Maple Leafs top line wingers switch focus to Sochi
With the NHL's Olympic break now underway, Maple Leafs top line wingers - Right winger Phil Kessel and left winger James van Riemsdyk - can shift their focus to the task at hand - winning the first Olympic gold medal for Team USA since the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.
One intriguing question remains as to whether head coach Dan Bylsma will choose to play the two on the same line.
It is quite clear that Van Riemsdyk, who says he has not been informed of any line combinations, would like the opportunity to stick with Kessel.
"If you are playing with a guy for a long time and you have that continuity, you can bring out the best in each other and make each other even better players," said van Riemsdyk Saturday evening after the Maple Leafs 3-1 victory over the Canucks. "I enjoy playing with Phil and I think he helps bring out the best in my game and it's fun playing with him."
Kessel, a member of the 2010 U.S. team that ended up with a silver medal after losing to Canada in the final, will be heading to his second Olympics while van Riemsdyk will compete for the first time.
"Our first and foremost priority is bringing home a gold medal but you're part of something much bigger than yourself," van Riemsdyk said. "One of the highest levels of sport you can play at is the Olympics so it's a huge thrill and I'm going to be with a guy who I play with day in and day out and it should be fun."
Kessel, now fourth in the league in scoring with 31 goals and 34 assists, seems to flourish when there is a sense of familiarity.
In the 20 games since close friend and centreman Tyler Bozak returned from his second extended absence due to injury this season - Kessel has recorded 30 of his 75 points this season.
Having his other linemate on this Olympic journey will be a welcomed bonus.
"It's nice to have James there, obviously he's a good friend and its nice to have him over there to hang out with," said Kessel. "I think we might end up playing over there together but you never know."
The two will bringing plenty of movies and TV shows to pass the time and plan on taking some of the other events. They will fly out of Newark, N.J. on Sunday - Team USA will first see action against Slovakia on Feb. 13.
On Saturday the duo were front and centre, scoring goals 2:02 apart in the third period - the difference in the game versus the reeling Canucks.
Kessel scored what turned out to the be the game winning goal on a wrist shot from just inside the Canucks blueline to break a 1-1 tie at 10:03 of the third period, he would add an assist on JVR's insurance marker a couple of minutes later.
Kessel's goal also avenged an incident earlier in the game when he was given a high cross check to the upper-chest preceded by a high stick to the face from Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows.
A brief skirmish followed which was quickly quashed by the referees.
The win improved the Maple Leafs record to 11-2-2 in their last 15 games.
Captain Dion Phaneuf gave a glowing send off to his Sochi-bound teammates from the United States when asked about their performance this season.
"They are one of the hottest lines in the league for a reason," said Phaneuf. "Obviously, JVR and Phil are a big parts on the wings, they can really skate and Bozie (centreman Tyler Bozak) does a great job of supporting that group and I think that whole line has been a big part of the success that we've had the last six weeks and the whole year."