-0.

While the Selanne-Lehtinen-Koivu trio represents the heart, soul and leadership of Finland, they have combined for just four assists heading into Friday. Leading the way offensively for the Finns has been Hagman, who has a team-best five points (3G-2A) and Mikko Koivu, Saku’s younger brother, who has four assists.

Finland’s strength lies between the pipes, where Kiprusoff has been a brick wall. He leads the tournament with a .947 save percentage through three games. Kiprusoff has stopped 71 of the 75 shots thrown his way.

Although Rafalski and Drury are the lone holdovers from the 2006 Olympic team, Friday’s U.S.-Finland matchup will be a shot at redemption for the Americans, who were knocked out by the Finns, 4-3, in the quarterfinals in Turin.

For those of you who believe in history repeating itself, 30 years ago this month it was the Finns whom Herb Brooks’ 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ squad defeated, 4-2, to secure the gold medal.

One key for the Americans on Friday will be resisting the urge to potentially look beyond Finland in anticipation of a Gold Medal Game rematch with Canada on Sunday afternoon.

All things considered, as long as all 20 skaters continue playing a consummate team game, and Miller proves impenetrable as the last line of defense, the Americans should be able to squeak past a formidable Finnish squad.
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