SOCHI, Russia - Phil Kessel is the hottest hockey player in this solar system or the next.
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Not Sidney Crosby, not Alex Ovechkin, not Pavel Datsyuk, not even American hero T.J. Oshie, can match the eye-catching numbers Kessel has put up in the past month.
Kessel scored three goals, giving him four for the tournament, to lift the U.S. men's Olympic team to 5-1 win that will give the Americans (3-0) a bye into the quarterfinals.
"He's a guy who has grown on the ice and he has shown he can handle the big-time situations," USA center David Backes said. "He is out there making plays all of the time. He's got composure. He doesn't get rattled when someone is in his face. That growth is great for our team."
The Americans will be the No. 2 seed going into the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
The speedy Kessel came into the Olympics with a sizzling run of 10 goals and 13 assists in his last 12 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He also registered a goal and an assist in his first game against Slovakia and an assist against Russia, meaning Kessel has 14 goals and 16 assists in his past 15 games. Those are Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux numbers.
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"He's a guy who is pouring them in the net and when you have a guy like that, you ride him as long as you can," Backes said.
U.S. coach Dan Bylsma is using Kessel on the right wing with his regular Toronto linemate James van Riemsdyk on the left and the San Jose Sharks' Joe Pavelski at center. Kessel played with Pavelski on the 2010 team.
"You just have to come over here and do the best you can to win," Kessel said.
Coming into the tournament, it was thought that Phil might not even be the highest-scoring Kessel in the tournament because his sister, Amanda, is a key forward for the U.S. women's team. Going into the men's quarterfinals and women's semifinals, Phil has a 7-4 lead over Amanda in points. She has two goals and two assists.
The Americans were pleased with the win, but they know they will have to be sharper moving forward into the quarterfinals. They didn't have the same jump they had against the Russians. That was predictable because of the emotion and intensity they needed to take down the Russians 3-2 in overtime.
"We have a hunger to win and so far it's going our way," said U.S. captain Zach Parise.
The Americans have outscored three opponents by a 14-4 margin. That plus-10 goal differential could be important, depending upon what happens in the Canada-Finland game.
General manager David Poile built his roster around the idea that he wanted to put together a great team and not a collection of the 20 best players. He seems to have accomplished that objective.
"We have some guys stepping up and scoring goals, and we have some guys blocking shots," said Oshie, whose playing time swelled to 14 minutes after being the shootout hero against Russia.
Oshie didn't play in the later stages of the game against Russia, but he was called upon six times in the shootout because his success in that event was one reason he was added to the team.
"We got role players, we have highlight-reel players, we have top-notch goaltenders," Oshie said.
The win means the Americans get to rest before the quarterfinals.
"We have played three games in four days and have done a lot of traveling to get here," Kane said. "We have a couple of days off now and that will give us time to get ready for the quarterfinals."
Ryan Miller got the start in net over Jonathan Quick, an expected move because the Americans were playing back-to-back games. Miller, the hero of USA's 2010 silver medal run, made 17 saves.
"I don't know if he's the best goalie, but he is always in my fantasy team hockey lineup," said Slovenia forward Marcel Rodman.
Quick is expected to be back in net when the Americans enter the medal round.
Despite appearing to have tired legs, the Americans were able to hold a plucky Slovenia to a handful of scoring chances.
"I think we only had eight scoring chances," said Slovenia goalie Luka Gracnar. "And Miller was very solid today."
Ryan McDonagh and David Backes also scored for the Americans, while Pavelski added three assists.
Said Pavelski: "It's good he (Kessel) is on my side now."
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