The 2016 All-Star Game assumed an entirely new identity for 2016, precipitated by a pace of play in the 2015 game in Columbus that barely exceeded the minimum velocity necessary to keep the players upright on skates. Now a 3-on-3 tournament, featuring squads for each division with 11 man rosters (three defensemen, six forwards and two goalies. The 3-on-3 format has been popular as a vehicle to minimize shootouts, so it is a noble experiment to apply it to a longer time frame (2 ten minute periods in each game.) The two preliminary games featured the intra-conference divisions, with the winners facing off for the championship. Oh, there was also the little matter of $1 million going to the winning squad.
Of course, the subplot for the entire event was the shoddy treatment afforded John Scott, at the hands of either the NHL, the Arizona Coyotes, or both, depending on your perspective. Already solidified as a fan favorite during the Skills Competition, Scott solidified his position with fans and players alike by handling the entire situation with class, scoring two goals in his Pacific Division team's win over the favored Central Division, and earning MVP honors for the game.
Let's see how the whole even unwound, with some particular attention to the contributions that the Blue Jackets' representative, Brandon Saad, made to the effort.
Game 1: Atlantic Division 4 Metropolitan Division 3
By virtue of their win in the Skills Competition on Saturday, the Eastern Conference elected to hold their game first, giving the winner the maximum amount of rest before the Championship game. With no Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, the Metro might have been considered underdogs heading into this one, but it proved to be a much tighter affair than many anticipated.
From the opening whistle, it became apparent that this was not going to be like prior All-Star contests. The three-on-three format creates space, but requires the players to maintain a certain pace to present any credible threats, as there are only two teammates to rely upon. Additionally, the lure of the breakaway pass and shot was ever-present, holding interest for the duration.
The Metro got the jump on the scoring just 1:01 into this one, courtesy of the Brandon Saad, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang unit. On this rush, Malkin ran over Dylan Larkin while Letang buried the chance, giving the Metro a 1 - 0 lead. Larkin's plea for an interference penalty fell on deaf ears. "This is the All-Star Game, kid, there ain't no stinking penalties."
At 3:18, Jaromir Jagr released early and found himself all alone against Braden Holtby. Holtby had the answer this time, rejecting the chance. Just ten seconds later, Roberto Luongo made a nice save on a nasty backhand effort by Saad. 19 seconds after that, Erik Karlsson beat Holtby from between the circles, tying the contest at one. It was just another 29 seconds before Evgeny Kuznetsov restored the lead with a well-executed two-on-one break.
Once that frenetic interlude passed, some semblance of order was restored. That did not mean the absence of opportunity, however. P.K. Subban sent one off the crossbar at the 5:00 mark, and Luongo just managed to deflect another Brandon Saad chance at 4:12. Holtby denied Ekblad on a prime chance with 4:00 left in the first half (yes, half. Two ten minute period), while Saad sent another one off the post at 3:52.
A strange sound was heard with 2:14 left, which stopped the players in their tracks. A whistle. The Metro team was called offside. Once the shock wore off, the pace resumed. With just 44 seconds left in the period, Saad fired a beautiful pass to Malkin, whose one-timer was masterfully stopped by Luongo. That led immediately to another Jagr breakaway, and he did not miss this time, getting the puck past Holtby with just 38 seconds left. That made it 2 - 2 at the break, with each team registering 10 shots on goal. An entertaining half of hockey.
Cory Schneider and Ben Bishop assumed the posts between the pipes for the Metro and Atlantic, respectively, for the second half, and it took only 25 seconds for the score to change. It was the Saad/Malkin combination again, with Saad feeding Malkin, who beat Schneider handily. 3 -2 Metropolitan, but that was the last goal the Metros would earn. 2:52 into the period, Aaron Ekblad got on the board with a nice move to tie the game, and P.K. Subban finished off a nice give-and-go play at the 4:38 mark to earn the game winning goal, as well as a neck & shoulder rub from "celebrity coach" Amy Grant.
As time wound down, the Metro squad pulled the goalie, making it effectively a 4-on-3 power play. However, by allowing the defense to simply set up a triangle, rather than skate, it actually reduced the offensive chances, as the puck stayed on the perimeter. The Metro skaters lost track of time, and were still moving the puck along the outside as time expired. The Atlantic advanced to the final in a game that was more tenaciously played than many expected, and featured a relatively modest amount of scoring. Each squad had 22 shots on goal, reflective of the brisk pace. Young Dylan "Speedy" Larkin was the star of the contest, with three assists for the Atlantic team. Malkin and Saad were the most visible of the Metro players.
Game 2: Pacific Division 9 Central Division 6
This one had all sorts of intrigue coming in. First, there was the entire John Scott drama. How would he handle the game? How would the coaches use him? Secondly, how would the Pacific handle the intimidating firepower of the Central, with Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko, Tyler Seguin, and James Neal, among others? The answers are, in order, "Quite Well", "Frequently" and "With firepower of their own."
Neal established the lead for the Central early, zipping one past Jonathan Quick just 25 second in for a 1 - 0 lead. However, the Pacific would not be denied, unveiling their secret weapon -- John Scott -- just 21 seconds later. Scott deflected a Brent Burns offering past a helpless Pekka Rinne, and the ensuing smile could have fueled every neon light at the Grand Ole Opry.
At the 4:39, play was rudely interrupted again by a whistle. This time it was --- (gasp) -- an actual penalty! Rinne was called for handling the puck outside the trapezoid, and the Pacific had a 1:00 (yes, just one minute) power play. Joe Pavelski converted, and the Pacific had the 2 -1 lead. James Neal would not be denied, however, and he tied the game with his second of the evening at the 8:01 mark.
