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Potential U.S. top line poised to produce in Sochi

by Corey Masisak

SOCHI -- For the second straight day, San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski skated between two Toronto Maple Leafs teammates, James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel, during United States practice at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Coach Dan Bylsma switched players on the other three lines, but that trio remained the same. Should they play together Thursday in the team's opening game against Slovakia, van Riemsdyk, Pavelski and Kessel could be the line with the most NHL goals this season of any in the tournament.

"Well, we better score then," Pavelski said when informed of his trio's scoring prowess. "We've better find ways to score. There's a lot of hard work that has been put in during the year and they're both great players."

Kessel is second in the League this season with 31 goals. Pavelski is tied for fourth with 29, and van Riemsdyk checks in tied for 13th with 24. That's 84 goals, and it is more than any other trio that has practiced together in Sochi leading up to the start of the tournament Wednesday.

Russia's top trio of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin has combined for 72 goals. Sidney Crosby's line (Chris Kunitz and Jeff Carter) has 78. The top trio for Canada is actually Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Patrick Marleau, who have combined for 82. Sweden's top three goal scorers in the League this season (Alexander Steen, Henrik Zetterberg and Gabriel Landeskog) all skated together Tuesday, but they've produced a total of 62 goals in 2013-14.

"It is great. There's a lot of good players here and you're excited to play with them," Pavelski said. "I played with Phil quite a bit in the last Olympics and JVR is having a great season. He's a big body and great around the net. He played on my little brother's team for a year at UNH. I'm familiar with him and with Phil being from Madison too and growing up playing against him, watching him a little bit."

Though they were the most productive trio of Americans skating together Tuesday, most pundits or hockey fans are not likely to rate them as the team's "No. 1" line. That distinction might be given to the line with Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler and Max Pacioretty on it, or the one with David Backes and captain Zach Parise.

Ovechkin's line or any of the top three Canadian lines might be perceived as more dangerous, but van Riemsdyk, Pavelski and Kessel have produced this season. Kessel and van Riemsdyk have formed a dynamic duo for the Maple Leafs, and their scoring prowess combined with some great goaltending has helped Toronto remain in playoff position despite some of the worst possession statistics in the League.

"It is a good combination," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "JVR has a little bit of everything. He has great speed, his size … you look at him and [Blake] Wheeler out there and that's two pretty big guys. Phil has that skating ability. I don't know where it comes from. You look at him and you don't expect it from him. He's got that finishing touch too."

Added van Riemsdyk: "I think we have that familiarity and chemistry where we can help each other out. When you're playing with new guys, sometimes you have to think a little bit too much. You learn tendencies and things like that, so if we do end up playing together that will be nice."

Kessel and van Riemsdyk could have the speed, skill and chemistry to excel on the big ice at Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Arena. They will need to find a way to mesh with Pavelski as well.

In addition to Pavelski having connections to both players, he roomed with van Riemsdyk at the United States' orientation camp in Arlington, Va., before the season began.

"It's kind of funny -- in a way his style just kind of reminds of [Tyler] Bozak," van Riemsdyk said. "They're both strong in the [faceoff] circle, they're both great at both ends of the rink, they think the game very well. Obviously we've had some success playing with Bozak in Toronto and there's no reason if we end up playing together that we can't do that here. [Pavelski] is a smart player and he's easy to play with. He has a lot of skill."

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