Saturday, January 1, 2005
Kessel explodes onto world stage
By Scott Burnside Special to ESPN.com
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Hockey world, meet Phil Kessel. Phil Kessel, the stage is yours.
On a night when U.S. junior team goaltender Al Montoya took a major step toward redemption, an emphatic 8-2 victory over Sweden in the quarterfinal of the World Junior Championship belonged to Kessel.
Phil Kessel and his U.S. teammates sent the Swedes home without a medal.
The U.S. National Team Development Program standout, who just turned 17 in October, was simply spectacular, scoring three times, twice on breathtaking individual rushes, and adding an assist as the Americans earned a berth in Sunday night's semifinal versus Russia (8:30 ET, ESPN2).
"I wasn't surprised with what happened tonight. The kid's a world-class player. He's been a world-class player at every level he's been at," said U.S. assistant coach Dave Quinn, who coached Kessel with the USNTDP last year. "He changed the course of the game. His first two goals, we had Phil Kessel and they didn't."
When it comes to 17-year-old sensations, Canada's Sidney Crosby has cornered the market on headlines and airtime at this tournament. Yet for sheer drama and artistic value, Kessel's virtuoso performance Saturday has not been equaled thus far. As for his timing, impeccable pretty much covers it.
After losing consecutive games to the Czech Republic and Belarus, the U.S. team bore little resemblance to the confident group that began the tournament 2-0 and hopes of repeating last year's gold-medal win in Finland seemed bleak. Things didn't start well against the Swedes either, as Loui Eriksson scored on a 3-on-1 just 4:12 into the game for a 1-0 lead.
It appeared as though Kessel had tied the game midway through the period, but surprise starter in the Swedish net, David Rautio Berguv, reached behind him just as the puck crossed the line and the goal was waved off.
Exactly a minute later, Kessel charged in on Berguv and knocked a misplayed puck into the slot where linemate Kevin Porter deposited the puck in an empty net to tie the game.
Early in the second with the U.S. leading, 2-1, Kessel delivered his first highlight reel goal -- and the game-winner -- on an end-to-end rush that included a virtual undressing of defenseman Johan Fransson followed by a neat flick shot through Berguv's legs.
After the Swedes had closed the gap to 3-2 midway through the second, and the Americans were again showing signs of melting down, turning the puck over and allowing odd-man rushes, it was again Kessel to the rescue. Blazing down the right side early in the third period, Kessel hopped past defender Per Savilahti-Nagander and beat Berguv with a nifty shot from the far side.
The goal seemed to break the Swedes' spirit as the U.S. went on to score four more times in the third, including Kessel's third marker off a rebound.
"It's unbelievable playing with Phil," said Porter. "You just get him the puck in the defensive zone and he skates down and scores, you don't do anything else."
At the outset of the tournament, it appeared that Kessel's role would be similar to that filled by Sidney Crosby at last year's World Junior Championship -- play a little, learn a lot.
Even though he'd been a standout at last year's Under-18 world tournament, tying for the tournament scoring lead in a limited role, Kessel had tallied only one goal and one assist through the first four games of this tournament. But after Chris Bourque was lost to a knee injury in Wednesday's loss to Belarus, Kessel has seen more and more ice time and has been moved on a line with Porter and tournament veteran Patrick O'Sullivan. Saturday, a must-win game for the U.S., Kessel also found himself playing the point during the power play.
"We pretty much knew he was going to be a big part of our team before this whole tournament started. Did we know he'd be this big? I kind of had a gut feeling he would be but I wasn't sure but I sure am now," said Quinn.
In terms of impact, Quinn suggested Kessel's importance to this team ranks alongside that of a 17-year-old Brian Leetch in 1986.
"The thing about [Kessel], he's a kid. I mean, he really is a 17-year-old kid. I think he's oblivious to pretty much what's going on right now. He just goes out and plays and he doesn't let the fact that he's a younger kid intimidate him," Quinn said. "I've been saying ever since the minute I laid eyes on him last year, when I first had him, he's special. Those guys don't come around very often. I'm glad we got him."
Earlier in the tournament, Quinn told USA Today that Kessel has the chance to be the Americans' Sidney Crosby, but that he might not yet have a sense of how good he is or could become.
"He may know tonight. He may know now," Quinn said.
Kessel, looking far more diminutive than the six feet he is listed at in the USA Hockey media guide, immediately dismisses any comparisons to Crosby, the consensus pick to be the No. 1 pick in the next NHL draft.
"No, he's the best there is, you know. He's a great player. He's just the best," Kessel said.
As Kessel continued to answer questions after the game, shifting from foot to foot nervously, a passing Porter stopped on his way to the U.S. locker room.
"Go easy on him," Porter joked to the collected media. "He's just a little kid."
Little kid, big night. Even bigger future?
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.