Koivu's tally the difference

Updated: September 11, 2004, 2:18 AM ET
Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- While Finland celebrated one of its biggest international victories, the United States lamented a couple of bad late bounces.

The World Cup of Hockey semifinal was so close, the roles could easily have been reversed. But the Finns got the final break -- and a berth in the championship game.

Robert Esche
Getty Images/Dave SandfordRobert Esche allows the game-winner from Saku Koivu.

Saku Koivu's unchallenged goal with 3:54 left lifted Finland to a 2-1 victory Friday night.

"The Finnish teams, usually they die," coach Raimo Summanen said. "This was a huge step for Finnish hockey. I'm really proud that we believed."

The U.S. team, which led 1-0 with 15 minutes remaining, was denied a chance to defend its 1996 World Cup title despite limiting Finland to 12 shots on goal.

"We knew what we were up against with their defensive style," said U.S. captain Chris Chelios, who probably played his last international game. "One bounce. ... We knew that's what it would come down to."

The Finns advanced to the title game Tuesday night in Toronto, where they will face either the Czech Republic or Canada -- who play Saturday night in the other semifinal.

Finland has won only one major international title, the 1995 World Championships.

"We talked before the game that we would never have a chance like this again," Koivu said.

He and his teammates swarmed goalie Miikka Kiprusoff when the horn sounded, and the mob of blue jerseys slid back toward the boards to celebrate their trip to the final.

"It's going to be a big party there back home," Kiprusoff said.

Doug Weight's power-play goal on a pretty pass from Scott Gomez gave the United States and goalie Robert Esche the lead midway through the second period, but Kiprusoff kept Finland in it with another sound performance in goal.

Kiprusoff -- whose Calgary Flames beat U.S. coach Ron Wilson's NHL team, the San Jose Sharks, in the Western Conference final last season -- made 16 saves. Esche stopped 10 shots.

"If I was to count the scoring chances, we probably had six and they might have had three over the course of the whole evening," Wilson said. "Kipper was there when he needed to be, but I don't think we tested him enough and I think that's a credit to their overall game plan to play solid defense and wait for us to make a mistake."

Esche called both goals flukes. Olli Jokinen knocked in a loose puck to tie it at 1 early in the third, snapping the Finns out of their slumber after they managed just seven shots on goal through two periods.

Teppo Numminen's shot glanced off two American defenders between the circles, and Jokinen turned around to find the puck right in front of him.

The second one was set up Ossi Vaananen -- who sent the puck across the ice to Koivu, camped out at the right post. Both Esche and Koivu were convinced Vaananen was trying to shoot.

Koivu bobbled the puck twice but still had plenty of time to put an uncontested shot in as Brian Leetch and Tony Amonte arrived too late.

"We completely lost our coverage in our end," Wilson said. "Had a total breakdown."

Though disappointed by the outcome and sad to see Chelios go, the Americans were pleased with their performance in the tournament after losing their first two preliminary games.

"I really believe in my heart that we did everything we had to do," forward Bill Guerin said. "We played well. It just didn't work out."

Said Chelios: "It's been great playing with these guys. We certainly have nothing to be embarrassed about."

It could be a long time before the Americans play another game that counts, with a labor dispute threatening to wipe out a big chunk -- if not all -- of the NHL season.

"It's obviously disappointing when you're done, especially now," Gomez said. "Who knows when we'll be playing again."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press