SOCHI, Russia — Nothing could compare with the emotion and atmosphere of Saturday’s preliminary-round game between the United States and Russia. Certainly not a matchup with Slovenia at Shayba Arena, the smaller of the two hockey venues at the Sochi Olympics. But less than 24 hours after President Obama tweeted congratulations to US forward T.J. Oshie for his heroics in Saturday’s shootout, the Americans were back on the ice. And as the puck dropped Sunday, questions about the Americans loomed.
Would the US suffer a post-Russia hangover? Would upstart Slovenia present a potential trap game after its first victory in Olympic tournament history?
It took Phil Kessel 64 seconds to provide an answer.
The former Boston Bruins forward, now starring with the Toronto Maple Leafs, used his speed and stickhandling to beat the Slovenian defense and quickly put the Americans on the scoreboard. Kessel scored again at the 4:33 mark of the first period, setting the stage for a 5-1 victory. With another goal in the second, he became the first American with an Olympic hat trick since John LeClair in 2002 against Finland. Kessel is the first American to post four goals in the three-game preliminary round since Bill Cleary and Roger Christian in 1960.
“It’s not about me,” said Kessel. “The most important thing is we get the win. We’ve got to keep improving and keep winning games.”
Added Ryan Callahan: “We always said that the game against the Russians meant nothing if we didn’t win tonight. Now, the real stuff starts on Wednesday . . . I think we came together really quickly here. In Vancouver it was the same way, everyone realized their roles and how they had to play. I think as a team we felt the chemistry right away.”
The Americans went 3-0 in Group A in the preliminary round and received a bye into the quarterfinals. Sunday’s domination of Slovenia sent them into a short break with confidence.
“I was certainly concerned [about a letdown] after the emotional game against Russia and the big win, “ said US coach Dan Bylsma. “In the end, we were fortunate to get a couple of great skill plays through the neutral zone and Phil Kessel got two goals. It was big for our team to look up at the scoreboard and know we were in the lead early in this game.”
Slovenia will play in Tuesday’s qualification playoff round. Still, its lone preliminary-round win, Saturday over Slovakia (3-1), was a big step forward for a team with only one NHL player on its roster, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings. Kopitar missed Sunday’s third period with what Slovenia’s coach, Matjaz Kopitar, Anze’s father, described as “something with his stomach.”
After the game Anze Kopitar went to the medical clinic in the Olympic Village for some blood tests. He later announced he was feeling much better.
In assessing his team’s inability to come back against the Americans, Matjaz Kopitar said, “Our teeth were not sharp enough to beat a team like USA.” He added that the Americans “are strong and fast and a medal contender for sure.”
Some of Kessel’s teammates noted how the 26-year-old forward has matured since the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“It’s awareness of where he can make things happen and where he can’t,” said goaltender Ryan Miller. “Speed is always an asset. I think he’s learned how to gain some speed in situations, opening up for the puck, driving guys back and letting other guys use their speed. He’s become a player who can complement other players on a line, an underrated passer. He’s known for his speed and his shot off the wing, but he makes things happen.”
Miller also believes this US squad is, in some ways, collectively better than the group from 2010.
“There’s a willingness to compete,” said Miller, who was the tournament MVP in Vancouver. “We care about each other. Expectations are different.
“I thought we skated really well for a back-to-back on the big sheet of ice and in a hot rink. The guys could easily have been up two or three goals and said, ‘OK, see where we go from here.’ But we kept pushing.”
As for Oshie, he had to endure some good-natured ribbing from teammates about his star turn against Russia and his newfound celebrity. Bylsma kidded him after the Russia game, too, and said, “You know you’re going to have to play again tomorrow.” Oshie contributed an assist on a Ryan McDonagh goal in the second that put the US ahead, 4-0.
The US led, 5-0, late in the third and it appeared Miller would earn a shutout in his first appearance of the tournament. But with 18 seconds remaining, Marcel Rodman finally put Slovenia on the scoreboard.
Meanwhile, Oshie preferred to keep the focus on Slovenia, not on all the attention he has received.
“I’ve gotten a lot more support, more people tweeting me, but other than that, it hasn’t changed that much,” said Oshie. “We came out today with a new job at hand and the boys did a pretty good job of handling that.”
As for the reaction to his performance against Russia, Oshie added: “It was pretty crazy. I really didn’t want that to get in our heads and to get us away from our job today. So our guys did a really good job of refocusing today.”