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U.S. women taking gold medal form

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BOISE ? How dominant is the U.S. women's hockey team?

So strong and versatile are the Olympic gold-medal favorites that they can skate without three of their best players and still blow out the fourth-best country from the '98 Winter Games.

Karyn Bye, Team USA's third-leading goal scorer this season, and defensemen A.J. Mleczko and Tara Mounsey sat out Saturday night's pre-Olympic contest against China with flu-like symptoms. Coach Ben Smith had to shuffle his lineup, using two of his forwards on defense and mix-and-matching his offensive lines and special teams.

But the result was the same as it has been every time the American women have played this season. Katie King scored a hat trick in the third period alone, Krissy Wendell scored twice and defenseman Angela Ruggiero added a pair of goals as the U.S. overcame a slow start and buried Team China 13-0 before a sell-out crowd of more than 5,000 in the Bank of America Centre.

Team USA, which will open the Olympics Feb. 12 against Germany, improved to 30-0 on the Skate to Salt Lake tour. The Americans defeated China 16-0 on Tuesday in San Jose, 13-2 on Thursday in Spokane and have outscored their opponents 245-27 on the Skate to Salt Lake Tour.

Bye was also nursing a sore knee, injured Thursday in Spokane, but was well enough to assist the local television broadcast team during the contest.

"It's my first scratch of the year," said Bye, who tied for the team lead in scoring during the '98 Games. "It was kind of unusual during warm-ups not to be out there."

Smith doesn't expect any of the three players to miss this Thursday's game in Denver, and his squad has remained healthy. But if something should happen during the Games and Smith should find himself short, he'll have recent experience to draw on. In that sense, Saturday's game was a good test.

"The versatility and the ability of our kids is pretty thorough and balanced," Smith said. "I think that's where we feel confident with our whole group. We think we've got balance from the goal out."

The U.S. and China will play one more time, in Denver, on Thursday. They will meet in the Olympics on Feb. 14.

E-mail: zman@desnews.com