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Finland, Russia advance to World Junior semis

Team Finland's Roope Hamalainen, left, scores on Team Slovakia's goalie Juraj Simboch, centre, during first period IIHF World Junior Championships quarter-final hockey action in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Jan. 2, 2012.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Jeff McIntosh/CP

This is not going to be easy for the Swedes.

Their rival in the world junior semi-finals Tuesday is Finland, and the Finns and Swedes have a storied tradition of trying to one-up each other. World championships, Olympics, pancake making, it doesn't matter. Finland versus Sweden is always a cold war.

Added to that, the Finns have a lot going for them these days. They not only beat Slovakia in the quarter-finals Monday at the Scotiabank Saddledome, they did it with a masterful performance from the flying Granlunds, Mikael and Markus. Not quite Sedin-like – but still pretty good – the brothers Granlund combined for three goals in the second period to help oust the Slovaks 8-5.

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Older brother Mikael, the Finns' captain, started the family onslaught with a nasty wrist shot over the shoulder of Slovak goalie Juraj Simboch. Then it was Markus' turn to shine with a pair of goals that had Simboch cringing in his crease. By the time it was over, the Finns had outlasted a game but overmatched Slovakian team to set themselves up for another monumental showdown against Sweden.

"Every game against Sweden is a big game," insisted Teemu Pulkkinen, a member of the Granlund line that finished off Slovakia with eight points. "Hopefully, we can score some goals and play better defence. We can't make any mistakes … just focus on our game."

The Swedes finished atop their pool without suffering a loss. As their coach Roger Ronnberg has said, they're out to make amends for their stunning shootout loss to Russia last year in their semi-final. To accomplish that, the Swedes have opted for a different approach by starting slowly and finishing strong. It's allowed them to relax and deal with the pressure.

"I think that's the most important thing during a short tournament like this is that you can't get too serious. Just stay in the moment," Ronnberg said. "It doesn't matter how you play in the beginning. You have to do the best game last."

The Finns, who played in spurts, weren't overly impressed with how they defeated Slovakia. Mikael Granlund said the offence was clicking but that the defence was nowhere near good enough.

"We need to play better [Tuesday] My performance? It was okay. We're getting chances as a line," he said. "We won and that's all we needed."

The Finns were humbled 8-1 by Canada in their tournament opener and suffered an injury to goalie Sami Aittokallio. He was sidelined by a shot in the warm-up and Christopher Gibson played and took the one-sided beating from Canada.

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Soon after, Aittokallio was given the starter's role and proved next to unbeatable. He beat the United States and shutout the Czechs with a 36-save effort capped by a familiar-looking celebration. With teammate Jani Hakanpaa, Aittokallio dropped to one knee and prayed à la Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. So far, no one has bothered to nickname the Finnish goalie's gesture Aittokallio-ing, and with good reason. It's too tough to say let alone spell.

"I'm happy to be in this game," Aittokallio said after allowing five goals to Slovakia. "I wasn't happy with my own play. It was good that way [to beat Slovakia]but I have to be better."

Asked their thoughts about facing Sweden in the semi-final, the Finnish players repeated the same word over and over – exciting. Pushed for more, the Finns admitted they had little knowledge of exactly how well the Swedes have played to this point.

"They're a good team with lots of great players," Mikael Granlund said.

"I know they jump in [the offensive play]" Aittokallio added. "It's going to be exciting and it's going to be lots better [Tuesday]"

Maybe the best so far for a Finnish team out to prove its worth against its long-time Scandinavian rival.

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"We had a bad game against Russia [last year] This year, we had a bad game against Canada. But we move on," Pulkkinen said. "We know this game [with Sweden]is all that matters. It's going to be a nice game."

Russia 2, Czech Republic 1

Grigori Zheldakov scored at 1:30 of overtime to lead Russia to a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic in a quarterfinal at the world junior hockey championship Monday.

Zheldakov took a pass from Nikita Kucherov and sent a slap shot past Czech goalie Petr Mrazek to earn the Russians a berth in Tuesday night's semifinal against Canada.

Danil Apalkov scored in regulation for Russia, while goalie Andrei Vasilevski made 38 saves for the victory.

Jakub Culek scored in the first period for the Czech Republic, which will play Slovakia in the fifth-place game on Wednesday.

In the other quarterfinal, Finland defeated Slovakia 8-5 and will face Sweden in the other semifinal.

In relegation-round action, Switzerland edged Denmark 4-3 in overtime.

Mrazek stopped 43 of 45 shots he faced in the Czech net and received a standing ovation from the crowd of 16,581.

After starting the tournament with three straight wins — 3-0 over Switzerland, 3-1 over Slovakia and 14-0 over Latvia — Russia gave up a three-goal lead and lost 4-3 in overtime to Sweden on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic started off with a 7-0 win over Denmark before losing 5-0 to Canada. The Czechs then stunned the United States with a 5-2 win before a 4-0 loss to Finland in its final preliminary-round game.

The Russians outshot the Czechs 16-5 in the first period, but couldn't find a way to beat Mrazek.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More

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