by SENShobo on 01/25/09 at 01:39 AM ET
It’s half over now, the SuperSkills being put on display for 150 countries around the world to see.
For the veterans of all walks of life, the event may have been old hat, but for the crowd, it worked out exactly as advertised.
From high on the catwalk of the 302 seat press box, the festivities began with a series of rock covers from a lowered-onto-the-ice band and organist, accompanied by light show and a troupe of dancing girls probably 50 large. The irony was held in that it may have been the perfect opportunity to have a little skating, but the ladies were all out in shoes for their merry little dance. I myself got distracted when I found Mark Messier just a few seats down from me.
As the players were announced, the cheers weren’t any kind of surprise. The West received big cheers for local boys Robidas and Giguere, and there appeared to be no hard feelings, only fond memories of former Habs Souray and Streit. Where hard feelings did exist was once again within the division, bronx cheers erupting loudly, especially for Boston’s representatives as well as Kaberle. Of course you knew the loud ovations would pour out for the hometown stars, and another loud round for St. Louis, the largest was by far that given to Lecavalier, delaying further announcements for a good half a minute, the cameramen feeling compelled to shake their pictures to emphasize just how deeply this team’s fans want to have a team featuring a local boy at its heart.
The contest began with the fastest skater competition, which went back to the lap format after a brief experiment last year with the head-to-head blueline-to-blueline format. After Parise opened the competition, Carter would hold the mark against Campbell, Bouwmeester, and Raymond.
Raymond, you ask? Yes, the League decided to make a few last minute changes, inserting YoungStar Raymond into the fastest skater competition, though he couldn’t match any of the pros.
Cogliano, however, as the final skater and second YoungStar, took it to the wire to top Carter with a time of 14.31 seconds. I had been wondering if Bouwmeester’s graceful and powerful stride would carry him to victory, and was impressed with Campbell following something almost resembling F-1 lines with the way he attacked the corners, where all skaters lost the most time. In the end, Cogliano risked the biggest, cutting the corners sharper than any other skater, and even banging into the boards after the last turn, and it paid off. Not with real money, or any expectations that his comrades in Edmonton would make his life as a rookie any easier, but at least with a moment to smile for the cameras.
So quickly then did the competition turn to the most anticipated event, the breakaway challenge. After last year, where only Ovechkin understood that style counted for far more than actually scoring, the hopes were undeniably higher this time around, especially with hometown leader Alexei Kovalev taking part.
With a minute to make the magic happen, the players actually made it work. Kane started off with the routines he’d shown on the NHL’s preview of the All-Stars getting ready for the challenge, though few of those paid off. What did work, and was a nice tribute I thought, were when he flipped his stick upside down to take the puck in ringette style.
Last season, Nabokov robbed noted shootout artist St. Louis by poke checking him on both his attempts. This time, not a single poke check would be found in the competition, as I’d been hoping, and St. Louis did not disappoint. There were some nice dekes, but the creme de la creme came with a couple of attempts at carrying the puck. One saw him carry it all the way in, balancing it on his crazily tilting stick, only to whirl around a spin-o-rama and sling the puck top right corner, repeating the act in close on another attempt to be the early favourite for the style and skill he showed, even more impressive since he had such short notice that he’d be taking Crosby’s place.
Getzlaf had also appeared on that NHL preview, looking like a favourite to potentially dethrone Ovechkin, and after a few failed attempts he pulled one of the most awe-worthy moves that you can see in a real game on rare occasions, picking up the puck while circling behind the net and depositing it top corner as he came around. He might have stood a chance if he’d been able to capitalize on his attempt to kick it over the net from behind the goalie, but that move only worked for him in those practice videos.
The biggest of chants emerged as Kovalev took to the competition, offering some odd attempts at trying to flick the puck into (or maybe he wanted it to remain on top of) his head. Perhaps his most amusing one involved taking ‘toe drag’ just a little too seriously, skating in with the puck under his left blade. I thought right then and there that it could have been the most injury-prone a player might be during the whole weekend, but thankfully nothing bad came of it.
As the penultimate shooter, Stamkos was the one other YoungStar to become a late addition to the competition. Perhaps these late additions were meant to draw some attention away from the Lidstrom and Datsyuk non-suspensions, which I supported in principle, even if the whole process could have been handled better. Interesting year it’s been for Stamkos; baptism by fire in Tampa Bay, and now not only did he have to compete against a goalie, but against some of the best shooters in the world. Of course, he pulled out the move that you can find in a few seconds on YouTube, though it didn’t work. What did work was plagiarism, when Stamkos ‘stole’ Kane’s falling-hand-pass-outstretched-stick move, and unlike Kane actually pulled it off.
