By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Phil Kessel took a minute to open the scoring and went on to record a natural hat-trick as the United States beat Slovenia 5-1 on Sunday to secure a bye into the quarter-finals of the men's ice hockey tournament at the Sochi Games.
Kessel opened the scoring 63 seconds into the game when he sped into the Slovenian zone and used a nifty deke to beat the defenseman before sliding it home.
He added another a little over three minutes later when he swatted a Joe Pavelski pass from behind the goal line out of mid-air and into the Slovenian net.
Kessel scored a third consecutive goal to complete a natural hat trick when he pounced on a rebound near the Slovenian crease just past the game's midway point.
"I'm playing with some great players who help you along," Kessel told reporters. "But it's not about me it's about the win. We can still improve more and we have to get a lot better."
Ryan McDonagh and David Backes also scored for the United States to squash any hopes of a comeback by a Slovenian team making their first appearance in an Olympic men's competition.
The win concluded the three-game preliminary round for the undefeated United States, who advance to the quarter-finals by virtue of winning Group A.
Slovenia, who spoiled U.S. netminder Ryan Miller's shutout bid when Marcel Rodman scored with 18 seconds left, will play a qualification game on Tuesday against an as-yet undetermined opponents with a berth in the quarter-finals on the line.
Slovenia were also playing without key forward Sabahudin Kovacevic, who was banned from his team's final preliminary game for elbowing an opponent in the head.
The quick start to Sunday's game for the United States was a clear sign that the team was not suffering any hangover from Saturday's emotional win over Russia.
After a week of intense build-up to a game that was being dubbed by many as a rematch of the "Miracle on Ice" from the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, the Americans escaped a fast-paced and hard-hitting game with a 3-2 win after triumphing in a wild eight-round shootout.
"Usually a game after that, that's that intense, sometimes maybe you can have a letdown the next night," said U.S. forward Patrick Kane.
"But that wasn't the case, especially with Phil making some really nice plays on the first couple goals."
The 2010 silver medalists have been one of the best teams in Sochi and have come together really quickly, something that is key for a tournament played over 12 days.
But despite the routine win to cap the preliminary round, the American players were talking like a team that can still kick it up a notch or two.
"Everybody knows they have a little bit better to give. There are areas we can improve for sure," said McDonagh.
"Defensively we did a good job containing them tonight. I think special teams are going to be huge down the end stretch."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)