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Kessel assuming role as United States' game-breaker

by Shawn P. Roarke

SOCHI -- Phil Kessel had little to say after a night to remember at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Often reticent, Kessel didn't break character after a stunning performance, including a natural hat trick, helped propel the United States to a 5-1 victory against Slovenia in the final game of Group A play Saturday at Shayba Arena. The win gave the Americans a 2-1-0-0 record in pool play and moved them directly into the quarterfinals as group champion, avoiding the always dangerous play-in game.

The Americans play again Wednesday, against the winner of the play-in game Tuesday between Slovakia and the Czech Republic (noon ET, NBCSN).

The United States took Monday off and regrouped a bit while beginning the process of moving forward to the quarterfinal game Wednesday (noon ET). It gives others time to marvel a bit longer at the brilliance Kessel, a star with the Toronto Maple Leafs, put on display Sunday afternoon.

Kessel, though, won't be among them. He says it was just another day at the office.

But it was much more than that. It was the day, perhaps, on which he confirmed himself as a game-breaking talent for this team, the singular sensation so often the difference in short, best-on-best tournaments. See: Sidney Crosby, gold-medal game, Vancouver 2010.

Kessel's game-changing talent was on full display Sunday, just 24 hours after the Americans had ground out a team-defining shootout victory against host Russia to take control of the group. Kessel's line was the most dangerous for the Americans in that game as well.

American coach Dan Bylsma admitted he was worried about where his team would be mentally when it took the ice Sunday.

Those worries lasted all of 64 seconds, courtesy of a player known for his ability to make stunning plays.

Kessel, with speed, took a pass in the neutral zone from Joe Pavelski and put on a bit of a dipsy-do move to nutmeg Slovenian defender Mitja Robar and regain control of the puck near the top of the circle before snapping off a wrist shot that absolutely befuddled Luka Gracnar, the young goalie making his first Olympic start.

At 4:33, Kessel showed a different skill set to make it 2-0.

This time, he drove hard to the net on a 2-on-1 and put himself in position to receive a pass if Pavelski made that decision. Pavelski did; the only problem being he had to elevate it over the goalie's stick to avoid it being intercepted. No worries though for Kessel; he just batted it clean out of the air and into the net.

"To be able to get those two goals in the first period and get up like we did, I thought it was very big for our team to look up at the scoreboard and know we were in the lead early in this game," Bylsma said.

And Kessel was not done.

The Americans went into a slumber of sorts after his second goal. That is, until Kessel scored a power-forward goal, not a skill-player goal, at 11:05 of the second.

On the play, Pavelski took a shot and James van Riemsdyk, the other wing on the line, screened the goalie, generating a juicy rebound. Kessel fought off the check of his defender and pounced, slamming the puck home from the bottom of the circle.

"I'm playing with great players so they always make you better out there," Kessel said. "They made some good plays."

Kessel has proven in Toronto he can make his own offense. He has played with several different centers, yet he is one of only three forwards to reach the Olympic break with 30 or more goals. Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has 40, Kessel has 31 and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks has 30.

Here in Sochi, though, his linemates have brought him to a new level. He is familiar with van Riemsdyk, a traditional, space-opening power forward who's his regular linemate with the Maple Leafs. But the San Jose Sharks' Pavelski is the new pivot and he has slotted in perfectly, his versatility and speed a perfect complement to Kessel's varied skill set.

"Joe's been perhaps the best offensive player at center for the U.S. during the first four months of the season, certainly has been the hottest of late," Bylsma said in explaining the line's chemistry. "He is also probably one of our most responsible forwards and very good down the middle of the ice. The ability to put that kind of skill and responsibility between James van Riemsdyk and Phil was pretty [attractive]. They have come together pretty quickly."

Pavelski is a nice addition for sure and van Riemsdyk has made some ah-ha plays in each game, showing skills around the net that have to be the envy of power forwards the world over. But make no mistake, Kessel is the one who makes this line click.

"He's got definitely a special ability, and that's why he's got 30 goals in the NHL already and that's why he's able to score like he did [Sunday]," forward David Backes said. "He's always around the puck, he's got great timing to arrive right when it does, and his finish is great as well. We don't want to lose what work James does in front of the net for him too: a couple tips, a couple times he takes defenders away, [Pavelski] throwing that one in the air, somehow those two connected there. But he's a great player, a special player, and guys around him are doing some great work too."

The body of work has been good enough for long enough now that Kessel is the go-to scorer in this tournament for the Americans. He has become their game-breaker, a role that has been vacant more often than not for a team that prides itself on its all-for-one, blue-collar work ethic.

"I think he's earned that role and responsibility," Backes said. "He's shown it time and time again. He's a guy that's pouring them into the net, and when a guy's hot like that ride him as long as you can."

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