The USA men's hockey team has secured three convincing victories at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and star forward Phil Kessel has been the primary catalyst for the tournament's highest-scoring team.
Kessel notched a natural hat trick on Sunday in the Americans' 5-1 victory over Slovenia at Bolshoy Ice Dome, giving him four of the USA's 15 total goals in these Winter Games. It was a breathtaking offensive explosion to say the least. Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune recalled the last time an American player had scored a hat trick in the Olympics:
TSN Maple Leafs beat reporter Jonas Siegel gave insight into how hot Kessel has been with both his NHL club and as part of coach Dan Bylsma's national squad:
As strong as the Slovenians had looked at times in the first two games, they were no match for Kessel and Team USA.
Although there is a certain innate chemistry evident between Kessel and his fellow Maple Leaf James van Riemsdyk, their Olympic line has been bolstered by the presence of San Jose Sharks star Joe Pavelski.
In a matchup that featured a ton of premier NHL talent on the U.S. side and a clear disparity between Slovenia's pool of players, that top-notch line took full advantage of the circumstances.
It was Pavelski who set up all three of Kessel's goals in one way or another. The first came just over a minute into the game. Pavelski took a ricochet off the boards from his own end and got it to a streaking Kessel, who had to make a nifty maneuver en route to the front of the goal, where he beat goaltender Luka Gracnar five-hole for the early 1-0 edge.
Then a mini two-on-one break happened when a dump pass bounced right to Pavelski off the end board, and he sent the puck immediately to Kessel on the back side for a one-timer from close range. That made the score 2-0 just 4:33 in.
A subsequent lull lasted for the next period and a half or so, until Pavelski ripped a wrist shot from just inside the blue line as van Riemsdyk set a key screen in front. All Kessel had to do was slip in to poke the rebound in, thus completing the hat trick.
It's conceivable that the Americans could have won this contest without Kessel's brilliance, but the going may have been a lot tougher against a pesky Slovenia team that hung with Russia in the opener before beating Slovakia thereafter.
James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail commented on how formidable Slovenia has been despite being perceived as an outmatched outfit:
Kessel expressed some concern about adjusting to the increased ice length in international competition after the U.S. beat Slovakia 7-1 in the first game.
"It takes some time to get used to out there," said Kessel, per the Toronto Sun's Rob Longley. "There's a little more room near the boards and I think you're still going to adjust throughout the tournament a little bit. There's a lot of skating out there."
The 26-year-old has evidently adjusted just fine to the conditions in Sochi, and has the USA having legitimate dreams of a gold medal after falling just short with the silver in the 2010 Vancouver Games. If Kessel and the rest of the Americans keep scoring at this rate, no one should be able to deny them.
Having clinched Group A and a spot in the quarterfinals, the USA and Kessel are riding high after Sunday's triumph.
Kessel is using the extra ice space to become as lethal of a playmaker as he's ever been, and it helps to have a world-class supporting cast and a familiar teammate by his side as he continues to thrive on the Olympic stage.