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USA WOMEN TUNING UP NICELY

Technically, this is the Olympic tune-up tour for the United States National Women's Hockey Team.

In reality, it's more like the Harlem Globetrotters on ice -- with ponytails.

But anything else would be a disappointment. The national team, which eventually will become the U.S. Olympic team once final cuts are made before the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, should be beating up the opposition. Especially when the opposition primarily consists of a hodgepodge of college all-star teams.

Next to play the role of the Washington Generals are the ECAC Northern League All-Stars, who will face off against the national team at 1 p.m. today at Cornell's Lynah Rink.

The defending gold medal champions haven't missed a beat on the Visa Skate to Salt Lake Tour.

It started with the Friendship Cup in Beijing, where the U.S. won two games each from China and Russia, outscoring them, 36-2.

Then came three games against collegiate all-star teams, which the U.S. won by an aggregate, 25-1, followed by a pair of 4-1 wins over their closest rival and arch nemesis, Canada.

Get the picture?

"You have to play your game. You can't slow down," said defenseman Angela Ruggiero, a member of the 1998 Olympic team. "There are great players out there. I know there's a level of excitement that goes into those locker rooms because they're playing the U.S. National Team. I know the level of excitement of trying to prove yourself. I think it will be a good game. . . . It's a fast pace. Even though the scores may not reflect that, the games really have a good pace."

While they may not afford the U.S. with the best competition every night, the games at least give the American some competition. After all, you can't play Canada every night. And these games, though sometimes embarrassing on the scoreboard, are learning tools.

"We work to execute and perfect our systems," said Andrea Kilbourne, a forward from Saranac Lake who normally plays with Princeton. "So we work on our power play, our penalty kill, ourforecheck, our D-zone coverage. Stuff like that. We look to execute everything perfect. We work on our puck movement because when you play against these teams, it's easy to go through the motions and sort of play down to that level or we can pick it up and that's what we concentrate on."

This is a team that features 14 members of the 1998 national team that won the first-ever Olympic gold medal. It's a roster studded with the most recognizable names in American women's hockey -- from the goaltending tandem of Sara DeCosta and Sarah Tueting to defenseman Karyn Bye and forward Cammi Granato -- and blended with 10 players who have various levels of international experience, but no Olympic participation on their resumes.

The U.S. will play 20 more games before the Olympics begin Feb. 8, though the team did elect to pull out of the Four Nations Cup, scheduled for Finland next month. Uneasy with overseas travel and dealing with the death of forward Kathleen Kauth's father in the Sept. 11 attacks, USA Hockey officials decided against the trip. It was to be the team's only international competition leading up to the Olympics.

Even without that trip, the U.S. still has a schedule filled with serious competition. The Americans will meet Canada six more times before the Olympics, Sweden and China four times each. Those are the games that test skill, systems and chemistry.

The college games are where those intangibles are developed.

"I wasn't on the '98 team, so I can't compare it, but I just think this is so intense on our goal of winning the gold medal," Kilbourne said. "I can't think of anything else but winning the gold medal because that's what our focus has been for so long.

"It's intense and I think it will prepare us mentally and physically for the final game."
e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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