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FEATURE: Women Perfect In Preliminaries

By Harry Thompson, USA Hockey Magazine, 02/16/02, 12:15PM MST


WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- The U.S. Women's Team entered uncharted territory today, and came out unscathed.

Having not played Finland in the lead-up to the Olympics, U.S. coach Ben Smith was genuinely worried about Saturday's third and final game in the preliminary round.

The U.S. Women's Team put their coach's mind at ease with a 5-0 victory, and earned the top seed in Group B. The U.S. will likely face Sweden, the runner up in Group B, in Tuesday's semifinal. Canada will likely face Finland in the other match up.

The U.S. held a 20-0-2 record against Finland coming into the Olympics, but has not faced them since a 9-0 pasting at the 2001 World Championship in Minneapolis.

USA Hockey cancelled a planned trip to Finland for the Four Nations Cup in November because of security concerns. That was to be the only time the two countries faced off prior to the Olympics.

"We haven't seen them in a long time because the team they sent to the World Championships is nothing compared to the team we played today," said A.J. Mleczko.

"This was our biggest test so far. We've faced a lot of the other teams. This was kind of the unknown. I thought that we stepped it up today. We played well and we passed well. We really played as a team."

The strength of any team starts in goal and works its way out. The U.S. is fortunate to have two of the best puck stoppers in the world.

Today Sara DeCosta got the nod in net and again came up big, stopping 21 shots to earn her second shutout in as many Olympic outings.

"I like it when they get shots, as long as they're not scoring," said DeCosta, who had eight shutouts on the pre-Olympic tour.

"My defense played very well today, as they have all year long. I feel very confident playing behind them, and hopefully they have confidence in me too."

While DeCosta was holding down the fort, Natalie Darwitz continued to impress in her Olympic debut with three goals. Jenny Potter and Andrea Kilbourne also scored for the U.S.

"This was fun hockey. There was a lot of flow to the game, up and down the ice. We showed what kind of team we are," said Darwitz, who now has six goals in the tournament.

"People said, 'You're winning games 10-0, 12-1.' People saw what women's hockey is all about today with the flow, speed and finesse. It was a fun game to play in."

Mleczko got the show going at 11:09 of the first period, weaving around a Finnish defender and flipping a backhanded pass to a cutting Darwitz, who tucked it around Finnish goaltender Tuulu Puputti.

"I didn't know I had those kinds of moves," said Mleczko, a forward who converted to defense two years ago.

Darwitz made it 2-0 with a short-handed goal at 15:19. The U.S. was down 5-on-3 when Angela Ruggiero came out of the penalty box and picked up a DeCosta clearing pass. She was checked off the puck by a Finnish defender but the puck rolled right to Darwitz, who beat Puputti between the pads.

The U.S. added a power play goal as Jenny Potter banged in a rebound off a Tara Mounsey shot from the point.

Darwitz finished the hat trick at 14:42 of the second period, taking a pass from Wendell and flipping a shot over Puputti's shoulder.

It was the second U.S. hat trick of the tournament, following linemate Cammi Granato's three-goal effort against China. Katie King had the only U.S. hat trick in Nagano against Japan.

"You dream of scoring a goal in an Olympics. To score three goals in a game is surreal," said Darwitz, a member of the U.S. National Team since 1999.

"Tuula played a great game. She stopped a lot of shots. But the puck just bounced my way today and the shots went in. It's thrilling to score goals but it's even better to win the game and move on."

DeCosta continued to come up big, stopping everything the flying Finns threw her way. Her biggest saves came during a 5-on-3, first robbing Riika Nieminen and then Tiia Reima before the U.S. defenders to get the puck out.

"They had 21 shots and some of them were great chances," said Mleczko. "Sara came up huge. I hope she feels good about her effort today. I know we're very happy with it. That victory really starts at the goal and goes all the way through the team."

The biggest save of the game may have come from Mleczko in the third period. DeCosta stopped the shot but it trickled past her and headed toward the goal line before Mleczko swatted it away.

"I'm sure that she's saved my butt a few more times than I saved hers," said Mleczko. "That's what our team is all about."