After a year hiatus because of the Olympics, the NHL All-Star Game has returned and today's exhibition will feature three players from the New York-area teams, each playing on the same team.
To recap: this year's All-Star festivities were overhauled, six players (three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie) were voted in by the fans and the remaining 36 players were selected by the league. Two captains, Eric Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom, were chosen for each side -- and then two assistant captains, a defenseman and a forward, were also chosen. Unlike any other year, a fantasy draft was held (this past Friday) as Staal and Lidstrom picked their team's players from the pool.
Team Staal, with assistant captains Ryan Kesler of the Canucks and Mike Green of the Capitals picked first, while Team Lidstrom, with assistant captains Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks and Martin St. Louis of the Lightning picked second. Team Staal selected hometown Hurricances goalie Cam Ward first, while Team Lidstrom selected the Lightning's Steven Stamkos.
The New York Rangers' two representatives, Henrik Lundqvist (sixth round) and Marc Staal (seventh round), and the New Jersey Devils' lone All-Star, Patrik Elias (16th round), will each be playing on Team Staal. While the New York Islanders did have a rookie, Michael Grabner, selected to participate in last night's SuperSkills, he will not be involved in this afternoon's game. Grabner did earn the honors as the fastest skater last night (for Team Staal), however. Derek Stepan also was involved in the skills festivities as he participated in the accuracy shot competition. The 12 rookies selected in the pool were merely to fill out the SuperSkills competition field.
As for today's game, expect an offensive showcase. Very few players (i.e. Marc Staal, David Backes) were chosen for their defensive prowess. Some like Ryan Kesler, Patrick Sharp or Jonathan Toews are two-way players, but most of these All-Stars are offense-first players, like the Sedin twins, Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin.
Marc Staal (six goals, 13 assists, plus-12) will be paired with the Penguins' Kris Letang, and should complement his offensive aptitude well. Even though Marc Staal has great defensive instincts, expect some offensive chances for him as well, as the game is sure to be run-and-gun. Also don't be surprised if he makes a few key plays in his own zone as well.
Lundqvist (21-16-3, 2.29 GAA, .924 SV%) will play in the third period; expect him to face a barrage of shots and be forced to make many acrobatic saves, which will be the case for each goalie involved in this showcase. He's used to providing the Mariano Rivera role for the Rangers, but this will obviously be a much stiffer test.
As one of the weaker All-Star selections, Elias (13 goals, 24 assists, minus-6) will find himself on fourth line with Colorado's Paul Stasny and Carolina's Jeff Skinner -- but expect Team Staal coach Joel Quenneville to really dish out the minutes evenly. This is Elias' first All-Star game in nine years.
On paper, in a game that will reward offensive creativity, it looks as if Team Lidstrom may have a slight advantage (Eric Staal went with the hometown picks of Ward and 18-year-old Jeff Skinner, chose his brother and has more of defensive-minded group), but you really can't go wrong with either team.
Here are some numbers, courtesy of NHL.com:
6-5: players with 20 more more goals on Team Staal compared to Team Lidstrom.
24: Goal margin between Team Staal and Team Lidstrom forwards.
61-49: Goals scored by Team Lidstrom's defensemen to Team Staal's.
214-168: Points by Team Lidstrom's defensemen compared to Team Staal's.
3-1: Conn Smythe winners who will play on Team Lidstrom to Team Staal.
11-8: Stanley Cups won by players on Team Lidstrom
13: Shutouts by the collection of goaltenders on each side