By Helene Elliott Los Angeles Times
SOCHI, Russia — Showing few signs of a letdown after its emotional victory over Russia, the U.S. men’s hockey team on Sunday rode a hat trick from Phil Kessel to a 5-1 victory over Slovenia at Shayba Arena in its final preliminary-round game.
Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, starting in goal while Jonathan Quick got a day off, stopped 17 shots from the plucky but undersized and overwhelmed Slovenians until Marcel Rodman scored on a long blast with 17.6 seconds left in the third period.
With only one NHL player in its lineup — Kings center Anze Kopitar — Slovenia did well to get this far and win a game in its first-ever Olympic tournament. Slovenia’s lone victory came against Slovakia.
Team USA previously defeated Slovakia, 7-1, and edged Russia, 3-2, in an eight-round shootout to finish preliminary-round play with a 3-0 record.
Kopitar was not on his team’s bench in the third period.
Matjaz Kopitar, Anze’s father and the team’s coach, said his son began to feel ill because of what’s believed to be a bout of the stomach flu, and the decision was made to leave him in the locker room for the third period.
“He just didn’t feel good, something with the stomach. He was without the power,” Matjaz Kopitar said. “Hopefully he’s going to be better.”
Matjaz said Anze would be taken to the clinic in the athletes’ village for further examination. “Nothing major, I think,” Matjaz Kopitar said.
Kessel became the first player on the U.S. men’s team to record a hat trick since John LeClair scored three goals against Finland in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Joe Pavelski assisted on all three.
The other U.S. goals were scored by Ryan McDonagh in the second period and David Backes early in the third.
Kessel, who had been playing well for the Toronto Maple Leafs before coming here, launched the U.S. to a good start by scoring twice in the first four minutes, 33 seconds. On his first goal, at 1:04, he stepped around Slovenian defenseman Mitja Robar and went in alone on goalie Luka Gracnar, who was helpless against Kessel’s quick shot.
Kessel’s second goal was set up on a centering pass from Joe Pavelski, who had also assisted on his first goal. Kessel had no challenge in the slot as he scored his third goal of the tournament.
Although it appeared the U.S. would cruise, Slovenia regrouped and began to spend more time in the U.S. zone as the period wore on. The U.S. had the edge in shots, but only by 8-7.
Slovenia pressed for the first few minutes of the second period too, but the Americans capitalized on their depth and more abundant skills.
Kessel finished off his hat trick at 11:05 of the second period when he got past the unfortunate Robar to score from close range. Pavelski picked up the assist, his third.
Ryan McDonagh padded the U.S. lead to 4-0 at 12:17, going high on Gracnar, who’s only 20 years old and got quite an education on Sunday.