PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- The puck bounced off the Russian goalie and onto Amanda Kessel’s stick, and suddenly it was like old times again.
Kessel, the 5-foot-6 firebrand out of Madison, Wisconsin, shoved the puck into the back of the net, putting Team USA up 1-0 in an eventual 7-0 win over Russia in pool play Saturday at the IIHF Women’s World Championship, which is taking place this week in Plymouth, Michigan.
“It was a big goal for us,” Kessel said, “and I was just happy to help out in any way.”
It was a big goal for Kessel, too.
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Four years ago, she was the hottest young player in the sport, an electrifying talent who won the Patty Kazmaier Award while leading the Minnesota Golden Gophers to an undefeated season and second consecutive NCAA title in 2013.
That led to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, where Kessel scored three goals and added three assists in five games, finishing tied for third overall in scoring and with a silver medal around her neck.
Even as older brother Phil Kessel was chugging along as a perennial 30-goal scorer in the NHL, Amanda was making a strong case for being the best offensive talent in the family.
And at 22, she was only just getting started.
Then everything stopped.
Symptoms from a concussion suffered prior to the Sochi Games never fully went away. Kessel took time off after the Games. Then one season away from the Gophers to prepare for Sochi led to another season away, this time for injury. The list of national team call ups on her bio stopped at 2014.
Her last international goal, a chip past Sweden’s goalie in the Olympic semifinal on Feb. 17, 2014, became more and more distant.
And then she scored again on Saturday.
“My gosh, anybody that’s watched her closely, you love her heart out there,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said. “She’s playing with passion and she’s aggressive and she’s tiny and she’s small, but she gives her heart every shift.
“I just, I’m happy for her. You can see this player who is happy and enjoying this environment.”
Kessel, in her typical understated fashion, concurred.
“It’s just fun,” she said. “It’s great being around my teammates.”
Kessel, who has one goal and three assists with a plus-2 rating going into Thursday’s semifinal tilt with Germany, is slowly but surely working her way back into the forefront of the U.S. team. Only five players have more points than her so far at the world championships, and three of them have played an extra game.
It’s all a far cry from 18 months ago, when she was simply working up the energy to walk.
With her symptoms still lingering, Kessel’s doctor recommended exercise. So in September 2015, she began with cardio, 30 minutes at a time.
“Whether it was walking, biking, elliptical, I usually did some sort of mixture of that,” she said. “Even for me, walking on a treadmill was fun because I hadn’t done anything.”
Within a few weeks, she was skating on her own. And in February, she rejoined the Gophers to complete her long-delayed senior season, a campaign that finished with another national title — the championship-winning goal coming off Kessel’s stick.
“The doctor knew what he was doing,” Kessel said. “Exercise is what got me over the edge for sure.”
The final boxes in Kessel’s comeback were checked off in December, when she returned to the national team for a two-game series against Canada, and this week, when she got back on the score sheet.
In the meantime, the 25-year-old moved to Union City, New Jersey, last year to join the New York Riveters in the National Women’s Hockey League, where she said she finally felt like she rounded back into her old form — a sentiment her teammates confirm.
“It’s still the same exact dynamic, powerful, dangerous player,” U.S. teammate Gigi Marvin said.
Now Kessel’s focus is on continuing her strong play against Germany and, hopefully, in Friday’s championship game. After that, Kessel said, her comeback can truly be called a success when she’s on the ice at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
“That’s top goal for sure,” she said, “making the team, but more importantly helping to win a gold medal.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.