Paul Stastny had a stellar performance for the United States at the IIHF World Championship last May, and he picked up right where he left off on Thursday as he began his second Olympic Games.
The Colorado Avalanche center scored twice in a six-goal second period and helped lead Team USA to a decisive 7-1 victory over Slovakia in the first game of preliminary play for both squads.
Stastny's last experience on the larger, international ice surface was at the 2013 world championship in Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland when he captained the Americans to a bronze medal and led the team in scoring. He finished second at the tournament with 15 points (seven goals and eight assists) and was the only American to be named to the Media All-Star team.
Centering a line with T.J. Oshie and Max Pacioretty against Slovakia, Stastny's two goals came just feet from the front of the net, a spot where he scored many of his tallies at last year's world championship and this season with the Avalanche.
The United States led 1-0 after the first period, but Slovakia tied the game just 24 seconds into the middle stanza. Team USA quickly responded with goals from Ryan Kesler and Stastny in a span of 1:06 to regain the lead at 3-1. The Americans then piled on four more goals and went on to tie their modern-day Olympic record for the most goals scored in a period.
Stastny's first tally at 2:32 of the second came after Oshie sent a pass through the slot to Pacioretty, whose shot on goalie Jaroslav Halak was first stopped but rebounded out to the front of the crease. Stastny was in the low slot and quickly grabbed the puck and snapped a shot into an open area of the cage.
Kevin Shattenkirk set up Stastny's second goal with a nice pass to the front of the net at 13:30 of the middle period. Stastny was attacking to the crease when the puck from the cross-slot pass found his stick, and he easily knocked it past Halak for his third career Olympic goal.
U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma was pleased with the Stastny-Pacioretty-Oshie line and said he considered the trio his best forward group against Slovakia.
"We talked about it going into the game that the line of Stastny, Pacioretty and Oshie could be our best line in this game, and it turned out to be that way for us," Bylsma said in his postgame news conference. "Not only did they find their way onto the score sheet, but every time over the boards they made something happen positively with their shifts, with their offensive-zone time."
The victory against Slovakia was Stastny's first against the country in which his family has strong ties with. His father Peter played for then Czechoslovakia at the 1980 games in Lake Placid and later for Slovakia at the 1994 Olympics. He is also currently a member of the European Parliament for the country.
"It’s always special playing against Slovakia," Stastny said to the official IIHF website. "I always know family back home is watching, and my parents always watch no matter what. I’ve never beaten these guys, so it was nice to get it on my third try, on the most important stage."
Stastny and the United States will face a tough challenge in their next game as they play host Russia in a contest that will likely decide the winner of the group and an automatic bye to the quarterfinals.
Russia is coming off a 5-2 win over Slovenia, and it will likely be looking to come out with a strong performance after some so-so play in the second period allowed Slovenia to score two goals, which made it a 3-2 game going into the third period.
Stastny was a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic squad in Vancouver that faced host Canada in the preliminary round, and he said he is excited to play the Russians this time on their home soil in Sochi.
"We did this against Canada, and now we get to play Russia at home. You’ve just got to go with it," Stastny said to the IIHF website. "It’ll be an exciting time, and we’ll see where we stack up against one of the favorites."