TAMPA, Fla. — Nothing about the NHL All-Star Game qualifies for superlatives such as, say, “Olympian,” but it still is fun. It has a quirky format and funky uniforms. And when it comes right down to it, players do bear down and try to win.
That is what happened at the finish Sunday of what is actually a mini-tournament involving four teams in three 20-minute games of three-on-three skating. The Pacific Division defeated the Atlantic, 5-2, in an event that became increasingly serious down the stretch.
“The first one, you kind of go out and play,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights and the Pacific squad said of the opening round against the Central. “When you’re in the final, you say, ‘Hey, let’s go out and win this thing.’ You see everyone plays a little more defense.
“Guys have more room. There’s only three of them out there, so it seems like they all work a little harder. It feels more like a game. It’s good, you see more of the skills.”
Among the most skillful was Brock Boeser of the Canucks, who scored two goals and became the first rookie named the NHL All-Star Most Valuable Player since Mario Lemieux did it in 1985. Boeser, a Minnesotan and potential rival of the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal for the Calder Trophy, had won the Most Accurate Shot contest Saturday night. Not bad for someone who said his goal coming into the season was “just to make the team.”
“Good for him,” Fleury said. “Seems like a great kid and obviously he’s got a great shot.”
The most talked-about shot was the one with which Nikita Kucherov of the hometown Lightning scored in the first round as the Atlantic Division knocked out the Metropolitan (featuring Rangers and Islanders stars), 7-4. Kucherov broke in alone on Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, carrying the puck. He pretended to switch from his forehand to his backhand but instead just let the puck slide ahead of him. It went through Holtby’s pads.
“If you’re going to do that, I tip my cap,” Holtby said. With a grin, he added: “You go in there with an open mind and hope you guess right. No one came here to watch saves, anyway.”
As is the custom for hockey all-star contests, there were no penalties. There was no checking, no physical play, no shot- blocking. But in adopting the three-on-three format, the league did introduce competitiveness that was lacking when the game featured traditional five-on-five skating.
The subtext this year, though, was the knowledge that there would not have been an All-Star Game had the league allowed its players to take part in the Winter Olympics in Pyeong chang, South Korea. To the players’ disappointment, the league’s owners decided against that, citing concerns about travel, potential injuries and disruption of the regular season.
“I can’t lie to you, we wish we could be there. I’d love to have that opportunity again,” said John Tavares, who missed the end of the Islanders’ 2013-14 season after being injured in the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Central Division coach Peter Laviolette of the Predators, captain of the U.S. hockey team in 1994 (the last before NHL players were included), said: “There are different ways to look at that. The Olympics are a pretty special event. The best players in the country representing their country.” But he added that not sending NHL players “probably does provide more stability and the players will be fresher when it comes to the playoffs.”
In any case, the league and the players made the best of it this weekend — regardless of the odd touches such as the unusual Pacific uniforms of white tops, white pants, white gloves and black and bright orange trim. “I like them,” Rickard Rakell of the Ducks said. “They’re special and I think I will remember wearing this uniform forever.”