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U.S. women put unbeaten record on line vs. Canada

Americans hold a 5-0 advantage over big rivals

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The biggest rivalry in women's ice hockey will be renewed Saturday when the U.S. meets Canada in the first game of a three-game series in preparation for the 2002 Winter Games.

The U.S. is 5-0 against Canada so far this season — a mild surprise given the fact that Canada has beaten the U.S. in seven consecutive World Championship tournament title games — and 24-0 overall on its Skate to Salt Lake Tour.

The Americans are the defending Olympic champions and the co-favorites, along with Canada, to win a gold medal in the Olympic tournament, Feb. 11-21 at the E Center in West Valley City and the Peaks Ice Arena in Provo.

Team USA could become the clear-cut favorite if it wins this series against Team Canada — in everyone's mind, perhaps, except that of U.S. Coach Ben Smith. He knows too well that Canada rises to the occasion in big games.

"Every game has kind of come down to a bounce here or a bounce there. It's been kind of weird, I think, the fact that we have this advantage" against Canada this season, Smith said from the team's training facility in Lake Placid, N.Y.

"I think we've been playing our game and they have been playing their game and it's still a little bit cat and mouse."

The teams meet at 10:30 a.m. MST Saturday at the United Center in Chicago, then at noon MST Sunday at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Tuesday, they will play for the final time prior to the Olympics at 8:30 p.m. MST at GM Place in Vancouver, B.C.

The U.S. has won the first five meetings by scores of 4-1 (Oct. 20 at the E Center), 4-1, 5-2, 4-3 and 1-0.

While winning three more games against Canada would please Smith, he'd simply like to keep his 20-player squad as healthy as it has been and continue to experiment with his special-teams, offensive and defensive lineups.

"I just hope we get through this thing in one piece," Smith said. "It's hard hockey when these two teams play, and to play three games in four nights, it's tough with the travel. It's very arduous."

Team captain Cammi Granato leads the U.S. in scoring with 41 points, followed by fellow '98 Olympic veterans Katie King (38 points) and Jenny Potter (34). Twenty-year-old Minnesotan Krissy Wendell is fourth (32), followed by Karyn Bye (28).

Bye, another standout from the '98 Olympic team, is back at her natural right wing position after spending all of last season on defense.

"I think that is giving us a little more punch offensively and we still have the ability to bring her back on the blue line if we feel like we're getting shorthanded" on defense, Smith said of Bye.

Potter is centering one line with Bye at right wing and King on the left. Wendell is centering a line with Granato at left wing and 18-year-old Natalie Darwitz on the right. Nineteen-year-old Julie Chu centers another line with Olympic vet Tricia Dunn at left wing and newcomer Andrea Kilbourne on the right.

Last weekend, the U.S. defeated Russia 11-0, Dartmouth College 7-1 and Germany 7-1 in winning its annual Holiday Tournament. Canada (11-5) swept four games against Russia — 6-1, 8-1, 8-1 and 6-0 — in mid-December.

E-MAIL: zman@desnews.com