Kessel Hat Trick Sparks United States Victory
Toronto's Phil Kessel records natural hat trick to lead US to 5-1 victory over Slovenia.
SOCHI -- One day after he became an overnight sensation, T.J. Oshie was happy to pass the proverbial torch to the player who entered the 2014 Sochi Olympics as the hottest in the National Hockey League.
A dangling and dazzling Phil Kessel helped the United States clinch an automatic bye into the quarterfinals 24 hours after Oshie and the Americans grabbed the attention of the sports world in dramatic fashion.
Kessel produced the first hat trick by an American player in the Olympics since John LeClair in 2002 to lift the U.S. to a 5-1 victory against Slovenia at Shayba Arena, the venue across the street from Bolshoy Ice Dome, where Saturday Oshie put his quick hands on display in an eight-round shootout to lift the U.S. to a 3-2 win against Russia.
Oshie's Twitter followers more than doubled from approximately 90,000 to nearly 220,000 from the ending of the game Saturday, when he went 4-for-6 in the shootout, to the final buzzer Sunday. USA Hockey has been receiving interview requests for him from all the major networks, including NBC, ABC and CNN. He is a hit, but Sunday he gleefully ceded the floor to Kessel.
"I was saying right before the game, I hope somebody does something pretty cool so that some of the focus gets off of me and onto someone else," Oshie said. "He [Kessel] didn't need six shots in the shootout to do it. He did it in regular time."
Kessel helped the U.S. finish the preliminary round on top of Group A with eight of a possible nine points. The Americans now wait to learn which team they will face in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
The Slovenians finished third in Group A with three points and eighth in the preliminary round thanks in part to their seminal win against Slovakia on Saturday, the nation's first Olympic victory in men's hockey. They will play Austria in the qualification round on Tuesday.
However Anze Kopitar, Slovenia's only NHL player, did not finish the game because of a stomach ailment. His father, Slovenia coach Matjaz Kopitar, said his son was being treated at the medical clinic in the athlete's village and is hopeful that he can play Tuesday.
The Los Angeles Kings center played only 16 shifts totaling 11:31.
"It's something with the stomach," Matjaz Kopitar said. "He didn't feel well and he was without power so we didn't want to risk."
Kessel scored twice within the first 4:33 of the game to give the Americans a 2-0 cushion. He completed his hat trick 11:05 into the second period, and Ryan McDonagh scored 72 seconds later to put any comeback plans Slovenia might have had to rest. David Backes added a goal 3:26 into the third period.
Kessel now leads the tournament with seven points (four goals, three assists). Joe Pavelski assisted on all of Kessel's goals.
"The speed and the shot from the player is elite," U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said of Kessel. "He can put teams in trouble with that speed and to finish it with the shot that he has, it's one of the more dangerous weapons out there. We have great determination through our lineup, but that's the type of speed and skill that we need and he's shown it through games one, two and three."
Ryan Miller, who was the backup to Jonathan Quick in the Americans' first two games of the tournament, finished with 17 saves but lost his shutout bid with 17.6 seconds left in his first Olympic action since the gold-medal game in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Quick didn't dress for the game Sunday; Jimmy Howard, who was a healthy scratch for the previous two games, served as Miller's backup against Slovenia. Bylsma would not say if Quick or Miller would start the quarterfinal-round game Sunday, but it's expected to be Quick, who has a 1.44 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in two games.
"I'm just a tap on the shoulder away any time, is what I told the coach," Miller said. "I thought Quick, he's been really impressive in his first games, especially in the shootout situation against the Russians. If I have to support Quickie, I'm going to support Quickie. It was nice to get in the net and contribute."
Kessel opened the scoring 64 seconds into the game with a gorgeous goal. He took a pass from Pavelski in stride, dangled his way around Slovenia defenseman Mitja Robar and slid a shot through goalie Luka Gracnar's pads.
He made it 2-0 when he batted Pavelski's airlifted pass into the net at 4:33 of the first period.
The Americans admittedly were leery about having a letdown following the emotional win against Russia, but those two goals from Kessel erased their concerns.
"If you go into the third period up a goal, down a goal or tied against a team like that, then the pressure is really on you," U.S. forward Dustin Brown said. "We took the pressure off ourselves early which I think is good for the longevity in the long run. But the attention to detail wasn't where we needed it to be."
That's partly because the Slovenians were undeterred by the early deficit. They pressured the Americans and generated some quality scoring chances on Miller, who had to make seven saves in the first period.
The early lead also might have taken some of the emotion away from the U.S., which didn't seem as engaged in the game during the final 15 minutes of the first period and the first 10 minutes of the second.
"I don't think we were nearly as good as we need to be to be where we want to be," Brown said.
It took a quality shift by the fourth line, featuring Oshie, Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny, for the U.S. to finally pin the Slovenians in their defensive zone for an extended period of time.
"I thought that was maybe our best point in the game," Bylsma said.
Kessel, Pavelski and James van Riemsdyk came out for the following shift and quickly made it 3-0. Gracnar stopped Pavelski's point shot with his right pad but Kessel beat Robar to the rebound and put it into the open left side of the net.
McDonagh wired a shot from the right circle into the top right corner 1:12 later to give the U.S. a 4-0 lead. Wheeler, who played 38 seconds and had a minor penalty in the win against Russia, found McDonagh in the right circle with a pass out of the left corner.
"We had to keep working to get better, keep focusing to get better with every opportunity," Bylsma said. "Even with this game [Sunday] we had to keep working to get better. I think we've done that for seven days. We've set ourselves up with a day off [Monday] and now we have to get ready for Game 4, which for everybody will be an elimination game."