Liles, Hull score in final tuneup

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.

"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

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.

Keith Tkachuk fought with Darius Kasparaitis, and Chris Drury
squared off with Sergei Gonchar in separate tiffs in the first four
minutes of the final period.

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."

Game notes
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