COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Now that the preliminaries are over, Team USA appears ready for the World Cup of Hockey.
John-Michael Liles arrived just in time and scored a goal, and Brett Hull added a power-play goal to lead the defending champion Americans to a 2-0 victory over Russia on Friday night in their final World Cup exhibition game.John-Michael Liles (center) is all smiles after scoring in his first action with Team USA in preparation for the World Cup.
"I'm pleased with where we are, but we have a lot of room for improvement," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said.
Goaltender Robert Esche was brilliant in the final two periods, stopping 22 shots after Rick DiPietro shut out the Russians in the first 20 minutes, facing six shots. Esche and DiPietro did not give up a goal in the Americans' three exhibition games, answering critics who considered goaltending the U.S. team's weakest position.
Esche preserved the shutout by holding off a three-man advantage -- the Russians pulled goalie Maxim Sokolov after two U.S. penalties -- over the final 30 seconds.
"We had a good, short exhibition schedule," U.S. forward Bill Guerin said. "We're ready."
The U.S. opens play Tuesday against Canada at Bell Center in Montreal, and will compete in the North American Pool against Canada, Russia and Slovakia. The European Pool includes Finland, Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
The championship game is set for Sept. 14 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. The collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players ends the following day. No progress has been made during negotiations because of the owners' insistence on a salary cap and the players' refusal to consider one.
In contrast to Team USA's two previous exhibitions -- a 3-1 win in Columbus against Canada and a 3-1 loss to Canada in Ottawa on Wednesday night -- this one had an edge to it.
The U.S. had already done enough damage by then.
Liles was in Europe when he got a call from Team USA officials to replace defenseman Hal Gill, who broke a foot during the loss to Ottawa. Liles caught a flight to Columbus, arriving an hour before the start.
On one of his first shifts, he swooped in on net from the right wing just as Guerin was handcuffing Sokolov with a shot from the high slot. Sokolov's stick and the puck went flying into the air, with Liles there at the doorstep to bunt the waist-high puck into the net at the 14:55 mark.
"I was a little nervous," Liles said. "I got here right as warmups were starting. I got a quick physical and tried to get my equipment on as quick as possible. It was just 'get out there and take a couple of laps' and then come off. It was obviously a very big win for the team and a good way to head into the games that will really count."
With just over a minute to go in the period, Hull closed the scoring with a quick wrister on the power play from just above the right hash. He converted a backhand feed from Tkachuk.
Team Russia dominated the second period, outshooting the Americans 13-7. But Esche was perfect.
"We haven't had much time to practice together," Russia's Alex Kovalev said. "I thought we played really good defensively and through the neutral zone. The second and third were our best periods. I think everybody started getting their game shape back, because a lot of us haven't played for a while."
During one rush, Esche made stops on three shots by Danius Zubrus and one apiece by Kasparaitis and Oleg Kvasha.
"Robert came in cold and he made four or five unbelievable saves," Wilson said. "Now we've got some tough decisions to make, such as who will start in Montreal next week."
DiPietro had saves on all 14 shots he faced in two exhibition games, Esche on all 28. ... Russian D Andrei Markov went down hard after being elbowed by Guerin in the second period and had to be helped off the ice. ... The Russians were 0-for-7 on the power play; the Americans 1-for-5. ... The Russians open World Cup play against the U.S. on Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. ... It was the first appearance in a game in North America for 2004 No. 1 overall draft pick (by Washington) Alexander Ovechkin.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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