Phil Kessel has been a goal scorer his entire life- he did it during his brief time at Minnesota as a Golden Gopher (second on the team with 18 goals and 51 points during only season at The U as a freshman), and he's done it in the NHL first with the Boston Bruins and recently with the Toronto Maple Leafs (216 career goals in 564 NHL games and is currently 2nd in the league at the break with 31 goals), so it should be no surprise he's been lighting up Sochi. Kessel leads Team USA in goals with four, and is the highest scoring player in the tournament with seven points in just three game (it should also be noted he's the second best looking Kessel playing for America this Olympics). Kessel has been flying thus far but he's not alone, as Team USA has gotten great play from their goaltending out, but it's the makeup of their forwards that gives them a distinct advantage over every other country who could win a gold medal this week.
While Team USA doesn't have the best team on paper, the advantage they have in their forward group over countries like Canada and Russia is that Team America's top nine forwards are playing similar roles to what they play in the NHL, especially their wingers. Kessel, Maple Leafs teammate and linemate James van Riemsdyk, and the guy who is arguably America's most gifted offensive player in Patrick Kane (actually, it's not even an argument) are counted on to score whether their sweaters are Red, White and Blue or their NHL teams of Toronto and Chicago. Minnesota's Zach Parise is one of the world's top wingers but not just for his scoring, as his defensive and checking abilities have been put to great use on a grind line with David Backes and Ryan Callahan that have caused problems for every opponent thus far. Parise still gets plenty of PP time so his elite scoring ability is still on display.
Kings wing Dustin Brown plays the aggitator role to a T for both LA and the USA, and he has enough scoring ability to fit in well with Kane and Canucks C Ryan Kesler. The aforementioned Callahan is another one of those "do everything" guys, who like Brown is the captain of his NHL team but not their best offensive player, yet does so many other things well he's an important presence for the Rangers and his country. Parise, Kane, Kessel, JVR, Callahan and Brown all fulfill the same roles with Team USA as they do with their NHL clubs, so there's no question about how they're going to fit in their roles or how it will affect their playing time. We know it's a seamless fit because we see it night in and night out in the NHL. Yet it still gives Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma some versatility in his lineup, as if he needs more offense he could easily swap Parise and Brown for a more lethal Parise-Kesler-Kane line, and Brown-Backes-Callahan would more than be able to hold their own.
The top three centers have played well too, especially Pavelski who is not a top line guy in San Jose thanks to Jumbo Joe Thornton, but has shown his offensive gifts playing with Kessel and JVR. Kesler is right at home as a 2nd line C here, the same role he plays so well in Vancouver, while Backes' line with Parise and Callahan is more of a 2-A than a third line, putting him a similar situation to what he does in St Louis (he's been their #1 C this season, but when Derek Roy is your #2, that doesn't give you much choice. He's a good #2 C on a Cup contender, though the Blues have been so good this year already he may be fine as their #1).
The rest of the forward group is versatile enough to give Bylsma whatever look he wants on a fourth line, and wings like former Gopher Blake Wheeler, Warroad's own TJ Oshie (did you know Oshie is from Warroad? Are you sure? Do you need to be remindied for the nine millionth time since his shoot-out heroics last Saturday? Are you really sure? I mean sure he was born in Washington state but dammit HE's FROM WARROAD DONTCHAKNOW!?!), Max Pacioretty, and center Paul Stasny have all accepted lesser roles with class and without complaint.
Team USA has its forward group locked in while a country like Canada keeps shuffling the deck because while everybody up front brings offense, most of them are being asked to play a different- and usually lesser- role than they play in the NHL. Sure the Canadians have some big guys who can skate and be physical, but they don't have players whose normal role is to hit and mix it up as well as score like a Brown, Callahan or Backes. Russia is another country with a group of high skill and speed forwards, and while it'd be nice to have Malkin, Datsyuk, Ovechkin and Kovalchuk firing away for you, you also need a line or two that can back check and play a little defense. Team USA may not have the best individual skill at forward, but their group gives them the best TEAM, and at least so far, the best advantage.
In goal, Jonathan Quick has returned to his Cup winning form and has been sensational in both of his starts, especially in the win over Russia. With Quick injured for part of the season and his Kings struggling, I thought Bylsma should have gone with Ryan Miller as his starter, but Quick has been the right call. Miller played well in a snoozer of a win over Slovania, but I'd be shocked if it's anybody but Quick between the pipes vs the Czech Republic. keeps playing like he did vs Russia and Slovakia and the defense remains solid, the Americans have to be the favorites for Gold, even with a potential semi-final showdown looming with Canada on Friday.
There hasn't been a ton of chatter about the D, which is a very good thing. John Carlson and Kevin Shattenkirk lead the American d-men with two points each, so while the offensive stats don't jump out at you, they don't have to when the forwards are playing- and scoring- this well. Team USA chose a group that can all skate, move the puck well, and are all responsible, and it's paying off with a steady performance. Former Gopher Paul Martin hasn't been on the score sheet yet but was part of the top pairing with Ryan Suter vs Slovenia, and has been a key contributor.
The Czechs will provide a test on Wednesday after dispatching Slovakia 5-3 and boast plenty of NHL talent, but this team is a far cry from the one that won gold in 98 or bronze in Torino in 2006. Though anytime you can watch a 76 year old Petr Nedved, I mean, we all win. If Quick and the defense keep playing like they have and the offense keeps rolling, Team USA shouldn't have any trouble with the Czechs.
Puck drop is Wednesday, Feb 19 at 11am Central time on
NBC Sports Network USA Network.