There is no home field advantage at stake in the NHL All Star Game -- it is simply and unabashedly a celebration of the game of hockey, the skill of the best in the game, and an expression of appreciation to the fans around the world who enjoy the fastest and best game on the planet.
Thus, it is appropriate that the NHL All Star Skills Competition has become a bit of an iconic event, akin to baseball's Home Run Derby, but far more multi-dimensional in terms of the skills displayed. While it justifiably boasts of the athletic prowess required for Zdeno Chara to fire a puck at over 108 mph, it takes equal pride in the silliness and creativity that Patrick "Superman" Kane can produce in the shootout competition. In the eyes of many, the Skills ticket is the most coveted commodity of the weekend -- a position not without merit.
So. it was against this backdrop that the All Stars gathered to show once again why they have a colorable claim to the most talented athletes around. Earlier in the day, captains Jonathan Toews and Nick Foligno had announced their selection of participants for each event. The Blue Jackets' Ryan Johansen had won an on-line balloting initiative to secure an automatic berth in the Breakaway Challenge, but otherwise the participants where largely at the whim of the team captains, subject to the amoun of cajoling and bribery that could be brought to bear upon the situation. Without further ado, let's see how they did.
Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater
Carl Hagelin set the record in this event for the New York Rangers, being the only player to date to break the 13 second barrier. This one consisted of four heats, with a player from each squad facing off in a match race with a point at stake. In addition, the player with the fastest time for the competition earns a bonus point for his team.
In an obviously premeditated matchup, Phil Kessel was pitted against Tyler Seguin in the opening pair. To the surprise of some, Kessel earned a narrow victory with a time of 13.596, edging Seguin by just 35/1000's of a second. In the second matchup, Jonathan Drouin of Team Foligno faced Mike Hoffman of Team Toews. This proved to be the runaway fastest heat of the night, with Drouin winning by .05 seconds, 13.103 to 13.163. In Heat 3, Jiri Sekac (Foligno) won relatively easilly over Aaron Ekblad, 13.683 to 14.048. In the final pair, neither Zemgus Giregnson nor Vladimir Tarasenko could get the trailer unhitched, with Girgenson prevailing at a leisurely 14.101, setting of immediate celebrations across Latvia.
With a sweep of the heats, and the fastest overall time, Team Foligno broke out to an early 5 - 0 lead, much to the delight of the partisan crowd.
Honda NHL Breakaway Challenge
On to the silliness portion of the evening -- the Breakaway Challenge. Since adopting this format, Alexander Ovechkin has won the event three times, with Patrick Kane nabbing the title in 2012. Each team fields three players, who each have three breakaway attempts. Results -- i.e. a goal -- do not matter. It is all about creativity and style. To insure that the event bears no semblance of an objectively measured test of skill, the winner was judged by the online votes of those attending the event and watching around the world. At least it was only worth a single point . . .
Any attempt to recount all 18 attempts would be an exercise in futility, so highlights will have to suffice. Starting with the three-time winner, Ovechkin decided early that bouncing the puck off his stick would be the theme for the evening. After notching a nice goal in the first round this way, he had an ordinary effort in Round 2. However, not one to go down without a fight, Ovechkin attempted to convert a baseball swing on a puck flipped in the air by a teammate, from about the top of the circle. Three attempts, three swings and misses. A noble effort, but no dice. He earned only 6.4% of the fan vote, dead last. No car for this last place finish, I'm afraid.
Vladimir Tarasenko and Brian Elliott had an apparent team effort going. In Round 1, Tarasenko posed for a slap shot, only to have Elliott turn sideways and mimic the pose. Think about a cross between a slap shot and a Heisman Trophy pose. Elliott then took a selfie to finish the attempt, while the puck trickled in to the net. In Round 2, Tarasenko simply drifted a lazy puck along the ice from the blue line, which went past Elliott . . . who was blindfolded. The final effort involved Tarasenko hitting a styrofoam target held in Elliott's glove. Silly, yes, but I warned you. It was good enough for 12.2% of the vote and 3rd place.
Claude Giroux showed dexterity in all three attempts, but his masterpiece came in the final attempt, when he carried two pucks on his blade, dropped one on the crease, circled the net, and deposited the other one in the goal. I wouldn't lie about this. The fans were impressed to the tune of 18.6% of the vote, placing him in the #2 slot.
