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Kovalchuk suspension shouldn't change classic Russia-Finland matchup

QUEBEC - As Russia and Finland got ready on Thursday for their second semifinal meeting in as many years at the IIHF World Hockey Championship, most of the talk was about a skater who won't even play.

Ilya Kovalchuk, the gifted forward for the Atlanta Thrashers who has yet to score a goal in the tournament, got a one-game suspension when he was ejected from Russia's 6-0 quarter-final victory over Switzerland.

He will be a notable absence when Russia and Finland meet on Friday at the Pepsi Colisee (1 p.m. ET). Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov said Kovalchuk will be tough to replace.

"He's a big piece," Bykov said. "He's a very good player. We will miss him for sure."

Kovalchuk was given a charging major and a game misconduct for a nasty, open-ice shoulder hit on defenceman Julien Vauclair with 6:47 left to play in a game that was far out of reach for the Swiss.

He had also been tossed for fighting with Sweden's Anton Stralman during round-robin play. A second game misconduct in the tournament carries an automatic one-game suspension.

Kovalchuk was widely criticized for a selfish action - he had been hit moments earlier by Vauclair - but Bykov stood by his player.

"That was hockey," the coach said. "I saw the play in the NHL where the Dallas player (Brendan Morrow) hit the player from San Jose (Milan Michalek).

"The Dallas captain didn't even get two minutes. The hit was legal. The officials were there. The guy had his head down. It was his fault. This was exactly the same situation. It's hockey. If we are going to whine after every bodycheck, we'd be better off doing figure skating."

And Finland coach Doug Shedden said Russia has plenty of other weapons to worry about.

"They've got 15 other guys, are they going to miss one?" Shedden said. "It's funny. Fedor Fedorov has been the best player they've had all year and they pick up a few NHL guys and he gets cut. We'd take him."

Alexander Radulov, who played junior hockey for the Quebec Remparts and is a favourite of the Colisee fans, is to return to the Russian lineup after sitting out a game.

It was been a tough tournament for Radulov, and Bykov said this is the young forward's chance to shine.

"We're expecting something good from him, because he made his name here and we want him to show that," said Bykov. "A lot of people are chanting all the time Radulov, Radulov, Radulov. We're expecting him to show us why on the ice."

And what does the coach hope his young player will do?

"To score goals," Bykov replied. "What do we ask of all our forwards?

"And work hard on defence."

That is the semifinal match-up in the nutshell - Russia's depth of scoring talent against plucky Finland's disciplined team play.

A year ago on Russia's home ice in Moscow, Finland beat the host team 2-1 in the semifinal before losing 4-2 to Canada in the final.

Even without Kovalchuk, Russia has big guns like Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov and Maxim Afinogenov to provide offence.

And they always seem to have a player loose in the neutral zone, waiting for a breakout pass to start a counterattack.

Finland will turn to skilled players like Teemu Selanne or brothers Saku and Mikko Koivu.

"The strength we have is the team game and the team chemistry we have," said Saku Koivu, the team captain. "It doesn't matter if you're Teemu Selanne and you've scored 50 or 60 goals in the NHL, we'll be responsible defensively.

"We know we have to bring a team defensive game in order to compete. And the goaltending and special teams in one game play a big role."

Nicklas Backstrom was touched for six goals in a round-robin loss to Canada, but rebounded with a strong effort in a 3-2 overtime win over the United States in the quarter-finals in Halifax.

He'll get another test against Russia, which has yet to lose a game in the tournament.

At the other end, Russian goalie Evgeni Nabokov is coming off a shutout win over Switzerland.

"We have to be disciplined," said Nabokov. "That will be the most important part.

"We don't want to put ourselves in a position where we have to kill a lot of penalties. In my mind, it's always the team that plays better defensively that will win the game."


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