Russia forced into must-win hockey game

DAVID PACE Associated Press Published:

SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- Phil Kessel is the first American in more than a decade to score a hat trick in an Olympic hockey tournament.

He's more interested in something no American has accomplished on Olympic ice since 1980 -- winning a gold medal.

Kessel scored two of his three goals within the opening five minutes to lead the U.S. to a 5-1 win against Slovenia on Sunday. The U.S. is undefeated through three games and if it can win three more, the nation will celebrate its first Olympic championship in hockey since the "Miracle on Ice" at the Lake Placid Games.

"It's about the wins, right?" Kessel asked, rhetorically. "We just want to win games."

No members of Team USA was alive when the U.S. beat the Soviet Union in 1980 in one of the biggest upsets in sports history. But if they end up with gold around their neck on Sunday, this title won't be regarded as a miracle.

Kessel and his teammates earned an automatic spot in the quarterfinals of the 12-team tournament by routing Slovenia and Slovakia, and outlasting Russia in a shootout, to finish atop their group. They've scored 15 and allowed only four goals so far.

Kessel scored 1:04 after the puck dropped, removing any thought the Americans would have a hangover after their much hyped victory against the host Russians on Saturday.

"I was certainly concerned after the emotional game," said coach Dan Bylsma. "We were fortunate that we got right out of the gate with a couple great plays."

Kessel's third goal midway through the second period made him the first U.S. player to score a hat trick at the Olympics since John LeClair did it on Feb. 15, 2002, against Finland.

"I was saying right before the game, I hope somebody does something pretty cool, so that some of the focus gets off of me and onto someone else," said T.J. Oshie, who scored on four of six attempts in an eight-round shootout against Russia. "He didn't need six shots in the shootout to do it. He did it in regular time."

Slovenia's Marcel Rodman scored with 17.6 seconds left in the game, denying U.S. goalie Ryan Miller a shutout. Miller made 17 saves in his Sochi debut.

"Yeah, I definitely had some nerves," Miller said. "It was an important game to ensure that we're at the top of our pool."

With plenty of support at the other end of the rink, the 2010 silver medal winner didn't need to worry.

"They were stronger on the puck," Slovenia coach Matjaz Kopitar said. "They're strong. They're fast."

Ryan McDonagh scored about a minute after Kessel's third goal to put the Americans up 4-0. David Backes gave them a five-goal cushion early in the third.

Kessel is the first American to score four goals in the three-game preliminary round of the Olympic tournament since Bill Cleary and Roger Christian in 1960. Fittingly, the native of Madison, Wis., and his teammates were sporting throwback jerseys in the style Cleary and Christian wore at the games in Squaw Valley -- "USA" from right shoulder to left hip.

"We've got grit and determination throughout the lineup, but that's the type of speed and skill we need," Bylsma said.

The U.S. also has two goalies, Quick and Miller, who are potentially great, and a good one in Jimmy Howard. Who will be in net for the quarterfinals, when it's win-or-go-home?

"I'm not going to tell you that now," Bylsma said after Sunday's game.

Luka Gracnar made 23 saves for Slovenia, who play in the qualification-playoff round Tuesday after beating Slovakia and losing to the U.S. and Russia.

Even if Slovenia doesn't win another game, it has been a successful appearance for a country that earned a surprising spot in the Olympic hockey tournament for the first time.

Slovenia has just one NHL player, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, and he didn't play in the third period of Sunday's game because flu-like symptoms, according to his father and coach.

"He don't feel good, because he has something with the stomach," Matjaz Kopitar said. "He didn't feel well. He was without the power. Hopefully, he's going to be better."

Slovenia was also without another key player, forward Sabahudin Kovacevic, who was suspended for one game for swinging his left elbow and landing it on the head of Slovakia's Tomas Kopecky.

ALPINE SKIING: Jansrud continued Norway's dominance in super-G, outracing two Americans and a Canadian for the Scandinavian country's fifth gold in the event in the past seven games. Andrew Weibrecht earned the silver medal, while American teammate Bode Miller and Jan Hudec of Canada tied for bronze. It was Miller's sixth Olympic medal, moving him two behind all-time Alpine leader Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway. At 36, Miller is the oldest Alpine skier to medal.

SNOWBOARDING: Samkova won the women's snowboardcross, the first gold of the games for the Czech Republic. Samkova led from start to finish in all three qualifying and elimination races. Lindsey Jacobellis of the U.S. crashed while leading her semifinal, the third straight disappointing Olympic finish for the eight-time X Games winner. Jacobellis had gold in hand in Turin in 2006 only to fall with a big lead in the final while attempting a fancy grab. She recovered for silver. Four years ago in Vancouver, she washed out early in her semifinal run.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Sweden's win in the 4x10-kilometer relay came one day after the Swedish women had won gold in the same race. No country has won both relays since the old Soviet Union did it 42 years ago. Swedish anchor Marcus Hellner skied alone for the entire fourth leg and grabbed a Swedish flag to wave as he entered the stadium. Russia took silver in front of President Vladimir Putin. France finished third.

SPEEDSKATING: Jorien ter Mors earned the gold in the Dutch sweep of the women's 1,500. Pre-race favorite Ireen Wust settled for silver, with bronze going to Lotte van Beek. If there had been a medal for fourth place, the Dutch would have won that, too, with Marrit Leenstra finishing just after Van Beek. Ter Mors turned in a stunning time of 1 minute, 53.51 seconds, an Olympic record and the second-fastest ever at sea level.

CURLING: Sweden and Canada became the first men's teams to qualify for the semifinals. Norway, Britain and China are battling for the other two spots. The Swedes and Canadians also advanced to the semifinals in the women's tournament. China, Britain, Switzerland and Japan still have a chance for the remaining two semifinal spots.

HOCKEY: Canada defeated Finland 2-1 in overtime, while Austria won its first men's Olympic hockey game in a dozen years, defeating Norway 3-1. In the women's preliminaries, Finland topped Germany 2-1 and Russia beat Japan 6-2. All four had already been eliminated from medal contention.

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