Though the 2014 Olympics are technically Vladimir Putin's, the hockey tournament seems to belong to Phil Kessel. A hat trick in Team USA's 5-1 win over Slovenia helps put Kessel atop the tournament leaderboard with seven points.
Few players bring about as wide a range of opinions as Kessel, but there always has been one indisputable truth about the Toronto Maple Leafs star wing: He scores goals. A lot of goals and now he's scoring goals at the Olympics.
Kessel's first goal Sunday came in highlight-reel fashion, dicing through a Slovenian defender who must have enjoyed the cool breeze in Kessel's wake. The next came by batting the puck out of the air, another terrific play. The last was an easy rebound tap-in. It just goes to show that the best scorers can find a lot of ways to put the puck in the net.
This game wasn't always pretty for the U.S., but it was Kessel's line with Joe Pavelski and James van Riemsdyk that continually generated chances when Team USA seemed most listless. That's been the story for all three games. Even when the U.S. is struggling, this line needs only one shift to provide some spark.
As Team USA's only line overloaded for offensive purposes, it's what they were expected to do and with Kessel being the most productive member of Team USA heading into the Olympics, even more was expected of him.
So far, the Madison, Wis., native has delivered. He opened the tournament with a one-goal, two-assist performance against Slovakia and had an assist against Russia. Then Sunday's hat trick put him in the tournament point lead.
This Olympics is affording Kessel an opportunity, maybe one he doesn't even care about, to flip the script on his perception.
It seems no matter how many goals he scores in the NHL, Kessel can't do enough. It was only last season when many a column was penned suggesting the Maple Leafs cut ties with Kessel.
This year, he's the second-leading goal-scorer in the NHL (31) and is fourth in points (65), all while playing in one of the NHL's highest-pressure markets as an inconsistent team's most consistent player.
Questioning Kessel actually predates his NHL career. He was viewed as a first-overall pick potential player going into the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, but fell to fifth, where he was picked by the Boston Bruins.
From then on, he's had everything from his character to his physique questioned. That only intensified when Brian Burke sent Boston two first-round picks as part of a package to acquire Kessel for the Leafs.
Since joining Toronto, only four players have more goals than Kessel in the NHL -- Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry and Patrick Marleau (who beats Kessel by one). It seems this season, Kessel is beginning to be appreciated for what he is -- one of the game's elite offensive players, even if everyone is not buying it.
The fact that his defense is questionable, though not nearly the no-show he's made out to be, is not completely moot, but it's close. You have to score goals to win and few do it better than Kessel.
Now he's the leading scorer in a best-on-best tournament, again the most consistent source of offense on an inconsistent team in the highest-pressure event in hockey, right up there with the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The last time Kessel was at the Olympics, he had only two points with his only goal coming against Norway and was rather inconsistent. He's four years older and wiser -- and definitely four years better.
He's hitting the Olympics in what could be the best season of his career and he's carried that play while playing for his country.
Part of that has to be because he's still on a line with Maple Leafs teammate van Riemsdyk. The duo, which has posted 112 points in NHL play this season, just clicks. The pair normally plays with Tyler Bozak, a fine center, but in the Olympics are working with another one of the league's best producers -- Joe Pavelski -- and it all clicks. Without Kessel as the closer, though, it probably wouldn't work as well.
The U.S. now heads into the quarterfinals with the tournament's top producer and a line it can throw out in must-score situations in those more tightly-contested elimination games.
While Kessel's preliminary-round production will look great even when the tournament is over, if he doesn't keep it up in the medal round, the detractors will persist.
The next few days give the U.S. an opportunity to do some big things in this tournament once again, but it also gives Kessel his biggest stage to show the world that he's one of its best players.