Certainly his season — and his career — with the Maple Leafs has been marked by inconsistency. He’s streakier than a bottle of knock-off Windex on your car’s windshield in January. He’s been a bonafide 30-goal scorer every year (with the exception of a 20-goal campaign during a lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) in Toronto, though there’s no reason he shouldn’t be scoring 40 or more every winter. If he could ditch the two-week disappearing acts, he’d be lauded with the likes of the league’s most productive players.
Where Kessel has no problem whatsoever is on the Olympic ice sheet. He scored two goals and set up another in the United States’ tournament opening drubbing of Slovakia Thursday. The Slovaks had no answer for his speed on the open ice, and apparently head coach Vladimir Vujtek never got the voicemail Bruins coach Claude Julien left for him before the tournament.
"Hey Vlady, it’s Claude. Just a heads-up. If don’t want to end up having nightmares about that kid in the No. 81 sweater, send Big Z out to shadow him on every shift. It works wonders. Best of luck, buddy.”
The wide sheet and wide corners are tailored perfectly for to Kessel’s game. He can float on the perimeter until — like a shark — he senses blood in the water and chooses to pounce on open space or loose pucks in the slot, and his speed grants him the freedom to accomplish that. In a more skilled game at the Olympic level, Kessel doesn’t have to fear the seek-and-destroy hits that are the staple of hulking NHL defensemen grinding through an 82-game schedule. Even cycling the puck down low is more about skill and speed instead of brute strength with such wide corners in Sochi.
It’s all perfect for a player like Kessel.
In a tournament predicated on transition — using speed to generate scoring chances against the most skilled players in the world — this could be Kessel’s true coming out party.
Damn you, Phil. You’re making me love you.
THE WOMEN’S SIDE: This isn’t so much a knock on the women’s game, except that it is.
Sure, I can make the argument that the absence of body checking changes the game of hockey immensely. Don’t think so? There’s a reason the makeup of the youth game changes dramatically once body checking is introduced at the age of 14 — it is the game’s focus: on being hit, on delivering hits, on taking hits while still completing skillful plays.
But I digress…
Look, when the USA and Canada lock horns in women’s hockey, I’m all in. Perhaps as proof that we don’t need violence to make a wonderful game better, their matches are as intense and exhilarating as Stanley Cup Playoff games. There’s no way around that.
The problem is the tournament itself — even with the new group play procedure introduced this year to have the best teams in one group and the weaker teams in another. There are too many cakewalks, too many lopsided games, too often the absence of any real doubt to make the women’s Olympic hockey tournament compelling.
If you can get past Pierre McGuire telling you that Amanda Kessel (there’s that name again… damn you…) and her teammates can skate as well as any men anywhere in the world — hyperbole even by McGuire’s low standards — the games just aren’t all that interesting.
It’s laughable to pretend that there is any chance any team with “USA” or “Canada” emblazoned across the front of its sweaters will appear in the gold medal game.
RIGHT ON: Speaking of the women in Sochi, stick-tap to esteemed Sports Illustrated writer Michael Farber.
Farber is the clubhouse leader for the “Tweet of #Sochi2014” thanks to this gem from the other day regarding the women’s “tournament”:
“Make it a seven-game USA-CAN series for the Putin Cup.”
How great would that be? No. Seriously. How GREAT would that be?
If you’re not following @MichaelFarber3 for Olympic hockey coverage, you’re missing out. Big-time.
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