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Mikaela Shiffrin, seeking title, makes rare start with Lindsey Vonn

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CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) — Mikaela Shiffrin is making a rare start in a speed race this weekend to protect her overall World Cup lead.

A specialist in slalom and giant slalom, the American will enter Sunday’s super-G on the Olympia delle Tofane course in Cortina, Italy — marking only the fourth super-G race of her career.

NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will live stream the downhill Saturday (4:30 a.m. ET) and the super-G Sunday (5:30 a.m. ET).

“She’ll take every opportunity she can to score as many World Cup points as she can,” U.S. head coach Paul Kristofic said Thursday. “This is a hill that always has good conditions and we know that and we felt it was a super-G that suits her well and that’s why we targeted it from the beginning.”

Having taken part in just one speed weekend this season — performing averagely in Lake Louise, Alberta, in early December — Shiffrin’s lead over defending champion Lara Gut in the overall is down to 130 points, nearly a third of what the margin was just a couple of weeks ago.

Shiffrin decided not to enter Saturday’s downhill or even the downhill training sessions, which would have given her a better feeling for the Cortina course.

“It’s always a fine balance between, ‘Do you take one downhill training run?’ vs. ‘How about a day of training somewhere else where you can focus on your other disciplines?’ That’s athletic management, trying to get the most out of every day we have available,” Kristofic said. “And when you’re racing multiple disciplines, those days are few and far between so you have to maximize what you’ve got available to you.”

While Shiffrin makes her debut in Cortina — long considered the premier event on the women’s tour — another American skier, Lindsey Vonn, will be the star attraction at the resort where she has won a record 11 races, including a sweep of the downhill and super-G races on the Tofane last year.

Vonn won a downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, last weekend in just her second race back from nearly a year out with a knee injury and a broken arm. She’s still regaining her form in super-G, though, as evidenced by her ninth-place result in that discipline in Garmisch.

“It’s a building process. We’re taking it step by step,” Kristofic said. “The timing in super-G is the trickiest part. You get a lot of force in the ski and a lot of things happening in a short amount of time and only one chance to look at the course.”

Two years ago, Vonn broke Annemarie Moser-Proell‘s all-time women’s World Cup record of 62 wins circuit-wide in Cortina. Vonn now has 77 victories and is approaching Ingemar Stenmark‘s men’s mark of 86.

Meanwhile, Julia Mancuso completed her first official downhill training run Thursday as she attempts to return from hip surgery. The four-time Olympic medalist placed 49th, nearly five seconds behind leader Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia.

“It’s a long-term process for her,” Kristofic said.

Mancuso will also likely focus on Sunday’s super-G.

“In downhill in particular it’s unlikely that she’ll race,” Kristofic said.

Gut placed second in training and Vonn was third. Americans Laurenne Ross and Jacqueline Wiles finished sixth and 16th, respectively.

“Laurenne has had great speed all year. She unfortunately had a bit of bad luck around Val d’Isere,” Kristofic said, recalling how Ross got sick and could not race the downhill in the French resort after leading training.

Ross also got injured in a training crash in Garmisch.

“So a little bad luck,” Kristofic said. “She’s looking to have a breakthrough here and have a great result.”

Wiles scored her first career podium with a third-place result in Austria earlier this month.

“(Cortina) is a true downhillers course and Jackie is a true downhiller,” Kristofic said. “Everything that makes a great downhiller, she’s got it. It’s consistency for her and trying to build that every run.”

This is the U.S. team’s final weekend of qualifying for next month’s world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland. So far, only Shiffrin, Vonn and Wiles have qualified automatically with their podium results.

“There’s an ongoing battle for those spots, so we’ll see how the weekend plays out,” Kristofic said.

Having Vonn back has energized the entire team.

“We missed her terribly when she was not with us and when she’s back it’s a huge bonus for us,” Kristofic said. “It definitely lifts the team and also brings good pace to our training and puts the bar higher and everyone usually steps up.”

MORE: Vonn sets date on proposal to enter men’s race

USA Hockey to start reaching out to potential replacement players

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USA Hockey will begin reaching out to “alternate players” to determine their interest in playing for the U.S. at the women’s world championship next week amid a potential boycott by its national team.

The contact is taking place in the event a resolution cannot be reached between USA Hockey and the women’s national team in a wage dispute.

“It’s important for everyone to understand clearly that our objective is to have the players we named as the U.S. women’s national team be the ones that compete in the world championship,” said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, in a statement. “Productive conversations have taken place this week and are ongoing in our collective efforts to reach a resolution.”

The alternate players are in the professional NWHL and college, according to USA Today, a report that USA Hockey would not confirm.

U.S. captain Meghan Duggan has said every player in the U.S. national team player pool, plus under-18 national team players, committed to not playing at worlds unless the wage dispute is resolved.

“We are confident that they [potential replacement players] would choose not to play,” the U.S. players said in a statement.

The world championship tournament starts March 31 in Plymouth, Mich.

As of Thursday evening, no resolution has come between USA Hockey and its women’s national team. They met formally on Monday for more than 10 hours, with both sides calling it productive.

“We ask that they approve the original agreement that, the players believed, was acceptable to both parties after Monday’s meeting,” the players said in a statement. “Unless there is an agreement, the players remain resolved to bypass the defense of the world championship.”

Neither side has said when the next meeting will take place.

On Tuesday, USA Hockey said it postponed a pre-worlds camp that was to run through next Tuesday in Traverse City, Mich., and canceled a scheduled Friday exhibition against Finland.

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MORE: NHL asked for decision on Olympics by end of April

NHL asked for decision on Olympics by end of April

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International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel tells The Associated Press he needs to know by the end of April whether NHL players will be cleared to play in the South Korea Olympics next year.

NHL team owners have made it clear they don’t want to stop their season again for the Winter Games and put their stars at risk of injury. The reluctance has come up before and yet the NHL has participated in the Olympics since 1998. This time, however, there seems to be an impasse.

The head of the NHL Players Association, Donald Fehr, says the players want to participate and hopes the league will take advantage of the chance to market the game in Asia.

However, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly says without “material change to the current status quo, NHL players will not be participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics.”

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MORE: 2018 Olympic hockey groups set