ATLANTA - A revamped NHL all-stars skills competition got mixed reviews but came away ahead of last year's disappointing performance in Dallas.
The Breakaway Challenge event, where players are asked to bag into their bag of tricks and are judged by a panel for their score, didn't produce quite the number of jaw-dropping goals fans had hoped but Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals impressed by trying a few difficult moves that won him the event.
Ovechkin's Eastern Conference all-stars topped their Western counterparts 9-6 in the overall skills competition, which was enthusiastically supported by a sold-out crowd at Philips Arena.
New York Islanders goalie Rick Dipietro was supposed to be in net for one of the last breakaway tries but pulled himself out, possibly re-aggravating a hip problem. He downplayed it after the event and said it was no big deal.
The night began with a bit of a whimper, the Obstacle Course event leaving fans and media scratching their heads. It involved goalies trying to score on empty nets from the other end of the ice, skaters trying to score on miniature nets with "saucer" passes, other skaters trying to stickhandle through pucks, and players trying to hit a target in the middle of the net with one-timers from the blue-line. The East won the event 2-1.
The two sides split the two points in the Fastest Skater event to make it 3-2 East, Shawn Horcoff of the Edmonton Oilers the big star after he beat both Ilya Kovalchuk of the hometown Atlanta Thrashers and Brian Campbell of the Buffalo Sabres head to head. The East earned a point by having the fastest team average.
The Elimination Shootout got the fans more excited, Dion Phaneuf of the Calgary Flames surprisingly winning the event after two nifty goals. His first after a fake slapshot totally froze Tomas Vokoun of the Florida Panthers.
Phaneuf won the individual event and grabbed two goals for the West, who went up 4-3 in the competition.
The YoungStars 4-on-4 game was so bad last year the NHL wisely decided to change it and incorporate the first-and second-year players into the skills competition. The 12-minute, 3-on-3 affair featured no defence whatsoever, but it was an entertaining game of shinny where the goalies were defenceless targets. Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals and Brandon Dubinsky of the New York Rangers scored two goals apiece as the East youngsters barely held on for a 7-6 win after being up by five goals.
Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks had a pair of goals for the West. Dubinsky was named YoungStars game MVP.
Points in the YoungStars game were based on which team scored the most goals in each six-minute period, meaning each side got a point apiece to make it 5-4 West.
The Eastern Conference went back up 6-5 after grabbing points in the Shooting Accuracy event, Tomas Kaberle - of all people - going a perfect four-four-four on the targets in the first round and then beating Jason Arnott of the Nashville Predators in a head-to-head final. This is the same Kaberle that aggravates Toronto Maple Leafs fans during games because he doesn't shoot the puck enough.
"Shoot, shoot!" Leafs fans yell when he has the puck. Now they know he can.
"In my mind I was, like, hopefully I get at least one," said Kaberle. "It ended up pretty good. Maybe luck. It was one of those days. It felt good on the stick. You get lots of time. It's not like in a game time situation. You can hold it for a second."
Then the Z-man took over in the Hardest Shot competition, towering Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara defending his title with a 103.1 m.p.h. winning shot to beat East teammate Vincent Lecavalier of the Lightning (101.9). The East picked up both the individual and team points to take an 8-5 lead and clinch the skill competition victory since only two points were left to be awarded in the last event.
Former Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby, former Atlanta Hawks basketball star Dominique Wilkins, Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch and hockey broadcaster Bill Clement were the judges for the Breakaway Challenge, and they punished hard for efforts that didn't show any creativity. Pavel Datsyuk's first attempt, for example, was a simple run-of-the-mill deke and he got harshly judged.
Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks and Marian Gaborik of the Minnesota Wild both tried imaginative moves, Gaborik winning over the panel for 30 points when he went behind the net and tried a wrap-around that failed.
The hometown fans got a kick out of Kovalchuk's second attempt, when he also got 30 points from the judges for dropping to his knees and trying to score on a wrist shot only to be stopped by Manny Legace of the St. Louis Blues.
While Ovechkin scored on his first attempt, a rather pedestrian deke, it was his entertaining second attempt that missed the mark but wowed the judges. The Caps sniper bounced the puck in the air and attempted to bat it in, earning 35 points despite failing to score. The West got the overall team point but Ovechkin got the individual honour to make the final 9-6 East.