|Alexander Ovechkin shoots between his legs on Chris Osgood during the Dodge/NHL SuperSkills Breakaway Challenge competition. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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The Eastern Conference took the win, 9-6, but the event was fun for both sides and the fans who packed the arena.
Following with the theme of the season, the competition between the conferences was tight.
“I think it was a good night,” said Eastern Conference All-Star Scott Gomez of the Rangers. “Went down to the wire, wasn’t a blowout. I think that’s what people want to see.”
Most people came to see the Breakaway Challenge, an event billed as the NHL’s version of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Players were judged more on originality than whether their shots went in.
The star of that show was the Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin, who won the event with just the kind of originality fans were hoping to see.
The Russian star dazzled them by first dribbling the puck on his stick and trying to bat it in out of the air, but whiffed.
Rather than quit, Ovechkin tried to up the ante. He batted the puck high into the air, spun around 360 degrees and tried again to bat the puck out of the air, but again whiffed on his swing.
“I’m a terrible baseball player,” Ovechkin admitted later.
While he won’t win over any baseball scouts, the fans and judges certainly were supportive, awarding him 60 points in the final.
“I just try to make some different moves,” he said. “It was fun.”
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Tomas Kaberle’s sudden-death win in the Shooting Accuracy contest put the East ahead to stay.
Jason Arnott and Jarome Iginla both hit the four targets on seven shots, but Arnott was tabbed for the West’s second round. Both Kaberle and Arnott smacked three targets on four shots, which meant a one-shot sudden-death Styrofoam target was placed in the upper right-hand corner of the net. After Arnott missed, Kaberle shattered the disc and the East took a 6-5 lead.
For Arnott, a Toronto native, he already can sense the text messages he’ll be getting from home.
“Now all my buddies are going to give it to me that I lost to a Leaf,” he said with a laugh. “But it was nice to be in there and it was nice to hit some targets.”
Zdeno Chara’s second-consecutive win in the Hardest Shot contest was the icing on the East’s cake.
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Bruins defenseman put his size and strength into his two shots, rocketing his final shot at 103.1 mph. It was the second-fastest winning speed of all time, just behind Al Iafrate’s standard of 105.2 mph set in 1993.
Chara’s first shot clocked 101.4 mph, just short of the early leader, Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier, who lasered one at 101.9 mph.
“I said it before the event that this year there were some really dangerous shooters,” said Chara. “Dion (Phaneuf), and I know Jason Arnott has a really good shot. Obviously Jason Arnott can shoot hard. Vinny was probably the surprise, but I know he can shoot the puck well. It was a tough competition.”
The night began with the debut of the Obstacle Course, where four-man teams tried to work through a number of disciplines – taking a puck between cones, throwing saucer passes over a barrier, firing one-timers, and then having the goalies shoot the length of the ice.The Eastern Conference, led by the foursomes of Jason Spezza, Marc Savard, Sergei Gonchar and Tim Thomas, and Evgeni Malkin, Mike Richards, Andrei Markov and Rick DiPietro, emerged victorious, 2-1.
“I had a ton of fun,” said DiPietro, who will start Sunday’s game for the Eastern Conference. “Hope it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. This is my first time doing this and I’m trying to enjoy every minute of it.”
Shawn Horcoff put the West ahead by winning the fastest-skater competition. He clocked 4.395 seconds in racing from the goal line to the far blue line, topping hometown favorite Ilya Kovalchuk. Brian Campbell set the standard for the East, finishing his preliminary event in 4.865 seconds.
In the final race, Campbell stumbled at the start, which allowed Horcoff to win with ease in 4.395 seconds.
“In my first heat I actually slipped a little bit right off the bat, but was able to win it,” said Horcoff. “But the second time around (in the final), I felt a lot more comfortable. It all has to do with getting a good jump off the whistle. Those first three or four strides are very important. Right now, my legs are feeling very sore.”
|Western Conference All-Star Dion Phaneuf, of the Calgary Flames, cranked a 96.2 mph shot during the Hardest Shot competition. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)|
Dion Phaneuf was the only player to score twice in helping the Western Conference win the Elimination Shootout. First, Phaneuf beat Tomas Vokoun when he faked a slap shot and put a forehand past the Florida netminder to qualify for the final.
Gomez beat Chris Osgood with a wrist shot, and then Malkin snapped a low shot under Osgood’s glove. Kimmo Timonen of Philadelphia made it three East shooters in the final when he scored on Manny Legace.
But in the final, Legace recovered to stop the three East skaters, while Phaneuf deked Tim Thomas to the ice and lifted the puck over the fallen netminder.
The revamped YoungStars 3-on-3 Challenge featured end-to-end rushes, including a pair of breakaway goals by Patrick Kane, one off a home-run pass by Legace.
Brandon Dubinsky scored twice in the first half of the 12-minute, running-clock competition as the East raced to a 6-2 lead at the half, and then held off a furious West comeback for a 7-6 win.
The whole night was close, competitive and loud, thanks to the raucous Atlanta fans.
“It was a great crowd,” said Arnott. “When we first went out we didn’t know if it was going to be full or not, but then it started filling up and I think it was sold out. It was great. To see here in Atlanta … all the fans out, it was fantastic.”
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