As time wound down, the pace became even a bit more frenetic. Johnny Gaudreau answered Neal's tally just 16 seconds later, and Patrick Kane evened the tally at 3 with just 33 seconds left in the half. After scoring, Kane (who was booed lustily by the Nashville partisans all night), earned his share of laughs and applause by initiating a faux "fight"with the 6'8" Scott, making both Scott and Kane eligible for a Gordie Howe Hat Trick with the addition of an assist. Alas, neither would get the job done.
So, as with Game 1, this one went to the break all tied. Despite a good pace, the Pacific managed only eight shots on goal, still breathing the Central's seven shots.
The goaltenders for the second half were John Gibson for the Pacific and Devan Dubnyk for the Central. Gibson made it onto the scorecard just 1:49 into the period, earning the lone assist on a beautiful breakaway pass to Daniel Sedin, who finished it off in classic fashion. It was one of three assists for goaltenders on the night, suggesting that the goalies might not mind this format as much as you would otherwise think. In fact, between the assists earned by Rinne, Gibson and Bishop and the puck handling penalty to Rinne, it was as if the goalies were paying homage to Patrick Roy. It is the reward for having to face serial odd man rushes in the reduced man format.
Sedin's goal put the Pacific in the lead to stay. At the 3:27 mark of the period, John Scott struck again, this time on a quasi-breakaway. He received the puck on a stretch pass, and skated in with a defender on his back. Despite this, he zinged a wrister high glove on Dubnyk, earning his second goal of the period, and simultaneously showing that his skill set is not out of place at this level. Taylor Hall and Daniel Sedin added goals just 24 seconds apart to extend the lead to 7 - 3. After Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Sequin duplicated the feat by scoring within a mere 13 seconds of each other a few minutes later, Taylor Hall and Drew Doughty put the icing on the cake with goals a minute apart. A Roman Josi goal with 1:03 left gave the home fans something to cheer about, but could do nothing to salvage the game for the Central.
The second frame featured significantly more shooting, with the Pacific out-shooting the Central 13 - 10 for the second half, and 21 - 17 for the game. As the save percentages would suggest, there were lots of prime chances in this one, and the Championship Game promised to be a barn-burner.
Championship Game: Pacific Division 1 Atlantic Division 0
If you had taken a poll of the assembled press prior to the final match, a 1 - 0 final score would not have been considered within the realm of possibility. "A 1- 0 All-Star Game? With a 3- on-3 format? Are you kidding me?" But that's just what happened.
This one was all about the goalies, plus what I suspect was some squeezing of the sticks with $1 million on the line. Sure, all of these guys make good money, but few make enough to be able to take approximately $100K casually. The posts and crossbars also took a beating in this one, as opportunity after opportunity found either pad or pipe.
The first half goalies were especially sharp, with Roberto Luongo rejecting all 12 shots he faced, and Jonathan Quick stopping the 10 he saw. There were some truly acrobatic saves in this collection, and some of the shooters could only shake their heads at what could have been. By the same token, there were some prime chances that were whiffed along the way, leading to equal degrees of head shaking.
The lone goal of the game came 3:38 into the second half, when Corey Perry nailed a precise wrist shot to the far side, just over Ben Bishop's right pad. It was one of only four shots Bishop faced in the period, while at the other end, John Gibson stopped all seven offerings sent his way. Once again, when the Atlantic team pulled their goalie, the structure of the extra man vs. the defensive triangle seemed to frustrate offensive opportunity more than create it, and the game expired without a conversion. The Pacific Division takes home the trophy for the Western Conference
Aftermath & Post Mortem
After the game, the Pacific Players lifted John Scott onto their shoulders, both as a celebration of what he faced and did, and as a pointed rebuke to those that would have denied Scott this opportunity. With a solid performance on the ice, combined with his popularity with the voting fan base, his selection as MVP seemed pre-ordained. Both Bill Daley -- who presented the MVP trophy and car -- and Commissioner Gary Bettman -- who interrupted his cash counting from his new contract extension to present the $1 million check to Scott, looked like they wanted to be anywhere else but there. "Forced smile" would be an understatement.
A number of take-aways from this one:
- I thought the new format was more than a bit contrived coming into this game, but I was wrong. It really worked. The combination of the three-on-three format, with the conference and division rivalries hit a note with the players. There were actually checks thrown in this one, and while guys didn't sprawl on the ice or block shots, they put forth a more than credible display of hockey. The format allows individual skills to shine through, while maintaining a team competition. Will the novelty wear off? Perhaps. But for now, it's a keeper.
- It was perhaps the perfect ending for John Scott. He scored two legitimate goals, made a number of good plays in the title game, and nobody on his team scored more goals than he did. While the fan vote could well have gone his way in any event, he is not in the uncomfortable position of having an MVP trophy he clearly did not earn, and he can take that trophy and car back to his home with pride. The NHL and the Coyotes look small and petty, and nobody had to say a cross word today to convey the point. Perfect.
- Brandon Saad acquitted himself well as the Blue Jackets' representative. He was a real presence in the Skills Competition, and similarly brought a lot to every shift on the ice tonight. With a bit of good fortune, he could have had a couple of goals himself.
- Dylan Larkin is the real deal. Detroit does it again.
- Brent Burns may be one of the most underrated players in the league. Although he looks like a goofy reject from the casting call for a GEICO commercial, he brings the full range of skills to the ice, and is fun to watch. It's also great to see how much he simply enjoys playing the game of hockey.
- At the end of the day, it was a very entertaining evening, and it was just part of a great weekend of seeing player celebrate the game, their teammates and their families (not necessarily in that order). That's an attribute that separates hockey from many of the other sports, and events like this bring it home. Good stuff.
- Next year, Los Angeles. Stay tuned.