Hopefully you enjoyed the National Hockey League's All-Star Skills Challenge from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. on Saturday night. I have to admit, I watched it back-to-back on NBCSN, as it is truly one of my favorite events of the sports season. In fact, over the past few years, the Skills Competition has been better than the All-Star Game(s) itself, just like the Home Run Derby is better than the Major League Baseball Game, the NBA Skills Challenge (sans the slam dunk competition) is better than the NBA All-Star Game, etc. Let's get started!
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The big dog on campus was Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. It was a rather marginal hardest shot competition, as usual suspects Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber were not in the building. The first five shooters, totaling nine shots, failed to hit the century mark. Then, Ovechkin, already with the title in the bag, put on a show and cranked it up to 101.3 mph.
I don't know how many of you also play hockey, but a slap shot is not terribly easy. Even the most skilled amateur players at your local rink can bring it with some heat, but many times you can whiff, too. You need to wind up almost like a golf shot, strike a few inches behind the puck and get that bend in the stick and a ton of torque to make the rubber fly. It isn't something that is easily done, and for my skillset it's all about the wrist shot. If you do not play, give it a shot sometime and you'll appreciate the skills competition that much more. In the past, Chara and Weber have brought it in the neighborhood of 108 mph. That's ridiculous. The league has toyed with the idea of bringing in specialists for the competitions to spice things up. Perhaps next year in San Jose we'll see a guy like Chara or Weber, who aren't in the All-Star Game, but allowed to compete on Saturday in the skills competition.
Like the slap shot, skating fast is an art form. The guys at your local rink can do C-cuts, glide on their edges, do crossovers, etc. But sometimes even the veteran amateur players can look like a baby deer in the first minutes of life, falling all over. That's what makes Tampa Bay's Brayden Point, Buffalo's Jack Eichel and Edmonton's Connor McDavid so special, especially the latter. McDavid saved the best for last, edging out Point for the fastest skater honors for the second consecutive skills competition.
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Marc-Andre Fleury showed all of the casual fans what fantasy owners already have known - he still has PLENTY left in the tank. The goaltender, who always seems to have a smile on his face, stood on his head in the save streak event. At one point he stopped 14 consecutive shots. And this isn't against the likes of your run of the mill skaters, but this was against the league's best of the best. He edged out Nashville's Pekka Rinne in an amazing display of goaltending. The Predators backstop was almost equal to the task, stopping 13 shots in a row at one point. Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers also showed well in the event, and Andrei Vasilevskiy entertained the home folks with a few spectacular stops, too.
The most memorable part of the competition might have been Nashville's P.K. Subban gliding in on King Henrik, and taking off his right-handed glove before shooting the puck at Lundqvist. The netminder was unfazed, as he kept the galvanized rubber from tickling the twine, providing one of the best highlights of the competition. It edged out Fleury's choice of 'Let It Go' from the Frozen soundtrack as his go-to music for the competition. He also had a little help from his friends, i.e. the goalie's best friend, the posts.
Other memorable moments featured former Lightning player Brian Boyle getting a warm ovation from the crowd during the shot accuracy competition, although he was edged out by Vancouver rookie Brock Boeser. Boyle, who has been dealing with an illness to his son over the past year, was also diagnosed with a form of treatable leukemia in the fall, so this was a real, feel-good moment. The Anaheim Ducks also did a good thing, bringing a female teen cancer patient and Rickard Rakell fan to Tampa for the weekend. At one point she was on the ice sitting next to her idol, and waving back at her parents for a really nice moment. Hopefully things go well for the Boyle Family, as well as the Hawley Family from California.
Quick Hits: Johnny Gaudreau showed off his amazing puck handling, negotiating the puck control relay in just 24.65 seconds, putting the rest of the field to shame. All of those days working out and practicing at the rink his dad runs paid off handsomely. … It was Alex Pietrangelo dominating the passing challenge, a rare feat for a rearguard. It's normally a competition dominated by forwards, but the Blues rearguard made it look easy. … Tampa's Nikita Kucherov is arguably one of the most dangerous snipers in the game today. However, he and L.A.'s Drew Doughty had an awful time in the passing challenge, showing just how difficult these events can be, even for the best and brightest in the NHL. … Boston's Brad Marchand, currently serving a five-game suspension, was still able to take part in the shot accuracy competition. Perhaps it was the rust of his suspension, but it was more of an inaccuracy competition with Marchand. He took way more shots to complete the event, and was winded by the end. Imagine going to the driving range and driving a bucket of balls in about two minutes. You'd be tired, too. … Martin Jones (lower body) is expected to return to game action after the break. That's bad news for the fantasy value of Aaron Dell, who has done a yeoman-like job holding down the fort in the absence of M.J. … The NHL Board of Governors announced the Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets will take part in a two-game regular-season series against each other in Finland. That will be music to the ears of Jets forwards Joel Armia and Patrik Laine, as well as Panthers All-Star Aleksander Barkov. The Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils will also face each other in Sweden to kick off the 2018-19 season.