MONTREAL – One of the knocks on the NHL’s all-star game has often been that it doesn’t produce enough memorable moments. That wasn’t a problem this time around thanks to Alexei Kovalev and fans of the Montreal Canadiens.
A sellout crowd at the Bell Centre was roaring Sunday as the teams traded chances in overtime. The building absolutely exploded when Kovalev scored what turned out to be the shootout winner.
Kovalev also scored two regulation goals in the Eastern Conference’s 12-11 victory and fulfilled his pre-game guarantee by winning the MVP award.
There really couldn’t have been a much more perfect ending to the all-star weekend.
“I knew how important it would be for all of us – not just for me – to succeed and put on a show and have fun,” said Kovalev. “You couldn’t ask for more.
“When I heard that I’d been named as the captain of the team, I said to myself I have one more left to get MVP. I think that’s going to be the full package that I’m going to remember the rest of my life.”
The game saw 28 different players register a point and earned a couple new entries in the record book – including the second-highest number of goals and a tie for the most combined shots.
In short, it was the showcase of skill it’s intended to be and the fans in Montreal responded in kind. The city is in the midst of a hockey renaissance that seems to be culminating now with the celebration of the Habs centennial season.
“I think hockey is more popular now than it was in the ’70s when we won four Cups in a row,” said former Canadiens player Serge Savard. “They had 22,000 people at the workout yesterday morning. And you can see people in the streets, people with cars with flags, with the ‘CH’ flag, the waiting list for season tickets.
“I’ve never seen that like it is now.”
The passion was evident all weekend long as the four Habs participants – Kovalev, Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek and Carey Price – were the centre of attention everywhere they went.
The sellout crowd even chanted Kovalev’s name after he assisted on a first-period goal, and went nuts when he later scored on a couple nice breakaway moves. Kovalev nearly had the hat trick, but had two different shots hit the post.
His Montreal teammates all made their presence felt as well. Price allowed two goals on 11 shots during his period of work, Markov scored a goal and Komisarek took a penalty in overtime – the first called at an all-star game since 2000.
“I told the ref he made a good call,” said Komisarek.
Fortunately for him, the Eastern Conference managed to kill off the disadvantage.
The victory was also special for Habs coach Guy Carbonneau, who served as an assistant on Claude Julien’s Eastern Conference staff for the game. He enjoyed the experience as much as the players.
“We couldn’t ask for anything better,” said Carbonneau. “You know, the fans have been here every game and cheering on the players every game. I knew this was not going to be different tonight.”
Tons of players got in on the scoring.
Alex Ovechkin had a goal in regulation and another in the shootout for the East. Martin St. Louis, with two, Eric Staal, Andrei Markov, Zach Parise, Evgeni Malkin, Dany Heatley and Jay Bouwmeester also scored for the winning team.
The West was led by former Habs defenceman Sheldon Souray, who scored twice.
Keith Tkachuk, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Rick Nash, Milan Hejduk, Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane added singles.
The game featured all kinds of skill and helped make a case for leaving things as they are. There may have been no hitting or physical play, but that gave the players a platform to show off some smooth hands and flashy moves.
“At the end of the game and overtime, it was worth every penny,” said Komisarek. “It was exciting to be a part of, just sitting there on the bench and being on the ice watching the top players in the world compete at such a high level.”
The nicest goal of the evening came off the stick of Malkin, who pulled the puck back between his legs before beating Niklas Backstrom at 7:45 of the second period. The Pittsburgh Penguins forward leads the league in scoring but isn’t as well known as other star players because he speaks limited English.
Even still, he seemed to come out of his shell a bit during all-star weekend. Malkin went out of his way to sign autographs during Saturday’s skills competition and tried a few different trick moves in Sunday’s game that had the sellout crowd gasping.
The Eastern Conference was ahead 7-4 after Malkin’s goal but the West kept coming. Nash, Hejduk and Souray scored within a span of 2:07 to tie it before Doan batted a puck out of the air 32 seconds into the third period to give the Western Conference its first lead since early in the game.
“The fans like seeing goals and that’s what they got,” said Price.
Like other all-star games, the pace picked up as the minutes wound down.
The energy in the building mirrored that as Bouwmeester’s goal to tie the game 11-11 with less than four minutes to play got a huge cheer. St. Louis had a glorious chance in the final minute but Roberto Luongo turned him away to set the stage for overtime.
It might have been something of an eye-opening experience for Vincent Lecavalier, who was one of just eight position players that didn’t register a point. He also had a shootout attempt stopped.
Even still, the Montreal native received another hearty ovation from fans who desperately want to see him get dealt to the Habs before the March 4 deadline.
If that ever happens, the all-star experience provided a pretty good glimpse of the energy currently pumping through hockey-mad Montreal.
“I think the last few seasons the city’s really caught a fever,” said Komisarek. “We’ve always had very supportive and passionate fans, but it’s gone to a whole different level.”
Notes: The all-star game will take a hiatus next season because of the mid-season break needed for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The 2011 game is scheduled to be held in Phoenix … Fifteen players made their first all-star appearance … Iginla’s goal was his first in five all-star games … A message on the video board wished former Habs coach Pat Burns well in his battle with cancer … Jean Beliveau and Bob Gainey dropped the puck for the opening faceoff … Two of the officials were from Montreal – referee Marc Joanette and linesman Pierre Racicot … Game-worn jerseys will be auctioned off for the Hockey Fights Cancer charity.