by SENShobo on 01/16/09 at 06:34 PM ET
Wednesday marks the final slate of games before the All-Star break. While the All-Star game gets much of the attention, for fans of the sport itself, Saturday will provide a good dose of skill and even some excitement, if it’s executed well. I look forward to witnessing the excitement up close and personal in a week.
Without a doubt, the introduction of the Breakaway Challenge last year had a lot of people (players included) scratching their heads as the League attempted to duplicate the gasp-worthy athletics and style of the NBA Slam Dunk contest. This year, however, players seem to be taking the event a little more (ie. less) seriously.
That, contradiction or not, is what will give you reason to watch, even if it’s after the fact on YouTube. Already, the competitors are getting ready to put on a show, as the video will show.
In Atlanta, there was much fanfare surrounding the introduction of the shootout (Youtube footage of full event: Part 1, Part 2). Celebrities with local appeal were lined up to judge the event: Taylor Kitsch of the popular tv series Friday Night Lights, Bill Clement, a member of the Atlanta Flames (and Calgary Flames), former Thrashers captain (and hard-to-impress judge) Scott Mellanby, and former Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins, participant in five NBA Slam Dunk contests, winner of two, including a win in ‘85 over Michael Jordan.
The players had hopefully, but not obviously, watched the guide video as to what was expected of them in this unique competition, but the focus undeniably centered on scoring goals over style points, even though style accounted for 90% of the score, and scoring just 10%. After angling for his less-than-eye-popping goals in the challenge this past year, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk has turned up the heat with some stellar goals this season, though he won’t be a part of the event next week.
Instead, inaugural winner Alex Ovechkin will attempt to hold off a pair of stylistic snipers from the East and the West. Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, and Montreal’s own Alexei Kovalev will all attempt to dethrone the most exciting player in the NHL, one of the few who appeared ready for the concept of the competition last season. Already, the players are preparing their moves, and you can see both Getzlaf and Kane attempting moves shown in the video game instructional video that started last year’s challenge, scored in that simulation by Crosby.
You can complain about the selection if you must — the choice of Patrick Kane over Jonathan Toews: Toews having scored three times in three separate ways to lead Canada to a World Junior win and to the 2007 Gold Medal game, while Kane came up empty twice (video). Kane, though, led all Western Conference players in fan balloting, gives America a shooter among the remaining pair of Russians and Canadians, and Alexander Semin declared him a more exciting player than Crosby; clearly if Crosby gets in, Kane must also follow.
You could also complain that Kovalev might have been better used in another competition, that there were better scorers in the shootout than he, a nod to the host Canadiens, but this is a clear style competition; if a guy can score in a game, you can’t fault him for taking the effective route over the pretty one. See how well the effective route has worked for Holmstrom, and compare it to the non-success that has dogged Ottawa forwards, all-too-often going for the pretty play instead. In this competition, even the lowliest of shootout artists will be practicing the loopiest of moves; not Kovalev, not any single NHLer will be found skating in to blast the puck high glove side.
If, however, there is one thing to be mindful of, it is the goalies. Last year, Ovechkin stood tall in the contest with little in the way of style competition, but that overlooked one key challenger: Martin St. Louis. YouTube his shootout goals, and they are great to watch for style on their own; in this competition, he could have easily challenged Ovechkin for the throne. Why not?
Or, more specifically, his stick. In both St. Louis’ attempts, Nabokov poke checked the puck away from St. Louis. Perhaps Marty was forgetting that unlike in the regulation shootout where the puck must always move forwards and is dead upon crossing the goal line (inside or outside of the posts), the Breakaway Challenge imposed no such limits. Having known that more clearly, he might have picked up the poke-checked puck and continued on to victory.
This season, if the League wants to make this event a real show, they must not only get into the heads of the shooters, but the repertoires of the goalies. Quite simply, I would suggest that poke checks should not be allowed in this competition. No professional goalie wants to be undressed — and the suggestion last year of using celebrity or lower-level goalies could have fixed that, with the unfortunate consequence of removing six All-Stars from the Challenge — but removing their ability to do anything but stop the puck accomplishes this well enough. Besides, you never see an opponent guarding the net in the Slam Dunk Contest, doing his best to block the shot; why should we see those glory-sapping antics here?
The event is undoubtedly about style, and nothing kills it more than having the puck played dead, or were the goalies to clear it to the far end for the challenger to waste precious seconds skating back to fetch it. I think anyone would agree that even if the puck must be stopped, far more excitement comes from seeing a sprawling Tim Thomas anyways.
Only a few more days, and we’ll get to see some of the (hopefully) most exciting moves in a long time. Hopefully, too, the fans can properly serve their new purpose as judges for the event, and crown the true winner, lest the event like the starting lineup descend into a Montreal popularity contest.
Impress them enough, though, and it won’t even be close. If they’re good enough, they may even challenge the longtime YouTube favourites, and perhaps finally leave the proper lasting impression with the fans.
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