SOCHI, Russia - The U.S. got a new hero today as Phil Kessel scored the country's first Olympic hat trick in 12 years to lead the Americans to a 5-1 victory over Slovenia, completing a sweep of Group A in the process.
Although today's final score was as lopsided (as expected) in a match between one of the world's top hockey nations and a country with just one NHL player, there were patches of this game where Slovenia put pressure on America, especially in the first period.
United States goaltender Ryan Miller, playing in his first contest of the tournament, had to work hard and came 17.6 seconds short of the shutout.
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With this victory, the Americans have earned a bye past the qualification round, but they will have to wait for the outcome of the Canada-Finland to determine their exact seed.
Phil Kessel is the hottest hockey player in this solar system or the next.
Not Sidney Crosby, not Alex Ovechkin, not Pavel Datsyuk, not even American hero T.J. Oshie, can match the eye-catching numbers Kessel has put up in the past month.
Kessel scored three goals, giving him four for the tournament, to lift the U.S. men's Olympic team to 5-1 win that will give the Americans (3-0) a bye into the quarterfinals.
"He's a guy who has grown on the ice and he has shown he can handle the big-time situations," USA center David Backes said. "He is out there making plays all of the time. He's got composure. He doesn't get rattled when someone is in his face. That growth is great for our team."
The Americans will be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed going into the quarterfinals on Wednesday, depending upon what happens in the Canada vs. Finland game later tonight.
The speedy Kessel came into the Olympics with a sizzling run of 10 goals and 13 assists in his last 12 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He also registered a goal and an assist in his first game against Slovakia and an assist against Russia, meaning Kessel has 14 goals and 16 assists in his past 15 games. Those are Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux numbers.
"He's a guy who is pouring them in the net and when you have a guy like that, you ride him as long as you can," Backes said.
U.S. coach Dan Bylsma is using Kessel on the right wing with his regular Toronto linemate James van Riemsdyk on the left and the San Jose Sharks' Joe Pavelski at center. Kessel played with Pavelski on the 2010 team.
"You just have to come over here and do the best you can to win," Kessel said.
Coming into the tournament, it was thought that Phil might not even be the highest-scoring Kessel in the tournament because his sister, Amanda, is a key forward for the U.S. women's team. Going into the men's quarterfinals and women's semifinals, Phil has a 7-4 lead over Amanda in points. She has two goals and two assists.
The Americans were pleased with the win, but they know they will have to be sharper moving forward into the quarterfinals. They didn't have the same jump they had against the Russians. That was predictable because of the emotion and intensity they needed to take down the Russians 3-2 in overtime.
"We have a hunger to win and so far it's going our way," said U.S. captain Zach Parise.
The Americans have outscored three opponents by a 14-4 margin. That plus-10 goal differential could be important, depending upon what happens in the Canada-Finland game.