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U.S. women’s team on top of the world

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SAN JOSE, Calif. ? The U.S. women's ice hockey team is on top of the world these days.

That's where coach Ben Smith wants his undefeated (27-0) squad heading into the 2002 Winter Games, where the Americans hope to defend their '98 gold medal.

But given their accomplishments so far on the pre-Olympic tour ? including a remarkable 8-0 record against defending world champion Canada ? there's only one place the Americans can go: down.

Smith just hopes the national team's next loss is sometime after the Feb. 21 gold-medal game at the E Center, perhaps in some meaningless exhibition next season.

"Winning the first 27 was great, but no one was handing out medals at the end of those games," said Smith, who coached 14 of his 20 current players to victory in Nagano. "Salt Lake is the place where the rubber meets the road."

In the meantime, Team USA plans to put the rubber in the net, on the road. This week the Americans begin a four-game series against China, playing Tuesday in San Jose, Calif.; Thursday in Spokane, Wash.; and Saturday in Boise. The fourth will be played Jan. 31 in Denver.

The United States team will play one more game, Feb. 7 against Russia in an E Center contest that will be closed to the public, before taking what should be a 32-0 record into Olympic competition on Feb. 12 against Germany.

"Right now it's just a matter of fine-tuning and trying to get into the Games in good psychological and physical shape," Smith said.

China, seeded sixth in the Olympic tournament, is unlikely to surprise the Americans this week. The United States team defeated China 9-0 and 12-1 in Beijing in September and has not lost to the Chinese since sanctioned international play began in 1990.

Smith expects his team to dominate China in similar fashion this week. Anything less will disappoint him.

"You have to go about your business so that you're not tipping your hand but making sure they understand who's the top team of the two," Smith said.

"You don't want them to have something that could give them a little plus ? something they could build off for the tournament."

The second-seeded Americans will play the sixth-seeded Chinese in the Olympic tournament, Feb. 14 at 4 p.m. in Provo's Peaks Ice Arena.

The Chinese team has been in the U.S. since Dec. 15, training and playing practice games in Blaine, Minn.

China has finished no better than fourth and no lower than sixth in six World Championship tournaments. It placed fourth out of six teams in the '98 Games, losing 4-1 to Finland in the bronze-medal game. Eight teams will compete in the Olympic tournament next month.

E-MAIL: zman@desnews.com