Phil Kessel’s hat trick helps send Team USA straight to quarterfinals

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SOCHI, Russia — 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 were 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.

The U.S. won’t play again until Wednesday, when it will  face the winner of the Czech Republic’s qualification-round game against Slovakia for a spot in the semifinals and the chance to play for medals.

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.”

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