The U.S. hockey team could have had a hard time against Slovenia on Feb. 16. After the U.S. won their latest classic Olympic hockey duel with Russia on Feb. 15, getting itself up to face Slovenia 24 hours later might have become harder than it looked. Instead, thanks to Phil Kessel's hat trick and Ryan Miller's near shutout, the Americans cruised into the Olympic quarterfinals after all with a 5-1 victory.
While four shootout goals from T.J. Oshie defined the U.S. win over Russia, three regulation goals from Kessel were all that America needed this time. Kessel scored his first two within the first five minutes, quickly ending all speculation that the USA would have a letdown.
In truth, it was the Russians that had a harder time recovering from the previous day, as they had to win another shootout to win a 1-0 battle with Slovakia. Russia will need to win a play-in game to reach the quarterfinals, while the U.S. gets to rest up after winning Group A with a perfect preliminary record. Two of those wins came by a combined 12-2 over Slovakia and Slovenia, although that was no surprise.
While only one preliminary game gave the Americans any trouble, the next few rounds will be much more difficult -- presuming the U.S. makes it through more than one more round. Their performance in Group A and their win over Russia certainly made the Americans more of a favorite in the medal rounds, although the likes of Russia, Canada, the Czech Republic and Finland can still challenge them later.
If Kessel keeps scoring and Miller and Jonathan Quick keep shutting opponents down, U.S. hockey should stay in line for its first Olympic gold medal in 34 years. First it actually has to get to the medal round, as either the Czechs or Slovakia will meet it in the quarterfinals on Feb. 19.
After a busy weekend, the Americans will savor getting two days off while its next opponent keeps playing on. However, if all goes well for the U.S. hockey team, the next weekend -- the one where the Olympic gold is awarded -- will be even busier for it.