THN in Sochi: USA rides Kessel’s hot stick to easy win

Phil Kessel and Joe Pavelski, along with linemate James van Riemsdyk, provided all the offense USA needed on Sunday in their win over Slovakia. The win gives USA first place in its pool and a direct route to Wednesday’s quarterfinal.

SOCHI – Team USA is getting accustomed to riding one hot player to victory. Saturday it was T.J. Oshie with his four shootout goals against Russia and 24 hours later, it was the opportunistic stick of Phil Kessel.

Kessel, a player USA coach Ron Wilson could barely put on the ice during the 2010 Olympics, has emerged as a big-time player for this unit. That ascendance has mirrored his upward trajectory as a big-time NHL player. Kessel could always score a ton, but the goals weren’t exactly in abundance in crucial situations.

They are now, both for Team USA and the Toronto Maple Leafs. That much was evident Sunday when Kessel scored the first three goals of the game in USA’s 5-1 win over a very spirited and determined Slovenian squad. Kessel’s first two goals came in the first five minutes of the game. Working on a line with Joe Pavelski, who had three assists at center, and Toronto teammate James van Riemsdyk on the left side, Kessel and his linemates were easily the most effective unit for the Americans. Ryan McDonagh and David Backes scored the other goals for the Americans. Marcel Rodman scored for Slovenia late in the third period to break up Ryan Miller’s bid for a shutout.

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The victory gave USA a total of eight points and wrapped up first place in Group A, giving it a bye directly to Wednesday’s quarterfinal. It also gave the Americans a goal differential of plus-12, which is the best in the tournament going into tonight’s game between Canada and Finland. The winners of each group go directly to the quarterfinal, while teams finishing fifth through 12th after the preliminary round must play a qualification game Tuesday.

Despite coming into the tournament with just one NHLer, Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar, the Slovenians have acquitted themselves very well. They managed to win a game and were competitive in the other two. Until the Americans pulled away in the second period, the Slovenians were keeping pace with the Americans, both in terms of the speed of the game and in physical play. Slovenia is making its Olympic debut after shocking the world by qualifying for the Olympics without Kopitar.

More to come. I’ll have an updated blog and analysis up soon.

THN’s Three Stars: 1. Phil Kessel; 2. Joe Pavelski; 3. David Backes