It wasn’t a banner night for the NHL all-stars, but a new event was the breakout hit and should remain a staple for years to come.
TAMPA – From the files of Things We Never Thought We’d See if Asked One Year Ago: Marc-Andre Fleury, in a Vegas Golden Knights jersey, sliding out to aggressively poke check Boston Bruins super pest Brad Marchand…while “Let it Go,” the signature song of the Disney phenomenon Frozen, blares on the loudspeakers above them.
It was a quirky moment in a fascinating new event at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition Saturday night at Amalie Arena. It also marked Fleury’s 13th consecutive thwarted shooter in a series of breakaways fired his way. He’d make one more stop after that to cap his streak at 14, besting the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne and setting the first record in the history of ‘Save Streak,’ which debuted this year. Goaltenders faced a slate of at least nine shooters and tried to build up a sequence of consecutive stops. A goalie’s round could only end on a goal, however. He would remain alive for as long as he could keep making back-to-back saves.
It was a slow-burn event that started goofily enough, complete with Predators defenseman P.K. Subban tossing his glove at Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist mid-breakaway. But it gradually built momentum, first when Rinne built his streak at 13, and especially when Fleury, one of the sport’s most beloved players, took to the crease representing the Pacific Division. He told reporters after the game he selected “Let it Go” as his song because “I thought I was gonna get scored on a lot. Let it go, right?” But it turns out he was in his domain, turning shots away with aplomb. In hindsight, the event was a great fit for him considering he was famous in his Pittsburgh Penguins days for pulling stunts and goofing around during post-practice shootouts. No goalie was more in his element Saturday, and he said he hopes Save Streak sticks as a staple event.
“It’s more game-like,” Fleury said. “Guys were trying, actually trying. It wasn’t just about wearing a funny disguise. It’s fun because it was a real breakaway, a real shootout, and you actually got a real number to reach. I like it.”
The question now is: does the NHL have a hit on its hands? Part of what has always made the Fastest Skater and Hardest Shot events special at the Skills Competition is their tangibility, as contestants always have a concrete record to chase. Suspense builds with every Connor McDavid stride as he tries to beat Dylan Larkin’s record, and there’s always the hope someone will beat Zdeno Chara’s legendary slapshot speed of 108.8 mph.
It may not feel that way after Year 1, but Save Streak now has a benchmark, a number for future goalies to remember: 14. It’s too early to know just how good 14 saves were, especially when a lot of Fleury’s stops were actually missed nets or clangs off the post. But maybe 14 ages well and becomes a record of prestige in years to come. Or maybe someone stops 20 shots in a row next year, rendering the 2018 mark puny. It’s a fair bet, though, that Save Streak will age well. It hardly has a high standard to beat, as the NHL has repeatedly shuffled events in and out other than the Big Three of Fastest Skater, Hardest Shot and Accuracy Shooting. The Passing Challenge and Puck Control Relay were total duds Saturday, with the players practically begging to be airlifted off the ice rather than finish courses that seemed to be just, well, too difficult to complete in a timeframe quick enough to register as “impressive” among the fans in attendance.
Expect to see Save Streak continue in 2019 when the All-Star Game heads to San Jose, then. It’s a simple event designed to build suspense and a little history as goalies try to set new records.
“As the years go on, people are going to start trying more and more,” set Winnipeg Jets goaltender and Central division rep Connor Hellebuyck. “It’s going to be pretty fun for the intensity it’ll bring.”
And on a night when it was debatable how many of the participants were enjoying themselves, Save Streak was the rare event that seemed to spark a sense of fun in the players – and finally give the goalies a showcase that really felt like their own.
“I liked to get goalies involved – I liked the Save Streak event,” Rinne said. “In the past, the goalies were just the cones out there. You didn’t really have a role.”