Finland on brink of history

TURIN, Italy -- Never mind being on the verge of its first Olympic hockey gold, Finland is on the verge of Olympic hockey history.

As part of a 7-0 run that saw the Finns beat Russia 4-0 in a semifinal yesterday, Jari Kurri's crew enters tomorrow's Swedish showdown having allowed just five goals.

Since the playoff round was added to the Olympic tourney in 1980, no team has ever been so stingy.

And what makes the story so rich is how they've done it: Not only are they playing with a goaltender listed third on their wish list but their blueline includes three European club players, the laughingstock of the Maple Leafs' gawd-awful defence (Aki Berg) and a man so old he played eight years with the Winnipeg Jets (Teppo Numminen).

"There's been some talk Finnish hockey is in crisis right now," smiled Toni Lydman, the extremely average Buffalo Sabres blueliner.

"They say there's no new talent -- that our top players are narrow based and we have no replacements. But this tournament has shown we have more talent in this country than people really know."

Seven European club players in all have played roles on a team without the services of NHL defencemen Joni Pitkanen, Sami Salo and Ossi Vaananen, who begged off for health reasons, as did netminders Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen.

Yet somehow, with The Replacements in front of him, Antero Niittymaki enters the final days of the tourney with a .963 save percentage and a goals-against average of 1.00, which includes shutouts against Canada and Russia.

Even his backup, Fredrik Norrena, posted two of the five goose-eggs, suggesting there's more than just great goalkeeping behind the Finns' success.

"We've played a lot of perfect games here," said Berg, benefiting from a team concept that suddenly has him looking competent. "Every game, the forwards are coming back hard. (Club team) players like (Petteri) Nummelin are good passers and skaters and are good on the big ice surface. They have a lot of experience in international games."

Former Flame Ville Nieminen said it's like playing in Calgary during the Stanley Cup run of 2004.

"We kill the game in the neutral zone -- if we didn't do that, the scores would be the other way," he said.

After dancing in the streets last night, many of the country's five million people will huddle around their TVs tomorrow to watch the biggest game in Finnish history, made better by an opponent hated by all Finns.

"If you're born in Finland, you want to play Sweden and the other way around," said Nieminen. "That's the ultimate."

Jarkko Ruutu explained what a win tomorrow would mean.

"It would be the biggest trophy ever," said Ruutu.

"The whole country would be proud of us the rest of our lives."

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FINLAND: 4

RUSSIA: 0