A look at the semifinals

Updated: February 23, 2006, 6:29 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

TORINO, Italy -- From the North American perspective, the Olympic hockey tournament is diminished with the surprising dismissals of Canada and the United States.

But if you think interest in the four remaining teams has dropped off in the rest of the world, you are sorely mistaken. And for the hockey fan who thinks beyond North American borders, the two semifinal matchups will make for compelling viewing. Here's a look.

Game 1 -- Sweden (4-2) vs. Czech Republic (3-3)

The Swedes erased the stain of their early exit from the Salt Lake City Games by beating the Cinderella Swiss in the quarterfinals by a 6-2 count. There is the lingering thought that the Swedes tanked their final preliminary-round game against Slovakia to ensure the easiest matchup of the quarterfinal, but that will have no impact on this interesting tilt. Coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson reiterated Wednesday it was merely common sense to suggest the Swedes would rather play Switzerland than Canada in the quarters. Peter Forsberg appears to be at, or near, full strength, and that gives the Swedes a completely different look, especially on the power play, which they'll need against a Czech team that is hitting its stride.

Peter Laviolette
AP Photo/Christophe EnaCoach Peter Laviolette might have had a hard time getting veteran players to buy into his system.

The Czechs, defending world champions, finished fourth in their pool, but knocked off the undefeated Slovaks in an emotional quarterfinal game in which Milan Hnilicka was a surprise starter in goal in place of Tomas Vokoun. Hnilicka will get the start again against the Swedes. The Swedes are trying to live down their reputation as big-game chokers, and after the easy ride against the Swiss, the level of play will increase dramatically. The question is whether the Swedes are ready for it.

Strengths: Watch for Forsberg to control the flow with the man advantage from the half boards. "Because he's such a good passer, he shrinks the box, maybe opens up some other options," said Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who normally plays the point on the power play with Nik Lidstrom. Henrik Lundqvist is amazingly calm for an NHL rookie playing in his first Olympics, but this will be his biggest test. Samuel Pahlsson and Mats Sundin rank 1-2 in faceoff percentage in the tournament.

The Czechs have been here before and know what it takes. Defenseman Marek Zidlicky missed the round-robin game against Canada with a leg injury, but played in the quarterfinals against Slovakia. He leads all defensemen in the tournament with three goals. He and Tomas Kaberle, who has four points, give the Czechs terrific mobility and offense on the back end.

Weaknesses: The Swedes lost Vancouver defenseman Mattias Ohlund for the tournament with a rib injury sustained against the Swiss. He will be replaced by Detroit defender Niklas Kronwall, who begged out at the start of the tournament, saying he wanted to rest after having missed the first half of the season with a knee injury. It's not much of a drop-off given that Kronwall is considered one of the best young defensive prospects in the game, but parachuting anyone into such a pressure situation isn't the best scenario. Kronwall will likely play with Detroit teammate Lidstrom.

The Czechs will have to get a little more production out of their forward complement, given that only seven different forwards have scored in this tournament and no one has scored more than three times. And what of Hnilicka? The ex-Atlanta Thrasher who didn't expect to see the ice at all in these games is now the man on whom the gold-medal hopes ride. Although he stopped 20 of 21 shots against Slovakia, you have to ask yourself, is that such a good thing?

Why the Swedes will win: The Swedes have the edge in goaltending and that alone will be enough. They also have a deeper contingent of forwards, and that will be important in what seems destined to be a close game.

Why the Czechs will win: The best player in the world, Jaromir Jagr, is having a good tournament and he is a difference-maker. The Czech defense has been opportunistic and prolific. Look for a key goal from Zidlicky. And then there's Hnilicka, the Cinderella net minder of this tournament, who seems unfazed by the commotion surrounding him.

Prediction: Lundqvist comes up big and the Swedes go to the gold-medal show. Sweden 4, Czech Republic 3.

Game 2 -- Finland (6-0) vs. Russia (5-1)

Even Jagr likes the Russians, saying that if they keep playing together, they are the best team left in the Olympic tournament. And it's hard to argue after they won their fifth straight game, knocking off defending gold-medal champion Canada, 2-0, in the quarterfinals. They will, however, miss Evgeni Malkin, who was suspended for the semifinals for kicking Vincent Lecavalier.

Mike Modano
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesMike Modano left Torino a day before the rest of Team USA.

"We have to play really well in the neutral zone, so they can't use it as a runway," Finnish forward Ville Nieminen said jokingly.

There is a nagging feeling that the Finns might have played so well in the preliminary round that they won't be able to elevate their game against the talented Russians. But against the Americans, the Finns never panicked, even when the Americans came back to tie the game after being down 2-0.

If the Russians represent the flash and dash of the tournament with Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and the infectiously exuberant Alexander Ovechkin, who scored the winner against Canada, the Finns have set the Olympic standard in terms of teamwork. That's not all that surprising, said Teemu Selanne, given that many of these players have played together on the national team for years. Selanne said he and linemates Saku Koivu and Jere Lehtinen have been lining up together at international competitions for nearly a decade. "All these things make the team more tight," Selanne said.

Strengths: The Russians can explode offensively, although their power play is curiously ineffective, ranking seventh in the tournament, partly because they have a tendency to overpass. Although their defense is not as deep or talented as that of the Finns, they have managed to avoid the costly turnovers and breakdowns many expected would haunt them. Four-time Olympian Darius Kasparaitis is having a great tournament and former NHL rookie of the year Evgeni Nabokov leads the competition with a .978 save percentage and has three shutouts.

The Finns, meanwhile, have surprised with their balanced attack. Although the Selanne line is the team's dominant one, Olli Jokinen has chipped in five goals and Ville Peltonen has six points. The Finns have started quickly throughout the tournament and been effective in keeping opponents from mounting comebacks. The goaltending, thought to be the team's weakness when Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen bowed out, has been strong with Antero Niittymaki making a case for himself as the post-Olympics starter in Philadelphia. He has a .957 save percentage, second behind Nabokov, and held up under a late push by the Americans in the quarters.

Weaknesses: The Russian defense remains the lone chink in the armor. It can be prone to bad passes and to coughing up the puck under pressure. There is also the potential to have an emotional letdown after a huge win against Canada. The Finns, meanwhile, have trailed only once in the tournament and the book is that they will struggle to come from behind if they have to open up, especially against an opportunistic team such as Russia. They will miss the big cannon of defenseman Sami Salo, who is expected to miss the game with a shoulder bruise suffered when he crashed into a linemate during a line change in the quarterfinals.

Why the Russians will win: Far from being one-dimensional, the Russians can win it either way, close to the vest or wide open. This one will be close, but youngsters Ovechkin and Datsyuk thrive on the pressure. In the end, it will be Nabokov outplaying Niittymaki for the win.

Why the Finns will win: The Finns may be underdogs, but don't tell them that. Look for veterans Selanne, Lehtinen and Koivu to deliver the knockout blow. Watch Jarkko Ruutu upset the Russians with his chippy play.

Prediction: Russia 4, Finland 2.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.