Posted: Thursday February 23, 2006 7:15PM; Updated: Friday February 24, 2006 9:53AM
With Dominik Hasek out injured and Tomas Vokoun struggling, the Czech Republic will rely on ex-NHLers Milan Hnilicka.
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SI.com's Michael Farber breaks down the Olympic men's hockey semifinals:
The matchup: SWEDEN vs. CZECH REPUBLIC The skinny: In the be-careful-what-you-wish-for game, the Swedes, who played, uh, discreetly in the round-robin against Slovakia to get a cozy quarterfinal against the Swiss, now meet a true power.
As Swedish coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson said about the Czech and Canada, "One is the plague, the other cholera." In fact, Canada proved to be gingivitis -- although that might be overstating the current strength of a good but not dazzling Czech Republic.
With star goalie Dominik Hasek out of the tournament and Tomas Vokoun doing an imitation of a sieve in his last round-robin game, the Czechs have turned to ex-NHLer Milan Hnilicka, who looked strong against the Slovaks in the quarters. "We trust him," defenseman Marek Malik said. The Czechs are patient, have a brilliant transition game and will punish Swedish turnovers in the neutral zone. With Swedish defenseman Mattias Ohlund out (ribs), Nicklas Kronwall, who originally said he was too hurt to come, fills in as Nicklas Lidstrom's partner.
With five Swedes who are Red Wings and four Czechs who are Rangers, including the irrepressible Jaromir Jagr, this is basically an Original Six match on big ice.
The prediction: CZECH REPUBLIC
The matchup: FINLAND vs. RUSSIA The skinny: The tortoise vs. the hare -- with sticks. If styles make fights, and hockey games, this should be intriguing.
The Russians fairly bristle with young legs like the sublime Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin (suspended for the game for kicking Canada's Vincent Lecavalier in the quarters), a duo that has energized the team if not the crowds at the Olympic hockey venue.
Czech star Jagr calls Russia "the best team here." Finland must play the match in waltz-time with its suffocating 1-4, forcing Russia to dump the puck into the offensive zone rather than wheel it through at Mach 2. Said Finnish checker Ville Niemenen, "We need to slow them down, take their time and space and excitement away. Their team is scary one-on-one, so we need to outman them everywhere and play really good in the neutral zone so they don't use it as a runway."
The Finns are 6-0 in the tournament. But a furious third period by the USA in the quarters made them look vulnerable, a situation that could be exacerbated by the loss of defenseman Sami Salo, a big cannon on the power play and a bulldozer in front of the net. Finland's top line of Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne and Jere Lehtinen have played together internationally for a decade; you can't buy that kind of continuity. And no nation works harder than the Finns.
"They have more talent, more skills, than we do," Selanne said, "but obviously there's only one puck."
This is a rematch of the 1998 semifinal when Pavel Bure, now Russia's general manager, scored an Olympic-record five goals in a 7-4 win.