US closes preliminary round with professional 5-1 win

epa04081141 Phil Kessel (C) of United States celebrates his second goal with teammates Joe Pavelski (L) and James Van Riemskyk (R) against Slovenia in the first period during their match in the Ice Hockey tournament at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, 16 February 2014. EPA/LARRY W. SMITH
Phil Kessel, center, celebrated his second goal with teammates Joe Pavelski, left, and James Van Riemskyk against Slovenia. Kessel finished with a hat trick as the US beat Slovenia 5-1. (EPA/LARRY W. SMITH)

The Americans were coming off a thrilling 3-2 shootout win over Russia. They faced off today against Slovenia, a decided underdog. Ryan Miller, the No. 2 goalie, was giving Jonathan Quick a breather.

For all those reasons, the Americans faced an expected emotional letdown. But the US responded with a professional 5-1 win over Slovenia. Their reward: two days of rest and an automatic bid to the quarterfinals. Their opponent is undetermined.

The Americans held a 2-0 lead after the first period. Phil Kessel, who would score a third goal in the second period, had both strikes.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But the Slovenians controlled the first-period tempo. They had the advantage in the puck-possession game. The Americans, in contrast, did not manage the puck efficiently. Miller had to make the tougher saves.

The Americans found their legs in the second. They can credit their fourth line for that.

Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny, and T.J. Oshie submitted their team’s best shift. They cycled the puck below the goal line. They generated in-tight scoring chances. They wore out Slovenia’s defense. On the following shift, Kessel tapped in the rebound of a Joe Pavelski shot to complete the hat trick and give the US a 3-0 lead. From there, the Americans controlled the game. Only a last-minute Slovenia goal spoiled Miller’s shutout bid.

The win completed an ideal preliminary round for the Americans. They claimed first place in Group A. Nobody suffered a serious injury. Quick is ready for the medal round but fresh after today’s rest.

The push for gold begins.

Gold nugget: Blake Wheeler. Was coming off a rough game against Russia. Played only two shifts and took a bad penalty in the neutral zone. Wheeler responded with his best game of the tournament. Wheeler set up Ryan McDonagh for the Americans’ fourth goal. Wheeler deserves another look.

Lead weight: Dustin Brown. Zero presence alongside Ryan Kesler and Patrick Kane. Was dropped in favor of Zach Parise. Only spare forward Derek Stepan played less in the last two periods. He’s doing little at both ends of the rink and might sit in favor of Max Pacioretty.

Numbers game: Ryan Suter played just 20:40 because of the Americans’ game-long lead. Suter played 29:56 aginst Russia yesterday. Good opportunity for the workhorse to get some rest.

Bruin involvement: None. Ex-Bruins Kessel and Wheeler, however, played a big part in the win.

US lineup:

James van Riemsdyk-Joe Pavelski-Phil Kessel

Zach Parise-Ryan Kesler-Patrick Kane

Dustin Brown-David Backes-Ryan Callahan

Blake Wheeler-Paul Stastny-T.J. Oshie

Derek Stepan

Ryan Suter-Ryan McDonagh

Brooks Orpik-Paul Martin

Cam Fowler-John Carlson

Kevin Shattenkirk

Ryan Miller

Jimmy Howard