It won't be easy, but it will be familiar.

If the U.S. women's hockey team is to defend its Olympic gold medal in the 2002 Winter Games, it will play through a schedule nearly identical to the schedule for next week's International Ice Hockey Federation's Women's World Championship.

In both tournaments, Team USA will open pool play against seventh-seeded Germany, then play sixth-seeded China and defending Olympic bronze medalist Finland, in that order.

The only difference between the two opening-round schedules is that in 2002, the U.S. team will play those first three games in a five-day period.

At the World Championship, to be held April 2-8 in Minnesota, the Americans will play those three games in four days with back-to-back games against Germany and China April 2-3 in St. Cloud.

In the Olympics, the U.S. team will have a three-day rest before its expected appearance in the semifinals and another full day off before playing in either the gold- or bronze-medal game.

In Minnesota next month, the U.S. team will have just one day off after pool play, then play a semifinal game Saturday, April 7, followed the next day by either the gold- or bronze-medal game.

"This one is pretty condensed," Team USA Coach Ben Smith said of the upcoming World Championship tournament.

"I think that for the Olympics, to have it spread out, that is the proper way to do it. And for the World Championship, this way works."

In both tournaments, the U.S. team would not meet defending world champion Canada before the medal round. But it is unlikely the two world powers will be able to avoid each other in either competition.

Canada and the United States have played for the gold medal in all six previous Women's World Championships, as well as in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. Canada has won all six world titles, but the United States claimed gold in the first Olympic women's hockey tournament.

"I think everybody is focused right now on preparing their teams for this championship coming up," Smith said from his team's training facility in Lake Placid, N.Y. "I think it starts all over again next fall," with the emphasis on the Salt Lake Winter Games.

The first big test for the Americans in the Olympic tournament will come against Finland on Saturday, Feb. 16, at the E Center in West Valley City.

Unless they finish third or fourth in pool play, or end up in the bronze-medal game, the American women will play four of their five Olympic games in the E Center. Only their second contest, Thursday, Feb. 14, against China, is scheduled for the Peaks Ice Arena in Provo.

Canada, too, would play only one game at the Peaks, barring a poor showing in the tournament. They are scheduled to meet Sweden in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 16.

The Olympic gold-medal game is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21, at 5 p.m. at the E Center. The Peaks Ice Arena will get the bronze-medal game at noon the same day.

The participants and seeding for both the 2002 Winter Games and 2001 World Championship were determined by the finish of last year's World Championship tournament, held in Ontario.

The first Olympic tournament in '98 included only six teams. Behind the United States, Canada and Finland, respectively, China finished fourth, Sweden was fifth and Japan was last.

In international play since then, Canada has regained its status as the world's top team, although the U.S. team has won three out of four games against the Canadians this season and hopes to claim its first world title next month.

Finland has remained third-best, although the Finns almost upset the Americans in last year's World Championship. The Americans had to rally from a 3-1 deficit with 10 minutes left to win that preliminary-round game.

Sweden has placed fourth in the past two World Championships, usurping China, and Japan has been bumped out of the women's hockey elite, failing to survive a qualifying tournament for the two additional Olympic slots. Germany and Kazakstan are new to the Olympics after finishing higher than Switzerland and Japan in that qualifying tournament last month.