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NHL All-Star Game returns to NBC with its entertaining 3-on-3 format

John Tavares of the New York Islanders faces

John Tavares of the New York Islanders faces off against Ryan O'Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres to start the Eastern Conference Semifinal Game between the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan Division as part of the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Bridgestone Arena on Jan. 31, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: Getty Images / Sanford Myers

The NHL All-Star Game at last returns to broadcast network television on Sunday following a 13-year hiatus, riding last year’s ratings bump after a format change and this year’s league-wide centennial celebration.

Other than that, no biggie.

NBC will do the honors, after the league requested executives move the event from NBCSN in a nod to the NHL’s 100th birthday season.

“[Commissioner] Gary Bettman and the league asked us if we would consider putting it on NBC, and as good partners, we have,” executive producer Sam Flood said on a conference call to promote All-Star weekend in Los Angeles.

Might the change become permanent?

“Long term we’ll have to see where we end up,” Flood said. “We think it’s spectacular this is happening, and we wanted to honor the league because this is such a seminal moment for the NHL.”

The “game” looks nothing like it did in 2004, when ABC carried it. There have been several alterations since, by far the biggest coming in Nashville last year when it became a three-game mini-tournament of 3-on-3 contests.

It proved a huge success, fueled by the novelty of the format, in which Team Pacific beat Team Atlantic, 1-0, in the final. It helped that the MVP was John Scott, an enforcer initially selected in a voting prank. Scott scored two goals in one of the games that day. He retired from pro hockey last month.

The tournament averaged 1.6 million viewers on NBCSN, best in the network’s history.

This weekend’s festivities start Friday night on NBCSN with the unveiling of “The NHL 100,” honoring the best players of the past century, followed Saturday night with the Skills Competition, also on NBCSN.

The 3-on-3 format for overtime in the regular season has proven to be fan-friendly, even if it does turn off purists. There is little downside to using it for the All-Star Game, which in previous years had devolved into a defense-free bore.

“This was the best All-‑Star Game that’s happened in a professional league in the United States in a very long time,” Flood said of last year’s game, “and the credit goes to Gary Bettman and his team, who had the foresight and the courage to change the format to 3‑-on‑-3.”

The two 20-minute semifinals in Nashville produced scores of 4-3 and 9-6, then the final turned into a showcase for goaltending excellence.

“Who would have thought we’d have had the cataclysmic final 20 minutes and it would have been only one goal scored?” play-by-play man Doc Emrick said.

Said analyst Eddie Olczyk, “I think we all know and we all agree that hockey is the ultimate team game. But in this format to make it as exciting as it could possibly be, it is, when you get to 3‑-on‑-3, about the individual skill of players being able to create and generate and cause separation, because there’s so much more room.”

Analyst Jeremy Roenick said, “Having division versus division was an amazing and very bold change to the All‑-Star Game, which I think created a lot more excitement. I think it kept people on their seats more. It allowed them to cheer more in the All-‑Star Game, and it gave the guys a lot more opportunity to want to compete in a game where a lot of players would usually take time off.

“Throw in a million dollars [to the winning team], and granted the guys don’t need the money, but it is bragging rights. It is money that a lot of guys can choose to do what they want to. I know last year, the Sedin brothers gave their money to the trainers of their team, which is a great gesture.”

As much as open ice creates more odd-man rushes than in a normal 5-on-5 game, playing 3-on-3 lessens the danger of deflections or screens goaltenders must deal with.

So, in a weird way, does 3-on-3 hockey make life easier for goalies? NBC analysts said it does not, despite last year’s surprising 1-0 final.

“The chance number that these guys possibly have the opportunity of taking on, I mean, it’s through the roof,” Olczyk said. “You’re going a long stretch here where you’re playing, and if you’re lucky enough to get to the final, you’re going a long time here where you are playing 3‑-on-‑3.

“So I understand the question and understanding that, hey, you know, maybe it isn’t as challenging, so to speak, with all the other extra bodies on the ice and the deflections and whatever. But you’re getting the 2-on‑-1s, you’re getting the 2‑-on-‑0s, and you’re getting 3‑-on‑-1s. There were a couple times last year where it was just up‑ and‑ down and trading chances, chance after chance. And teams aren’t dumping the puck in to get a change, they’re holding on to it and passing it back to the goaltender.

“So for me, I don’t know if it’s any easier for these guys because of the more room that there is, the higher quality of looks for a shooter.”

Said analyst Pierre McGuire, “I don’t think it’s easier for goaltenders, without question, and it’s because of the amount of shots in such a short amount of time. You have to remember, they’re going to get breakaway after breakaway, and that’s one thing they work on in practice.

“But one breakaway in a game is not bad for a goaltender. But when you have three, four, five in a course of 10 minutes, which will probably happen, the goaltenders are going to get pretty burned out mentally. So I think it’s definitely, like Eddie said, a little bit better for the offensive guys. The goaltenders just did an unbelievable job last year, which is why I think Doc made a great point. They were the MVPs of the game for me.”

The 3-on-3 format obviously emphasizes skating over hitting, which was lacking even in a 5-on-5 format when it came time for the All-Star Game. So why not concede that physical play will be not in the mix and go all-in?

“It is high-‑paced, great action all the time,” Roenick said. “So it’s definitely much better to watch on television than just a normal hockey game. The All-‑Star Game is the best performance of talent that there is in all sports.”

Said Olczyk, “There is nowhere to hide in the 3-‑on-‑3 format. We’ve seen it in the past where guys would go out there, hardly break a sweat. The All-‑Star Game prior to last year in Nashville, it was embarrassing. Something had to change . . . The last thing you want to do as a hockey player is be embarrassed. So you tighten up the skates, and whatever happens in Game 1, you’re there, you want to represent yourself well. But it is entertaining.”

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