But it was all for naught, as Ovechkin remained king. While his many attempts connected at an exceedingly low rate, it mattered just as little as his non-scoring ways did in the inaugural competition. Opening with what appeared to be an attempt at a dive-to-roll-to-goal move that did not get to goal, he closed with another attempt to dispell the notion of a rift between him and Malkin, the clock being stopped as he took a ‘time out’ at the bench, Malkin equipping him with a Canadian-flag-donned sun hat and massive shades, appearing to give him some coaching advice as he doused Ovechkin in Gatorade. Ovechkin grabbed a second stick and moved in with this goofy outfit and odd double-stick moves, but tossed the extra stick at the last second to score five hole, and light up the crowd almost Globetrotter-style; perhaps he saw Ruutu’s Senators’ Skills Competition event, where he donned a hat, a ghastly wig, sparklers on his skates, and scored by literally stringing the puck to his stick, allowing him to reel it back in after the initial save so that he could then finish the job. His 42% share of the vote left no doubt as to whom the winner was, and it was refreshing to see that the League avoided another Hab ballot stuffing debacle, Kovalev unfortunately not giving a strong enough performance to rate up there with the others.
If you were a Hab fan, the YoungStars game was a terror for you. With Price manning the Sophomore net, the shortened 3-on-3 game wound up as high-scoring an event as you’re likely to see Sunday evening. The more the crowd booed divisional rival representatives Luke Schenn and Blake Wheeler, the more they tried to score, Wheeler notching a goal in each period, and Schenn a marker in the middle mini-frame. Setogushi, Raymond, and Bolland would each score in Price’s defense, Marc Staal notching a pair, but those five goals were no match when the final tally came, Doughty tallying once, Stamkos and Berglund twice each to add to the rivals’ goals for a 9-5 win, Wheeler of course being the MVP and trying to engratiate the Montreal fans during his acceptance interview, all Bruins attracting massive bronx cheers during the evening.
It would perhaps concern Montreal fans that only five goals came from the sophomores against Pekka Rinne on 24 shots, while Price faced 25 shots in allowing his 9 goals. Certainly amazing to see how much a little extra ice can add to the scoring in a game, perhaps a hint that despite the loss of some of those front row seats in current arenas, the League should investigate a transition up to international sized rinks, rather than looking to ideas like banning shot blocking or expanding the net to increase scoring.
Somehow, despite the obvious skill involved, I would still have to say that the shooting accuracy challenge was the least exciting of all the events. Perhaps it was evident to the players too, as Toews opened the event by hitting the four corner targets in the net, using all eight shots, followed by Malkin going 4/4 and Kovalchuk 3/8. After Dany Heatley also went perfect, Modano actually gave up after five shots or so, knowing that he was no longer in the running. Savard, Iginla, and Kaberle would all go through though, 3/8, 4/7, and 4/8, respectively. In the showdown though, much to the crowd’s delight, Malkin went 3/4, just besting Heatley’s 2/4 to take the event.
Considering the SuperSkills evening appeared to light up youth the most, the hardest shot could well have been the one that connected best with the older crowd. Streit, Komisarek, and Lecavalier all failed to top 100mph, with Weber’s 103.4 lasting the longest, Souray’s 102.3 being the closest challenger. But, of course, you knew that someday composite sticks would finally break the barrier, that being Al Iafrate’s decade and a half old record of 105.2. Chara’s first shot, being the last competitor, left some drama as it came in at 103.3, the smallest of hairs under Weber. But the last shot proved the winner, with Chara notching the new All-Star Game record at 105.4mph, finally getting the crowd to reign down with applause and cheers for a Bruin.
To end the night, of course, there was the elimination shootout, pitting every player against Backstrom, Lundqvist, Giguere, and Thomas in a test of endurance. Not really endurance though, but it was Doan who would emerge victorious after seven rounds, totalling 65 shots. The crowd was amusing, finally taunting Thomas after he made his third straight save, which then led to him letting in three straight and a fourth before the first round was out. If anything puzzled me though, it was Doan, one of the most pleasant and hardworking players, drawing out a few consistent boos from the crowd (likely due to the accusation that he used a francophone ethnic slur against a referee in 2005, something he was cleared of many times and that you could never imagine from him after spending even a few minutes around him), though his
daughter (Gracie)‘s hugs from the bench after each successful event appeared to work well in counteracting any of that.
Overall, the fans did seem to enjoy the event, even as many still shake their heads at it. It wasn’t perfect, with little missteps like Streit running into and destroying an on-ice marker after his elimination shot adding some imperfect but amusing anecdotes. If there was one big change I would make, it would be to the YoungStars game. Countless rules were altered and laid out to set the stage for the event, and time after time you could see that they were ignored. With a full slate of four on-ice officials, amusing comparison to the much-reduced 3-on-3 rosters, they couldn’t have gone unseen, blatant as so many of them were.
But the point of the event was just to see the kids roll, see them put some action on the ice. It may have only been 18 minutes, but short of when P.K. Subban makes the Habs’ roster you won’t see defensemen leading the rushes as often in a full 60 minute game. That, combined with the changed and uncalled rules, makes me want to see any other All-Star SuperSkills competitions just go ahead and call it what it should be: a good ol’ game of shinny. There’d be no confusion there, no issues, and perhaps that just might be enough of a trip down memory lane to get a little more juice out of the event.
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