SOCHI, Russia – Not much has changed for Phil Kessel, other than the fact that he's stealing the Olympic hockey stage.
"No difference at all," chirped U.S. roommate and linemate James van Riemsdyk. "It's still the same cranky Phil."
An endlessly static personality, Kessel continued his 2014 domination on Sunday afternoon, racking up a hat trick in the Americans final preliminary round game against Slovenia, a thorough 5-1 victory at Shayba Arena. Currently the hottest player on the planet, the 26-year-old has already strung together four goals and seven points in three games on the Olympic stage.
He entered Russian airspace in an absolute zone for the Toronto Maple Leafs, ringing up 11 goals and 27 points in the final 15 games (11 wins) before the Olympic break. In fact, no NHL player has more points since January 1 than the reluctant Madison, Wisconsin-born star.
Kessel is the epitome of the never-high, never-low sports cliché, quiet and introverted in times both good and bad. Rooming during these Olympics with his Toronto linemate van Riemsdyk, Kessel has been consuming the Friday Night Lights TV series on his iPad during off-time from the rink.
"We haven't really had much dialogue in the room except when he wants to chirp me now and again," said van Riemsdyk with a laugh. "It's been fun though."
American teammate Ryan Suter grew up in the same Wisconsin hometown as Kessel and said not much has changed. "Quiet," said Suter, whose father Bob coached Kessel as a kid. "The same as he is now. Doesn't talk much. Goal scorer. He was always scoring goals."
But perhaps never like this.
During his first test on the Olympic stage four years ago, Kessel had just a goal and an assist in six games. But from that point he has noticeably evolved into a more complete player and person.
"Just more mature," Suter said. "I think he's more comfortable with himself. I think in 2010 he was kind of a little hesitant to talk or to try things and now he's comfortable with where he is and he's making a lot of good plays."
"Obviously it's a great honour to play for your country and it's always exciting," said Kessel. "I'm happy to be here."
Silver medalists in Vancouver, Team USA's chances for gold in Sochi only rise higher with Kessel locked into this kind of zone. They wrapped up Group A with the win over Slovenia after beating the Russians in a shootout just a day earlier.
Kessel played a large part in that, scoring his second hat trick in February (he had one for the Leafs on Feb. 1). The second of his three markers was a watch, rewind and watch again type of goal, the kind only a sniper with his natural gifts could score.
Joe Pavelski, the third member of a highly productive third line trio for the Americans, was driving just right of the Slovenian goal when he flipped a pass from almost behind the net to his scorching linemate, charging hard left. Employing the hand-eye coordination of a baseball player, Kessel batted the puck – mid-air – behind helpless keeper Luka Gracnar.
"Just get him the puck," said van Riemsdyk. "That's pretty much it, get him the puck and let him do his thing."
"He's always been a good player," added Suter. "He's always been a goal scorer. He's always been quick, explosive. He's doing all the things that he should do. He has all the tools. He's putting them together."