Team Foligno and Team Toews have now made their respective debuts on the ice in the NHL Skills Competition, with the main event coming today at 5:00 PM. While the NHL All Star Game attracts perhaps slightly less attention in Las Vegas than the Super Bowl, it nonetheless is undoubtedly a worthwhile effort to look at the two teams and try to handicap a winner.
Picking a favorite in this one is not as easy as you might think. First, there is the obvious fact that when you assemble 45 of the world's greatest players, the margins between players are very narrow. Secondly, the two week gap between the conference championship games in the NFL and the Super Bowl provide for a level of analysis and preparation that will significantly exceed that devoted to Sunday afternoon's contest on the ice . . . by about 13.75 days. Finally, you have the fact that there is virtually no checking, only a passing whiff of defense and a spectrum of player motivations that range from semi-competitive to ridiculous. All of this adds up to a game that is really invulnerable to serious analysis. However, as impossible tasks never deter us, we March On, leaving you to ascertain how much "serious" is involved in the analysis.
The Blue Ice
All good teams are built from the goal out, so that's where we'll start as well. Team Toews fields Corey Crawford (Chicago), Jaroslav Halak (N.Y. Islanders) and Roberto Luongo (Florida) in net, while Team Foligno will feature Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh), Carey Price (Montreal) and Brian Elliott (St. Louis). Elliott, of course, was a late addition, being called from the beach on Grand Turk to attend the game. Once can only imagine his wife -- "You want me to leave Turks & Caicos to go WHERE?". If his approach to the Skills Competition is indicative, Team Foligno starts a bit behind the eight ball here. It's tough to focus on stopping the puck when you're more concerned with the size of diamond necessary to atone for an aborted vacation.
All of these guys are obviously qualified to be here, so let's look at matchups. We'll pair Elliott and Halak, since they shared net duties in St. Louis. As suggested, Halak gets the nod here. Next, let's compare Crawford and Fleury. Crawford is a skilled guy, but benefits greatly from the fact that the team in front of him possesses the puck virtually all the time. The volume of unchecked attempts that will be coming his way tonight might cause some consternation. Fleury, on the other hand, is known for his solid play in the regular season, and his more suspect play in the post-season. The question then becomes whether the All Star Game is more akin to the former or the latter. We'll call this matchup a draw. Finally, its Price vs. Luongo. Luongo made a couple of nifty saves in the Skills Competition, but has also had to spend fair amount of time defending the "natural oils" (his phrase) in his hair. Price has largely flown under the radar, suggesting he might be approaching this semi- seriously. We'll go with Price . . .by a nose. (Yes, I went there.)
So, the "net" result here is: DRAW
The Blue Line
Team Foligno brings Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Burns, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty and Kevin Shattenkirk to man the blue line, while Team Toews stars Shea Weber, Brent Seabrook, Justin Faulk, Mark Giordano, Ryan Suter and Aaron Ekblad.
If I'm Foligno, I am concerned that Byfuglien will be overly pre-occupied with his new skate designs, and might become confused as to whether he is playing defense or forward. The latter concern could also be an issue for Brent Burns. Ekman-Larsson brings a real offensive threat, and Doughty should be dangerous most of the game. For Toews, it's all about the reunion of Ryan Suter and Hardest Shot winner Shea Weber. The missiles will be flying from the point, and there will be nary a body going to the ice to block those attempts.
Again, it's a close call, but the winner here is : TEAM TOEWS
Team Toews brings the following front line roster to the ice: Jonathan Toews, Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin, Jake Voracek, John Tavares, Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrice Bergeron, Patrik Elias, Tyler Johnson, Ryan Getzlaf and Filip Forsberg. They are opposed by: Nick Foligno, Patrick Kane, Ryan Johansen, Anze Kopitar, Steven Stamkos, Phil Kessel, Claude Giroux, Radim Vrbata, Zemgus Girgensons, Bobby Ryan, Alexander Ovechkin and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
That's a lot of firepower, and you may well ask how we could possibly sort through all of this talent to discern a team with the advantage. Ah, watch and learn, young grasshopper.
There are lots of subplots here that come into play. Importantly, the NHL chose to split Kane & Toews, while Foligno and Johansen were able to stay together. Those two will have the home crowd firmly in their camp, while the Rick Nash/Jakub Voracek pairing for Team Toews represents the anti-home field advantage. Sure, Nash & Voracek are having the seasons of their lives, but Foligno and Johansen are players of destiny. To paraphrase the late, great John Belushi, "they're on a mission for God." You can't beat divine intervention.
Forsberg, Tarasenko and Sequin are dangerous, but no more so than Ovechkin, Giroux and Stamkos. Phil Kessel showed last night that he is on a mission to vindicate his All Star reputation, beating Sequin in the Fastest Skater competition. At his age, Patrik Elias will probably need to be awakened from his naps to take his shifts, and Toews was schooled by line-mate Kane in last night's Accuracy Shooting contest. Tavares struggled with the puck last night, and Tarasenko will be lost without the Ken Hitchcock Neutral Zone Trap springing him on breakaways.
All in all, the offensive edge goes to: TEAM FOLIGNO
Each club has two players (Nash & Voracek for Team Toews, Foligno & Johansen for Team Foligno) familiar with the rink, so that's a draw. As noted above, however, Team Foligno will have the clear home ice advantage, which is huge. Foligno and Johansen will have their mojo going, providing a further edge.
Behind the bench, Peter Laviolette for Team Toews has brought a dynamic offense to Nashville, which has them soaring in the West. However, bringing an offensive scheme to an All Star Game is, at best, redundant. For Team Foligno, Darryl Sutter brings that crusty, old-time hockey approach that basically says -- "Go play." Precisely what you need in an All Star game.
Finally, and most importantly, is the Zemgus Girgensons factor. By drafting Zemgus, Nick Foligno automatically became the second-favorite hockey player in Latvia. You can beat players, but you can't beat an entire nation.
The intangibles go to TEAM FOLIGNO in a landslide.
So, the final tally has Team Toews taking the blue line, with Team Foligno winning the forwards and intangibles. The net minders are a draw. So the winner of the 60th NHL All Star Game will be TEAM FOLIGNO, with a predicted final score of 16 - 12. Remember that you heard it here first.
So there's our highly scientific and objective pre-game analysis. Eat your heart out Barry Melrose.