Ryan Johansen had some memorable efforts. In Round 1, he started to take the puck toward the net, then returned, pulled his sweater off, revealing a red Ohio State football jersey (specifically that of QB Braxton Miller), in blatant pandering to the home crowd. He then drove toward the right post, did the hockey version of a Moon Walk, reversing direction and putting a wrister in the net. In the next round, he similarly started his approach, stopped, discarded gloves and stick, and went back to his bench to retrieve . . . Cole Vogt, the young son of Blue Jackets' trainer Mike Vogt. Carrying Cole like a puppy desperately needing to go out, Cole put stick on puck and found the back of the net. (Jake Voracek later imitated the move, but instead grabbed Johnny Gaudreau). Johansen did not even need his final "flying wedge" attempt (don't ask). He earned a whopping 44.3% of the vote, gaining another point for Team Foligno, and a 6- 0 lead after two events.
Sure, this was a case of home cooking, but in an event premised upon silliness, the ultimate in silliness prevailed, home team or not.
DraftKings NHL Accuracy Shooting
Returning to skill, the third event was my personal favorite -- the shooting accuracy competition. Again, four competitors from each team competed in separate matchups, trying to break targets situated at the four corners of the goal in the fastest time possible. A point was up for grabs in each heat, plus a bonus point for the overall fastest time.
Bobby Ryan started for Team Foligno, and struggled. He finally notched all four targets in just over 30 seconds. His opponent -- former teammate Ryan Getzlaf -- required only 14.105 , earning Team Toews its first point. In Round 2, Captain Foligno took matters into his own hands, blistering the targets in just 13.674 seconds, easily beating Patrice Bergeron's 17.308. Radim Vrbata was next for Team Foligno, and posted a shaky 22.141. However, his opponent, John Tavares, ran into post and crossbar difficulty, lagging behind at 26.122. In the final pair, Patrick Kane -- an alternate captain for Team Foligno -- beat his captain with a 13.529 time, which was good enough to beat opposing captain and Chicago teammate Jonathan Toews, who registered a 16.307 time after hitting three consecutive posts.
When the smoke cleared, it was another four points for Team Foligno, who now led 10 - 1.
Gatorade NHL Skills Challenge Relay
This is a complex and skilled event, involving three players required to make 2 one-time shots each, from different distances, another player passing the puck over a beam and into four narrow targets --again at different distances. Two other players are tasked with completing intricate puck handling drills. The final task requires the goalie to elevate the puck over a barrier at the blue line, and into the net at the opposite end . . . twice. All of this is done in sequential, relay fashion. Two heats, with the fastest time in each heat winning a point, and another bonus point for the lowest overall time.
In Heat 1, Team Toews was going well, but John Tavares again ran into post trouble in the passing drill, and Johnny Gaudreau lost the puck in one of the puck handling drills. Their time of 2:06 was easily bettered by the 1:37 posted by Team Foligno. A measure of revenge was obtained in Heat 2, when Nick Foligno could not find the net on his one-timers, and was effectively "mercy ruled." It went downhill from there, and Team Toews took that heat with ease. However, the 1:38 time was not enough to earn the bonus point, so Team Foligno extended the lead to 12 - 2.
AMP NHL Hardest Shot
No mystery to this one. Four players from each team in four heats. Two chances for each player. Blast the puck as hard as you can into the net from right in front. Highest speed in each heat wins the point, plus a bonus point for the highest overall speed.
Ovechkin redeemed himself in the opening heat, turning in identical 101.4 mph efforts, defeating Brent Seabrook with a best of 98.6 mph. In Heat 2, Brent Burns came up with a 97.6 mph effort in his second chance to better Aaron Ekblad from Team Toews, who notched a best of 95.3. Round 3 went to Steven Stamkos (Foligno), whose 98.8 speed bettered Justin Faulk's mark of 95.0. In the premiere pairing, Team Foligno's Dustin Byfuglien managed only a best of 97.3 mph, while the favorite -- in the absence of Zdeno Chara -- Shea Weber, created some additional drama by missing the net with his first attempt. There was no missing the net on the final attempt, however, as he blistered one at 108.5 mph, just .3 short of Chara's record. That made it 3 - 2 for Team Foligno for the event, and an overall score of 15 - 4 heading into the final event.
Discover NHL Shootout
Apparently figuring that a lopsided score was possible, the engineers of this event created a new format for the shootout competition, designed to enable a team to make up points in a hurry. It involved three heats, with each team fielding seven players, who took shootout shots on a rotating basis for a fixed period of two minutes. Each goal scored earned a point, except that every third shot was worth two points. At this juncture, the event begins to sound like a poker game with one-eyed jacks and the sucide king being wild . . .
Team Toews dominated the event overall, winning 16 points to just 7 for Team Foligno, and winning two of the three heats. In the end, however, it wasn't enought, and Team Foligno took the title and the bragging rights, such as they are.
All in all, the event served precisely the purpose for which it was intended. It displayed some skill, allowed some silliness, and provided fun and entertainment for all concerned. That 's what counts. Team Toews will look for its revenge on Sunday, in the 60th NHL All Star Game. Stay tuned.