Finland, Sweden to play for hockey gold

Saturday, February 25, 2006

TURIN, Italy -- It's an all-Nordic final for gold in men's hockey: Sweden versus Finland.

Peter Forsberg set up a goal 34 seconds into the game Friday and Sweden was on its way to a 7-3 rout of the Czech Republic in the semifinals of te Olympic hockey tournament. Not too shabby for Forsberg, the Philadelphia Flyers star who was doubtful for the Olympics.

The Swedes are guaranteed an Olympic medal for the first time since taking gold in 1994, when Forsberg scored the winning goal to beat Canada in a gold-medal shootout and the country put his image on a postage stamp.

They will have to beat Finland, which eliminated Russia 4-0.

Saku Koivu and Ville Peltonen each scored a goal and set up another for Finland.

"Obviously, if you were born in Finland, you want to play Sweden. That's the ultimate," Ville Nieminen said. "The situation can't get any better, can't get any more exciting."

How good is this for the two bordering countries, where the long winters naturally lead many of their best athletes to the ice?

The combined population of Sweden (9 million) and Finland (5 million) is less than metropolitan New York City, yet they will play for the gold while the big boys -- Canada, the United States, Russia and the Czechs -- all sit out.

Finland has beaten all of those teams in the tournament.

And they're doing it by following the most basic of concepts in team play: togetherness can win out over superior talent.

While U.S. star Mike Modano was complaining about playing time, and Canada coach Pat Quinn said his roster of big stars never meshed, the Finns have played like they have been together for 10 years, not 10 days.

"I've never been on a team that's so tight and together," Kimmo Timonen said.

The day before the semifinals, Czech star Jaromir Jagr said the Russians were the best team remaining -- but only if they played as a team, a common problem for them in recent years. They didn't on Friday, and now they're back in the bronze medal game for a second consecutive Olympics.

"We got what we deserved," Russian goalie Evgeni Nabokov said.

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