Slovakia, Finland join hockey semis

February, 25, 2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The final four was set late Wednesday night with one of the most shocking upsets of the men's Olympic hockey tournament.

Slovakia dethroned defending champion Sweden with a 4-3 quarterfinal win and advanced to the semifinals for the first time its young hockey history. There, Zdeno Chara and the Cinderella Slovaks will have its toughest challenge yet, as Team Canada hopes to rock the host nation with a trip to the gold-medal game.

"It's huge, you know," said Slovak veteran Jozef Stumpel. "It's tough to describe. You'll have to ask the people back home how crazy it's going over there."

"This is huge back home," added former Montreal Canadiens winger Richard Zednik. "Hockey is really popular. They're really looking forward to this tournament. It's really exciting for the fans, for the people back home and for sure for us."

Meanwhile, Team USA's surprise Olympic tournament also continues Friday against a gritty Finland team in its semifinal game.

"USA played a good game against Canada," Finnish captain Saku Koivu of the Anaheim Ducks said Wednesday night after a 2-0 quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic. "They have a good roster and [Ryan] Miller is a good goalie. It's a huge challenge, but it's exciting."

The Finns are fourth in the official International Ice Hockey Federation world rankings, while the U.S. is fifth.

"We're probably not the biggest favorite, but if we play as a team, we have a chance," said Finnish goalie Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames.

Slovakia won its first and only world title in 2002, but continues to develop top-end players. The Slovaks upset Russia in a shootout in the preliminary round, but sent out mixed signals with a nervy 4-3 win over hockey minnow Norway on Tuesday night in the qualifying round. Obviously a good night's sleep was all they needed. The Slovaks jumped out to 2-0 and 4-2 leads and held on to stun star-studded Sweden.

"Obviously, you have to believe," said Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, who continued his dream-like tourney with 26 saves Wednesday. "Because when you go into a game with Sweden, we are underdogs. But you have to believe. Everyone believes in our locker room and that's why we came out with the victory."

Somewhow, when all the dust cleared Wednesday, powerhouse countries Russia and Sweden were both sent packing. And joining Alex Ovechkin with the early exit was Washington Capitals linemate Nicklas Backstrom of Sweden.

"I don't know, I don't have an explanation right now," a stunned Backstrom said. "I don't feel we were on top of our game. They're a good team, we knew that before the game, but we weren't ready maybe.

"We should be better than what we showed. I'm just really upset right now."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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