U.S. one win away from final

Updated: January 5, 2004, 11:05 AM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

HELSINKI, Finland -- When Finland center Valtteri Filppula's harmless-looking 55-foot wrist shot eluded baffled Russian goalie Konstantin Barulin to break a 3-3 tie with just 13 seconds remaining in regulation time of Friday's quarterfinal match at the World Under-20 Championship (a.k.a.: World Junior Championship), Team USA was suddenly thrust into the role of the bad guy in Helsinki.

You see, as a result of Finland's come-from-behind 4-3 victory over its hated rival, the Finns advanced to Saturday's semifinal (noon ET) against the young Americans at the Helsinski Ice Arena. The winner will face the Canada-Czech Republic winner in Monday's gold medal game.

Team USA, in search of its first-ever gold medal in the tournament, now must deal with an emotionally charged Finnish squad playing in front of a flag-waving, packed house -- complete with dancing cheerleaders at each stoppage.

"It'll be a challenge," says U.S. coach Mike Eaves, who led many of the same players to a gold medal finish at the 2002 Under-18 championship in Piestany, Slovakia.

The Americans, who earned a bye into the semis after finishing first in Group A with a 4-0 record, likely will have to weather an early storm from the Finns. Revved-up by the home crowd, the Finns will look to duplicate the aggressive, physical performance they turned in against Russia. That performance, however, did not come without a price. The Finns carry some fresh aches and pains into their match with Team USA.

Unlike the Czechs, Slovaks or Swedes, the Finns can bring an aggressive forecheck to the rink. American defenders like Ryan Suter (Predators, 2003), Mark Stuart (Bruins, 2003) and James Wisniewski (Blackhawks, 2002) will have to make quick, sharp passes to move the puck out of the zone. If they don't, the Finns' tenacious forwards will work the puck below the faceoff dots and cycle scoring chances toward U.S. goalie Al Montoya (University of Michigan, eligible, 2004). The U.S. backline will be tested by Finland's top line of center Filppula (Red Wings, 2002), left wing Sean Bergenheim (Islanders, 2002) and right wing Petteri Nokelainen (eligible 2004).

At the other end of the rink, the Americans will want to badger an average group of Finnish defenders led by Mikko Kalteva (Avs, 2002). USA center Zach Parise (Devils, 2003) has been the most prolific scorer in the tournament, netting five goals and passing out five assists for 10 points. Linemate Patrick Eaves (Senators, 2003) has contributed a goal and four assists.

The American sharpshooters should be aiming for the top part of the net against Finnish flopper Hannu Toivonen (Bruins, 2002). "He's a big guy, but once he goes down, he starts swimming around the ice," said one scout. Toivonen had been playing for the Bruins' AHL team at Providence before getting a release to play in the tournament.

The Finns can take some comfort in their 4-1 pre-tournament win over the Americans. And, at last year's World U-20 tourney, Finland edged Team USA, 3-2, for the bronze medal.

Notes
If Russia had beaten Finland, the Russians and Americans would have played in the first semifinal on Saturday (8 a.m. ET). Instead, because of local television coverage, Finland will be featured in the second game, while the Canadians and Czechs will face off in the first game. ... Russian phenom Alexander Ovechkin stunned NHL scouts and the home crowd with a highlight-reel goal that briefly snapped a 2-2 tie midway through the third period in the loss to Finland. In the blink of an eye, while taking a nasty hit from defenseman Ville Varakas in the slot, Ovechkin shuffled a pass to his forehand and blistered a shot over Toivonen's left (catching) hand. One word: Wow! ... Canada is a heavy favorite to beat the Czechs and advance to its third consecutive World U-20 goal-medal game. The Canadians defeated the Czechs, 5-2, on Wednesday. ... Russian forward Sergei Anshakov, acquired by the Penguins from the Kings as part of the Martin Straka deal, turned in a strong performance in a losing effort against Finland. Anshakov has good size and was strong on the puck throughout the match. That's good news for Penquins fans who have been wondering just what their team got for Straka.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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