Phil Kessel scored two first-period goals en route to a hat trick for the USA men's 2014 Winter Olympics hockey team on Sunday, as the Americans raced out to an early lead and dominated Slovenia 5-1.
This was a Group A game as part of the preliminary round at Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia, but nevertheless an important final matchup for both clubs ahead of the play-off qualifications that begin Tuesday. With this triumph, the U.S. gets a bye to the play-off quarterfinals.
Kessel had a huge game, as USA Hockey's official Twitter account highlighted:
Phil Kessel scores the first Olympic hat trick for the U.S. since John LeClair in 2002. #DawnsEarlyLight— USA Hockey (@usahockey) February 16, 2014
After a tense 3-2 shootout victory over Russia on Saturday, this win was of the far less stressful variety for coach Dan Bylsma's stacked U.S. team, which improved to 3-0 in these Winter Games.
The scoring barrage started not long after the puck dropped.
A strange carom off the corner of the end boards saw the puck go right to the San Jose Sharks' Joe Pavelski, who snapped a two-line pass to Kessel. From there, the Toronto Maple Leafs forward made a nifty deke to beat the Slovenian defense and rifled a wrist shot past goaltender Luka Gracnar to put the USA on the board just 1:04 into the game.
Another strange bounce off a dump into Slovenian territory saw Pavelski redirect the puck right on the doorstep to Kessel. He drove it home for a 2-0 advantage about three-and-a-half minutes after his first goal.
That combination produced yet another goal and capped off Kessel's hat trick in the second period. Team USA looked lethargic following the first intermission, yielding several scoring chances and not playing with the same fervor on the offensive end of the rink.
Pavelski changed that when Kessel's Toronto teammate James van Riemsdyk screened his second-period slap shot from the point. With Gracnar's vision obstructed, Kessel sneaked in from the weak side and put the rebound into the net from point-blank range to score for the third time.
The Leafs paid tribute to their star by throwing the figurative hat onto the ice:
Before the game, van Riemsdyk discussed how well Kessel was playing, but few could have foreseen the eruption Kessel had on Sunday.
"He's on fire, it's fun to play with him," said van Riemsdyk, per the Toronto Sun's Rob Longley. "The game is coming really easy to him right now. He's working hard and creating a lot."
Larry Lage of The Associated Press gave more context to Kessel's brilliance:
Phil Kessel 1st U.S. player w/ 4 goals in 3-game, prelim round @ Olympics since Bill Cleary & Roger Christian in 1960 H/T @MGibbyGilbert— Larry Lage (@LarryLage) February 16, 2014
PhiladelphiaFlyers.com insider Anthony SanFilippo provided his analysis, expressing that the line featuring the Maple Leafs duo and Pavelski has been the best of the tournament:
This line has been the best in the tournament so far bar none JVR-Pavelski-Kessel. #USAvsSLO— Anthony SanFilippo (@InsideTheFlyers) February 16, 2014
Just 72 seconds after Kessel's third goal, Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets weaved around a helpless defense to find New York Rangers standout Ryan McDonagh. The defenseman roofed one from close range for his first goal of the tournament, extending the lead to an insurmountable 4-0 at 12:17 in the second period.
JJ Regan of CSN Washington was impressed with Wheeler's playmaking ability:
David Backes added a bit of a fluky goal 3:26 into the third for the USA's fifth and final score. Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press noted that it was the second such fortuitous goal for the Americans in recent games:
USA 5- 0 on Slovenia, puck goes in off David Backes' skate. Two skate goals this weekend for USA. #Sochi2014— Helene St. James (@HeleneStJames) February 16, 2014
Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller helped the USA win the silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games with his stellar play between the pipes but sat in favor of Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick in the first two contests.
Miller held his ground the few times he was tested, facing just 10 shots through two periods before yielding a very late goal to Marcel Rodman with approximately 18 seconds left. Still, he stopped 17 of 18 shots in a strong performance and made history with his sixth Olympic win:
With the win, Ryan Miller moves into second all-time in career Olympic wins with six, just one behind Jack McCartan. #DawnsEarlyLight— USA Hockey (@usahockey) February 16, 2014
This blowout loss was a step back for Slovenia, considering the underdogs hung with Russia in the opener before beating Slovakia on Saturday. The Americans have a bevy of NHL talent on their side, and their depth, especially at forward, was evident in this one.
Now Slovenia will look forward to the aforementioned play-off qualifications, which will ratchet up the tournament's intensity. The USA will rest up and prepare for the task of beating the likes of reigning gold medalists Canada and formidable host Russia to top the podium.