SOCHI, Russia – Walking through the gauntlet of media gathered in the bowels of Shayba Arena, Phil Kessel looked like he’d rather battle for a loose puck in the corner against Zdeno Chara than face the upcoming onslaught of questions in the mixed zone.
As he has always done, Kessel would rather let his performance on the ice do the talking for him. He’s been that way from his early days as a phenom at the National Team Development Program to his one year at the University of Minnesota, through some pretty tumultuous times in Boston and now in Toronto, where there’s more media scrutiny for the Maple Leafs than for the Pope.
Here in Sochi, Kessel has been the star of the Olympic tournament, leading all scorers with four goals and seven points in three games, including a natural hat trick in Monday’s 5-1 victory over Slovenia. And no matter how many questions he faces about his personal accomplishments, Kessel is content to deflect the attention away from his performance and put it back on the team.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the win,” he said after netting the first American Olympic hat trick since John LeClair in 2002. “We can still improve more, and we have to get a lot better.”
Playing on a line with his Maple Leafs teammate James van Riemsdyk and the versatile Joe Pavelski, Kessel looks right at home on the bigger Olympic ice. The extra room seems to suit his smooth skating style and provides him with a little extra time and space to make things happen.
“We are having fun out there,” said Pavelski, who assisted on all three Kessel tallies against Slovenia. “Van Riemsdyk and Phil have good chemistry, so I just try to get them the puck when I can.”
Kessel came into the tournament as one of the hottest players in the NHL, notching 27 points in his last 15 games. While Leafs fans may be sad to see the Olympic break come while their team is so hot, the Madison, Wis., native hasn’t missed a beat here in Sochi. He opened his second Olympic tournament with a goal and two assists against Slovakia and added an assist against Russia.
“I’m playing with great players, so they always make you better out there,” Kessel said. “Obviously I’m comfortable with James. We play together all year long. Pavs is a great player. We’re just trying to make some plays.”
Like his U.S. teammates, Dan Bylsma is happy to have Kessel and all that skill on his side, even if it’s just for a short time.
“Playing against Phil over the past few years, the speed and the shot of the player is elite,” said Bylsma, whose Pittsburgh Penguins play the Maple Leafs several times a year as part of the Eastern Conference schedule.
“The speed with which he can accelerate down the ice, he can put teams in trouble with that speed and finish it up with the shot that he has. It’s one of the more dangerous weapons out there.”
That was on display in their first shift against Slovenia, as Kessel took a pass from Pavelski in the neutral zone, kicked it into gear, slipped the puck between the legs of defenseman Mitja Robar and flicked a low wrist shot that caught 20-year-old Slovenian goaltender Luka Gracnar by surprise.
Less than three minutes later, Pavelski retrieved a dump-in along the goal line and flipped the puck across the crease that Kessel whacked out of mid-air into the goal.
“We were fortunate that right out of the gate to get a couple of great skill plays through the neutral zone, and Kessel was able to get us two goals there to get us that lead,” said Bylsma, who was worried about an emotional let down after Saturday’s big shootout victory over Russia.
“There was not as much emotion in this game for us, so to get up like we did I thought that was very big for our team to look up and see the scoreboard and know that we were up in that game.”
After playing three games in four days, the U.S. enjoyed the spoils that came with winning Pool A. The day off was enough time for Kessel to watch his sister Amanda, who scored a goal in the U.S. Women’s Team’s 6-1 victory over Sweden to advance to the gold-medal game.
As the men await the winner of the Czech Republic vs. Slovakia in the quarterfinals, they know that success in the preliminary round will mean nothing if they aren’t playing for a gold medal on Sunday. But with Kessel leading the offensive charge, they like their chances.
As Pavelski said, “It’s good that he’s on our side right now.”