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THN at the Olympics: Semifinal analysis and predictions

VANCOUVER – For the second time in the past three Olympics, Canada will face an inferior opponent in the semifinal because of a stunning upset involving Sweden.

In 2002, the Canadians drew Belarus for the semifinal after the tiny hockey country defeated the Swedes in one of the most shocking upsets in Olympic history. While it wasn’t quite as dramatic this time, Slovakia’s 4-3 win over Sweden in Wednesday night’s quarterfinal was not expected.

With two of the top three favorites – Russia and Sweden – now out of the tournament, here’s how things look for the semifinals, which will be played Friday.

Canada enters the semifinal hugely favored to win, but the Swedes were heavy favorites to win as well, particularly after Slovakia only managed to squeak by Norway the night before.

But as the Slovaks proved in their win over Sweden, they can be opportunists and teams that take penalties against them and turn the puck over repeatedly do so at their own peril.

Still, you can’t help but get the impression Canada is rounding into some kind of seriously dangerous form here. After searching for chemistry early in the tournament, everything looks to be coming together for the Canadian side and they are becoming a more formidable foe with every outing.

The fact coach Mike Babcock has found suitable wingers for Sidney Crosby has had a great trickle-down effect, with the other lines finding their form.

To be truthful, the Slovaks will need to play the game of their lives to have a chance to defeat Canada. Zdeno Chara, who has been a workhorse for the Slovaks, will have to continue to be a leader at both ends of the ice and the Slovaks will have to hope their bottom two lines can hold Canada at bay, while the top two lines try to generate offense on the power play.

Lubos Bartecko, who missed the game after suffering a concussion in the win over Norway, could be available for the semifinal.

It won’t be easy for Slovakia if Canada’s game against the Russians is any indication. The Canadian defense tandem of Shea Weber and Scott Niedermayer effectively rendered useless the Russians’ top line of Evgeni Malkin between Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and the team got a healthy contribution from all four lines and from their defensemen.

The Slovaks have always produced an impressive array of talented players for a country so small, but they don’t have anyone in the Malkin-Ovechkin class so it will be even more difficult for them to overcome the Canadians.

“We respect the power and strength of the Canadian team,” said Slovakian coach Jan Filc. “But every game starts 0-0 and we will try to keep our position open in this game for as long as possible.”

Prediction: Canada 5, Slovakia 1

If the tournament continues to hold true to form, this one will be all about the goaltenders. Ryan Miller and Miikka Kiprusoff have been primary reasons why their teams are playing in the semifinal in the first place.

USA had a tremendous offensive showing against Canada, but otherwise has been challenged to put the puck in the net. Zach Parise’s two goals against Switzerland in the quarterfinal were his first two of the tournament and that tied him for the lead among forwards. In fact, defenseman Brian Rafalski leads USA in both goals (four) and points (six) and has been very good at both ends of the ice in this tournament.

The Finns, with the exception of Niklas Hagman of the Calgary Flames, are having a ton of trouble finding the net themselves. Hagman leads the team with three goals and five points, but both Teemu Selanne and Mikko Koivu are looking for their first goals of the tournament, while Olli Jokinen has just one to show for his efforts.

It will not be an easy game for either team. The Finns seem to need about 10 quality scoring chances to get just one goal and anything they produce is the product of an almost Herculean effort. But they somehow manage to always give teams a very difficult game in which they try to grind you down to dust. Most teams in the Finnish Elite League play their games on the NHL rink dimensions of 200-by-85 feet and it shows in their style of play.

The Americans, meanwhile, will face another outstanding goalie and will have to show the same patience and persistence they did in the quarterfinal against Switzerland.

By the way, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea for Finnish GM Jari Kurri not to tell Kiprusoff to pound sand when Kiprusoff essentially demanded to be the No. 1 goalie for the Finns.

Prediction: USA 2, Finland 1 (SO)

Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for Read his other reports HERE.

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