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Shoalts: Resurgent Leafs can thank its Sochi-bound Americans

Toronto Maple Leafs players Phil Kessel (left) and James van Riemsdyk (right) are introduced as members of the U.S. Olympic hockey team after the 2014 Winter Classic hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium.

Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports

Toronto Maple Leafs fans may or may not care about this, but two-thirds of the hottest line on their team just might bring the United States a gold medal at the Sochi Olympics in a few weeks.

In their past 11 games, which have seen the Leafs rattle off nine wins, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and centre Tyler Bozak combined for 44 points. This was capped by Saturday's come-from-behind 6-3 win over the Ottawa Senators, in which Kessel scored three goals and added an assist to give him 30 goals for the fifth time in his seven NHL seasons.

Since Kessel, 26, and van Riemsdyk, 24, are sure to play together for the USA when the Olympic men's hockey tournament starts next week, they could not be blamed for any day dreams about reversing the result from the 2010 Vancouver Games, in which Canada won the gold medal over the Americans in overtime.

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"I hadn't thought of it that way," van Riemsdyk said. "Obviously that's a bit different, a different team, but yeah, we want to be playing our best when we get over there."

But van Riemsdyk admitted there have already been idle fantasies about trying to fast-track Bozak, a Regina native, for U.S. citizenship to import the entire line to Sochi. "Some people were actually tweeting that to me," he said with a laugh.

For now, though, van Riemsdyk said, he's happy just having fun playing with Kessel and Bozak and seeing the Leafs hang around the top four in the NHL's Eastern Conference standing. He has 12 points in those past 11 games, while Bozak has 11. The real marvel, though, is Kessel, whose four points against the Sens gave him 21 in 11 games.

No matter what happens in Sochi, the Leafs' woes in December and early January, in which they lost 12 of 19 games, are a distant memory thanks to Kessel lighting up opposition goaltenders. Kessel, who gave one of his rare media scrums after the Senators game (which prompted Bozak to say, "He's talking? Four points and he talks."), did not offer any theories for his recent success.

But Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul thinks it has to do with Kessel's work in the offensive zone.

"He's really playing well because of how he's competing on pucks down low," Lupul said. "He's protecting the puck. He's been doing that for a while now; it makes him really effective."

On Kessel's second goal against Ottawa, a power-play marker, he used his speed to grab the puck and wheel across the left faceoff circle. As he reached the top of the circle, Kessel snapped a sizzling wrist shot through a crowd to the top corner of the Senators net.

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Then, after Bozak set him up in front of the net to complete his hat trick, Kessel returned the favour four minutes later, feeding Bozak from the end boards for the insurance goal. It was the sort of play that belies Kessel's reputation as a sniper, one that raised his assists this season to 31 to go with his 30 goals in 57 games.

"With Phil, he's been classed as this one type of player," Carlyle said. "We think he's got more of an all-around ability, too. He can distribute the pick; he can find people. He can do a lot more things than just shoot."

While Kessel was projected as a potential 50-goal scorer when he was taken fifth overall in the 2006 NHL entry draft by the Boston Bruins, his best total so far was 37 for the Leafs in 2011-12. His teammates are not making any bold predictions, but they are well aware Kessel has 25 games left in the season to hit the magic number, something that is not out of the question if his current pace continues.

"It's hard to really put a limit on it, he can get so streaky," Bozak said. "Three goals [Saturday], who knows next game? You never know with him.

"I definitely wouldn't doubt him getting 40 goals by any means."

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