SOCHI, Russia -- For the second Olympics in a row, the U.S. men's team has run the table in the preliminary round, handling the first-time Olympians from Slovenia by a 5-1 count on Sunday for a third straight win in Russia.
The win, a workmanlike effort that not surprisingly lacked the emotional juice of Saturday's thrilling shootout win over hosts Russia, means the Americans earn a bye to the quarterfinals. But unlike four years ago, when the U.S. won all three preliminary-round games in regulation, the fact the Americans went to a shootout against Russia means they will be the second seed.
Here's a look at where the U.S. is after its play in the preliminary round:
Phil the thrill
We sometimes talk as though the Vancouver Olympics were last week, and so it is more than a little unfair to talk about Phil Kessel and his play in Vancouver, which was, to be fair, a little tepid.
People, it was four years ago.
And there's no doubt Kessel is in a different place in his career. His play last season and this season, especially in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, are a perfect illustration of his maturation into an elite NHL scorer. One of the NHL's hottest players at the time of the Olympic break hasn't missed a beat here in Sochi. After a three-point game to start the tournament against Slovakia, he added an assist against the Russians and then scored two goals before Sunday's game was five minutes old. He added a third at a crucial time, with the Americans going through the motions in the middle part of the game.
The goals were pure Kessel, the product of speed and terrific hands. On the second, he batted a fluttering pass from Joe Pavelski out of midair and into the net. The U.S. team is often described as not having the kind of individual stars of a Canada or a Russia, but Kessel's play suggests that might not be entirely accurate.
Defenseman Ryan Suter grew up in the same hometown as Kessel, and Kessel played for Suter's father.
"He's always been a good player. He's always been a goal scorer, he's always been quick, explosive. He's doing all the things that he should do. He has all the tools; he's putting them together," Suter said. "I think he's more comfortable with himself. I think in 2010, he was kind of a little hesitant to talk or to try things. Now, he's comfortable with where he is and he's making a lot of good plays."
Spread that scoring around
Still, if this team is going to find its way to a gold-medal game, it seems inevitable that it will get there because it can inflict damage from anywhere in its lineup. After Sunday's game, the Americans have gotten goals from 10 players.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said what has impressed him has been his team's response to adversity. When Slovakia tied their first game early in the second period, the U.S. exploded with six second-period goals. Against the Russians, players were blocking shots from some of the most dangerous players in the world and also bounced back from a one-goal deficit, and then a late power-play goal.