The lineups may have changed in Sochi, but the results did not. Playing in the second half of back-to-back games, United States (US) coach, Dan Bylsma, put some new well-rested faces into the lineup and gave some key players from previous games a break from the games. That did not change the results of the game, however, as the US men’s hockey team secured first place in Group A of the Sochi Winter Olympics hockey tournament with a win over Team Slovenia.
After an emotional shootout win over Russia yesterday, Bylsma made some changes in the lineup before today’s game against Slovenia. Jonathan Quick, who had started every game for Team USA in the tournament thus far, was replaced by his backup for those games, Ryan Miller. Montreal winger, Max Pacioretty was also removed from the lineup and replaced by center, Derek Stepan. For Slovenia, Sabahudin Kovacevic would be out of the lineup, serving his one-game suspension stemming an elbowing incident from yesterday’s game with Slovakia.
The US struck early and rapidly, getting two goals from dynamic winger Phil Kessel in the first five minutes of the game. Both goals were assisted by Joe Pavelski, as the center took advantage of the lively boards in the arena. For the first goal, an initial shot by a Slovenian player missed the net and bounced off the boards onto Pavelski’s stick. Pavelski quickly got the puck to Kessel up the ice, who deked through the legs of a Slovenian defender and put the puck past Slovenian goaltender, Luca Gracnar. Just minutes later, US defenseman Brooks Orpik dumped the puck into the Slovenian zone and Pavelski used his speed to reach the puck before the Slovenian defense. He made a quick turnaround pass to the front of the net, where Phil Kessel was waiting all alone to put the puck into the empty net.
The second US goal seemed to wake Slovenia up, as they dominated the play for the rest of the period, catching Team USA on its heels. They outshot the United States five to three after the second goal and kept them shotless in the five minutes after the goal. Slovenia was looking to perform yet another upset in these Olympic games, after they surprised everyone by beating Team Slovakia in yesterday’s game, 3-1. They showed the same hard work and effort in today’s game that they showed against Slovakia, even when trailing.
It was that hard work that drew the games first penalty of the game just 57 seconds into the second period, as David Backes was sent to the box for interfering with a Slovakian player. Ryan Miller was tested often during the ensuing power play, probably more than he and Team USA expected, but the goaltender did his job and kept the puck out of the net. Midway through the second period, the US struck with another two quick goals, one by defenseman Ryan McDonagh and a third by Phil Kessel, completing the natural hat-trick. The score was 4-0 US over Slovenia by the end of the second, in a game that was closer than the score indicated, as the men’s hockey team attempted to secure first place in their group along the way to Sochi gold.
Kessel’s hattrick was the first for an American since the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. It was also the second natural hattrick in the Sochi Olympic games, as Canadian Jeff Carter scored a natural hattrick in Canada’s 6-0 rout of Austria just a few days earlier. Kessel, whose sister is also an Olympian on the Women’s US Olympic Ice Hockey team, is a natural goalscorer and is second in the National Hockey League. Only Russian superstar, Alexander Ovechkin, has more goals than Kessel’s 31 this season.
David Backes would add a fifth US goal early in the third period. and Slovenia would end Ryan Miller’s shutout bid with only 17 seconds remaining in the game, as Slovenian defenseman Marcel Rodman blasted a shot over the shoulder of the US goaltender. With the win over Slovenia, the US hockey team secured first place in Group A and received an automatic bye into the quarterfinals in Sochi. The bye allows Team USA some much-needed rest after going undefeated in the preliminary rounds.
By Jonathan Gardner