Team USA Knocks Off Slovenia to Advance to Quarterfinals

Phil Kessel scores a hat trick as U.S. finishes off pool play with a bang

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Phil Kessel had a hat trick, and Ryan Miller made 17 saves as Team USA finished off a perfect run through the preliminary round with a 5-1 win over Slovenia on Sunday morning.

Ryan McDonagh and David Backes also added goals for the Americans, who clinched a bye into the quarterfinals and will either get the second or third seed when the knockout stage of the tournament begins Wednesday.

If Slovenia harbored any desires of pulling off an even bigger upset than their Saturday victory over Slovakia (the first in their Olympic history), they were quashed in the opening minute of the game. On a great breakout pass from James van Riemsdyk, Joe Pavelski brought the puck through the neutral zone and dished it off to Kessel. He darted between two Slovenian defensemen and then pulled off a nifty deke to get around one more before pulling off one more quick move to beat goaltender Luka Gracnar to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead just 1:04 into the game.

Kessel wasn’t done making an impact in the early stages of the game either. Brooks Orpik dumped the puck into the zone, and Pavelski quickly skated in and took a look back toward the netfront. He saw a streaking Kessel there, and tried to flip a saucer pass over to his linemate. The puck ended up airborne, but Kessel batted it out of midair and into the net, and with a snap of the fingers it was 2-0.

After the two goals, the Slovenian side started to pick up the pace and the physicality a bit, but the Americans had answers for everything. First it was Patrick Kane who got a great one-timer opportunity from the slot, but he was stopped by Gracnar. Then van Riemsdyk made a nice drive to the net in skating outside of the defensive pressure of the Slovenians, but he too was stopped by the goaltender to keep it 2-0 after the first period.

As the second period got underway, Slovenia continued to get scoring opportunities. They got an early power play when David Backes was tripped into Gracnar, but the officials ruled the play goaltender interference. Thanks to some brilliant work by Miller, the U.S. was able to maintain their lead in the period.

After a few more tense moments of Slovenian pressure, the Americans finally turned the heat back up and ended up getting another goal. This time, it was Paul Stastny and Blake Wheeler generating a ton of pressure in front, and the U.S. side was able to pull off a full line change without losing possession of the puck. When Pavelski’s shot from the point was tipped by van Riemsdyk, Gracnar was able to stop it, but Kessel was there to tap in the rebound to pick up the natural hat trick and a 3-0 lead for his team.

Just a little over a minute later, the Americans got on the board again. The team’s fourth line had yet another great possession, and eventually the puck found its way to Wheeler near the goal line. He worked a perfect pass through traffic in front and onto the stick of defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The New York Rangers defenseman didn’t miss on his one-timer attempt, and he gave his squad a commanding 4-0 lead.

Even with giving up another power play in the late stages of the second period, the Americans were able to kill it off with a minimum of difficulty. They also got a couple more really nice scoring chances, including a nifty play by Kane that saw him carry the puck around the zone and put a backhanded chance on net, and even though he wasn’t able to put it in the U.S. held onto their sizable lead at the second intermission.

Coming out of the break, the U.S. went right back to work on offense, and David Backes delivered a final nail in the Slovenian coffin. Ryan Callahan skated to the top of the face-off circle in the offensive zone, and he put a perfect backhanded pass right at Backes’ feet. The puck ended up bouncing off his skate and Backes was able to hit it in midair with his stick and into the net, and after video review the goal stood and gave the Americans a 5-0 lead.

As the third period wore on, the U.S. continued to dominate on both sides of the puck, and the Slovenians simply could not find any answers to the riddle. Even with a power play just after the halfway mark of the period, the Americans continued swarming to the puck, and even those shots that they did allow were knocked aside easily by Miller as he continued his perfect day at the office.

Unfortunately for Miller, his shutout was spoiled in the closing seconds of the game, as Marcel Rodman blasted home a shot to the top shelf of the net, but it wasn’t enough as the US clinched the top spot out of Pool A and advanced to the quarterfinals, which begin Wednesday.

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