Phil Kessel’s hat trick lifts U.S. hockey to 5-1 win over Slovenia
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter February 16, 2014 4:22PM
SOCHI, Russia — Following the United States’ epic victory over Russia on Saturday, Phil Kessel looked and sounded like a guy who had just won a pickup game at the neighborhood rink.
“Pretty cool game,” he shrugged.
This isn’t a guy prone to emotional swings. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that he had no mental hangover on Sunday, scoring three goals — including two in the first five minutes — to lead Team USA to a 5-1 victory over a Slovenia squad coming off its own emotional victory over Slovakia.
With the win, the United States won Pool A with eight of a possible nine points, and will be either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the elimination rounds (pending the Finland-Canada game later tonight), earning one of four byes into the quarterfinals.
“Yeah, we get a couple of days off to rest up, use it to our advantage and try to get better every day,” Patrick Kane said. “We’ll see who we draw in the quarterfinals, but it’s do-or-die time now. This is where the fun begins.”
It wasn’t exactly the Americans’ best game — they sleepwalked through much of the late first and early second periods — but it was more than enough to beat the hard-working, but overmatched Slovenes. And Kessel and Joe Pavleski did the heavy lifting for Team USA.
Kessel now has four goals and three assists in three games, leading the tournament with seven points. Typically, he downplayed the numbers.
“I don’t know, just playing with great players,” Kessel said. “They help you out and make the plays.”
The line of Kessel, Pavelski and James Van Riemsdyk — Kessel and Van Riemsdyk play together in Toronto — has been nearly unstoppable.
“He’s been watching ‘Friday Night Lights,’ so maybe he’s getting a little inspiration from Matt Saracen and Tim Riggins,” Van Riemsdyk said.
Kessel certainly had clear eyes early on. Sixty-four seconds into the game, he took a Pavelski pass and undressed Slovenia defenseman Mitja Robar with a sensational move before beating goaltender Luka Gracnar. Barely three minutes later, Kessel batted a Pavelski pass out of mid-air for his second goal.
After a dormant period — on one U.S. power play, the Slovenes had two scoring chances and the Americans didn’t even record a shot — Kessel turned his hat trick, stuffing in a Pavelski rebound on the doorstep.
“Good players,” Pavelski said of his new linemates. “Phil’s made a couple nice individual plays along the way. I don’t know, you just build off it. … I think it helps that they both play together in Toronto. That definitely helps. I just kind of fill in there.”
Just 1:12 after Kessel’s third goal, Ryan McDonagh got in on the fun, taking a Blake Wheeler pass and beating Gracnar top shelf from the right circle. David Backes made it 5-0 at 3:26 of the third.
Slovenia broke up Ryan Miller’s shutout bid with 17.9 seconds left, but with blowout wins over Slovakia and Slovenia, and stirring shootout victory over Russia, the Americans are in good position entering the elimination stage of the tournament.
“Usually after an intense game like [the Russia game], sometimes you have a letdown,” Kane said. “It was nice to get those two goals early to give us a little bit of a cushion. But from here on out, every game’s going to be like the one [Saturday].”