Meanwhile, U.S. men's Olympic hockey team and Kessel on fire

Team USA winger Phil Kessel scored a natural hat trick against Slovenia during their men's...

Team USA winger Phil Kessel scored a natural hat trick against Slovenia during their men's preliminary hockey game at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Feb. 16, 2014. (JIM YOUNG/Reuters)

Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:24 PM ET

SOCHI, RUSSIA - While Canada continues to spin the Wheel of Chemistry in search of some forward combinations, the Americans seem to be doing just fine.

Toronto Maple Leafs linemates Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk have been building on their familiarity, with Joe Pavelski added to the mix at the Winter Games. Kessel bagged a hat trick — including two goals in the first five minutes — in the USA’s 5-1 win over Slovenia on Sunday.

The win gave the U.S. first place in Group A and a spot in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. The Americans will face the winner of the qualification game Tuesday between Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Kessel is leading the Olympic tournament in scoring after the preliminary round with seven points on four goals and three assists.

“I’m playing with great players, so they always make you better out there,” said Kessel. “They made some good plays.

“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.”

American forward David Backes said he’s liked what Kessel and some of his teammates have shown off the ice, too.

“I don’t think it’s just him, I think it’s all the guys,” Backes said. “I’ve been really impressed with the maturity level as characters, as people off the ice and as players on the ice. Everyone’s really had a lot of growth in their personal lives and in the poise they’re showing on the ice and he’s no exception.

“He’s a guy that’s grown as a person and shown on the ice that he can handle big-time situations. He’s a player that’s out there and making plays all the time. He’s got composure, doesn’t get rattled when someone’s in his face and that growth’s great for our Team USA chances ... but I’ll have to play him in the NHL and give him some bumps there, too.”

Pavelski is a great two-way player, which allows Kessel and van Riemsdyk a little more offensive room.

“Joe has been maybe the best offensive player for the U.S. in the first four months of the season, certainly has been the hottest of late. He’s also one of our more responsible forwards in the middle of the ice,” said Team USA coach Dan Bylsma.

“To be able to put that kind of skill and responsibility between James van Riemsdyk and Phil was something we kind of pegged early on. They’ve had some great chemistry. They’ve provided that skill. Joe on the pivot is providing that for that group.”

Russia slipped into the qualification pool when it beat Slovakia 1-0 in overtime, costing the host team another point — wins in regulation time are worth three points and OT wins are worth two at the Olympics.

Russia will now play Norway on Tuesday. The winner faces Finland in a quarterfinal.

“Playing is better than training,” said Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk. “We’ll go out and focus. Now we can’t lose, all the games could bring elimination.”

“In principle, it makes no difference,” said Russian winger Alex Ovechkin. “Each team is now in the peak of its form. Of course, we’d want to play one match less, but this way we’ll stay in good form.”

The Slovaks have had a rough tournament at 0-2-1, including a loss to Slovenia, giving that country it’s first Olympic hockey victory.

The Slovaks were encouraged by the way they played Sunday against Russia.

“You always have a chance in this tournament,” said Slovak captain Zdeno Chara. “I guess no matter what you do in your first two games, you can still move along if you win that do-or-die game.

“We have to get ready for that and play our best hockey.”

In the other game on Sunday, Austria beat Norway 3-1. Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders continued his strong tournament with two goals and an assist for Austria. He has five goals in three games.

Austria faces Slovenia in the qualification round on Tuesday, with the winner drawing Sweden.

The other qualification game pits Switzerland against Latvia. Canada meets the winner of that contest.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: CJ_Stevenson


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