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Eight Rangers in Olympic hockey's final four

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
It might be a good omen or just a wild coincidence, but with four nations remaining in the Olympic hockey tournament in Torino, only one NHL team can claim a player on each of the four rosters.

That team is the New York Rangers, who also have the most remaining Olympians.

Eight of the nine Rangers who came to Torino will play in the tournament semifinals on Friday, as anywhere from one to four Blueshirts will come home with a gold medal. The eight players still competing gives the Rangers two more than second-place Detroit, which has six players left.

Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic were all winners in Wednesday's quarterfinal action, as the tournament went into its "win or go home" mode.

For Rangers fans eager to see how the team's stars will perform in must-win situations, Friday's semifinals could be a sneak preview of what's to come this season.

In Friday's second game, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will face four of his NHL teammates in Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky and Marek Malik, as Sweden will meet the Czech Republic

The other game features Rangers defensemen Darius Kasparaitis and Fedor Tyutin playing for Russia against Finnish NHL teammate Ville Nieminen.

The Swedes, Czechs, Russians and Finns all moved into the tournament's final four by winning games on Wednesday. In the process, they ousted hockey powers Canada, the USA and Slovakia, while ending Switzerland's Cinderella run.

In Wednesday's opener, Lundqvist and Sweden drew one step closer to their nation's first Olympic medal since taking the gold in 1994. The Swedes coasted past underdog Switzerland 6-2. Lundqvist stopped 27 shots, and the dominant Swedes got two goals from captain Mats Sundin.

In his last three starts, against Latvia, Team USA and Switzerland, Lundqvist has allowed only four goals and will enter the semifinals as one of the tournament's hottest netminders.

In Wednesday's second game, Finland remained the tournament's only unbeaten team by ending Team USA's medal hopes with a 4-3 win over the Americans. Former Rangers Mike Knuble and Mathieu Schneider had goals for Team USA, but it was not enough to beat the Finns, who have outscored their opponents 23-5 in the tournament and have the Olympics' best forward line in Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Jere Lehtinen.

Team USA finished the Olympics 1-4-1 in a disappointing follow-up to a silver medal performance in 2002.

The day's third game saw Russia score a 2-0 win over Canada, eliminating the defending Olympic gold medalist. Evgeni Nabokov was perfect in goal for Russia, notching his third shutout of the Olympics. Alexander Ovechkin and former Ranger Alexei Kovalev scored third-period power-play goals for the Russians, as Canada was blanked for the third time.

Wednesday's fourth quarterfinal game was arguably the day's most thrilling, as the Czech Republic toppled Slovakia 3-1, dealing the Slovaks their first loss. Rangers players figured prominently in the scoring, as Rucinsky got the Czechs' first goal on a shorthanded breakaway tally and assisted on Milan Hejduk's goal that gave his team a 2-0 lead. Straka later put the game away when he scored an empty-net goal with three seconds remaining in the third period. It was Straka's first goal of the tournament.

Former Rangers netminder Milan Hnilicka, who played two games for the Blueshirts in 1999-00, was an unlikely hero for the Czechs. After coming to Torino as his team's third goalie behind Dominik Hasek and Tomas Vokoun, Hnilicka got the start on Wednesday and came through with 20 saves. He will likely oppose Lundqvist on Friday.

It was tough loss for the Slovaks, whose coach, Frantisek Hossa, is the father of Rangers forward Marcel Hossa and Atlanta Thrashers star Marian Hossa. The Slovakians had turned heads throughout the preliminary round as the only unbeaten team in Group B.

Marcel Hossa became the only Rangers player eliminated from the tournament so far. Four of the remaining eight Rangers players have won Olympic gold medals in the past. Kasparaitis claimed his gold with the Unified Team in 1992, while Jagr, Rucinsky and Straka were all members of the Czech team that conquered the 1998 Nagano tournament.
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