SOCHI, Russia – No player entered the Olympics on more of a roll than Phil Kessel.
And that scorching performance kept right on going on the grand stage here in Sochi. Kessel scored once and added two assists as the Americans opened their bid at gold redemption with a 7-1 rout of Slovakia at Shayba Arena.
"He's on fire," said Leaf and American teammate James van Riemsdyk, who had two assists paired with Kessel and Joe Pavelski at the outset of the Olympic tournament.
"The game I think is coming to him really easy right now. He's working hard, creating a lot and he seems to be on fire."
Kessel has been downright dominant since the calendar turned to 2014.
The 26-year-old has a league-leading 28 points since Jan. 1 (John Tavares is second with 22), vaulting to fourth in NHL scoring with 65 points, also second behind Alex Ovechkin with 31 goals. Sizzling through the hottest stretch of his NHL career, he led the Leafs to 11 wins in 14 games before the Olympic break.
"He's a game-breaker, does a lot of things out there that a lot of guys can't do," van Riemsdyk said of Kessel shortly after landing in Russia.
Kessel has, in one game mind you, exceeded the production he managed in totality at his first Olympics in Vancouver. Then just 22, he managed a mere two points (one goal, one assist) in six games as the US fell just short of gold, losing in overtime of the gold medal game. "Obviously that was a long time ago the last one," said Kessel of 2010. "I'm a little older now."
Dropping a pass to John Carlson for the game's first goal, Kessel notched his first marker of the tournament on a doorstep feed from van Riemsdyk. He added a helper on the fourth American goal from David Backes.
Van Riemsdyk, his linemate and roommate here in Sochi, fully expected to be nervous when his first-ever Olympic tilt kicked off, but said the nerves cooled being around the increasingly steady Kessel.
"I don't know if he knows he's doing it, but he keeps it very light," said van Riemsdyk.
"The bigger the stage, I think that's when his true colours come out. It shows how good of a player he can be."