SOCHI, Russia — The U.S. hockey team scaled a mountain by defeating Russia in a shootout. Coach Dan Bylsma immediately was concerned his team might fall off a cliff emotionally the next day against a lesser foe, Olympic first-timer Slovenia.
He need not have worried.
Winger Phil Kessel, thriving on the wide ice surface, scored twice in the first 4 minutes 33 seconds and completed a hat trick midway through the second period — all assisted by Joe Pavelski — as the U.S. rolled past plucky but overwhelmed Slovenia, 5-1, Sunday at Shayba Arena in its round-robin finale.
Kessel became the first member of the U.S. men's team to record a hat trick since John LeClair victimized Finland at Salt Lake City in 2002. Goaltender Ryan Miller, giving Jonathan Quick a rest, had a shutout until Marcel Rodman scored through a screen with 17.6 seconds left in the game.
"It's impressive to watch these guys play," Miller said of his teammates. "I came over here to contribute and this is my chance to contribute and wrap up this pool and help the guys earn a break."
With a record of 2-1-0-0 (wins-overtime wins-overtime losses-losses), Team USA finished first in Group A, earned the No. 2 overall seed and got a berth in the quarterfinals Wednesday. The U.S. will face the winner of the qualification playoff Tuesday between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In the other qualification games Tuesday, Slovenia will face Austria, with the winner to play No. 1-seeded Sweden; Russia will face Norway, with the winner to play No. 4 Finland; and Switzerland will face Latvia, with the winner to play No. 3 Canada.
Slovenia's hopes of catching the Americans off-guard vanished after its only NHL player, Kings center Anze Kopitar, left the game in the second period because of a suspected case of stomach flu. Kopitar's father, Matjaz, Slovenia's coach, said his son would go to the clinic at the athletes' village for tests, and Anze later tweeted he had been released and was feeling better.
Slovenia, which earned its first-ever Olympic win Saturday against Slovakia, had some zone time Sunday and created a few scoring chances. But the U.S. was too big and too deep.
"They're strong, they're fast, they're a medal contender for sure, for me," Matjaz Kopitar said.
Kessel gave the U.S. the jump-start it needed when he deked Slovenia defenseman Mitja Robar to skate in alone on 20-year-old goalie Luka Gracnar and won that battle at 1:04. Kessel converted a centering pass from Pavelski at 4:33 for a 2-0 lead.
"We were fortunate that right out of the gate we got a couple of great skill plays and two goals there to get us that lead," Bylsma said
Kessel made it 3-0 at 11:05 of the second period, again eluding Robar. "He brings a lot of speed," Pavelski said of Kessel, who has four goals in three games. "When he has the puck he makes something happen with it so he's definitely a fun player to play with."
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh went top shelf to beat Gracnar at 12:17 of the second period, set up during an energetic shift by shootout specialist T.J. Oshie. David Backes capped the U.S. scoring with a goal that went off his foot at 3:26 of the third period.
"We've got a good group of guys and a lot of skill," said Kessel, whose 31 goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs ranks second in the NHL to Alexander Ovechkin's 40 for the Washington Capitals. "We've got a little of everything here."
And a good measure of confidence entering the knockout phase.
"I think we expected a high level of game from us," Pavelski said, "a high compete level, and that's what we got."