RALEIGH, N.C. -- The buzz was palpable all over town this weekend, and the atmosphere inside the RBC Center on Sunday was thrilling.
The barbeque pits were fired up early as thousands of Caniacs killed the hours before the main event with incredible tailgates. Once inside, they started chanting "Let's Go Staal" well before the All-Stars even hit the ice for the pre-game introductions. And, the ovation Carolina rookie Jeff Skinner received when the P.A. announcer introduced him was thunderous.
The first puck hadn't even dropped in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover and the atmosphere had already matched the hype. Caniac Nation showed up to see the stars of the NHL in action on the same ice for a true celebration of their favorite League.
It was star-studded. It was loud. It was fabulous. And the game was pretty good, too.
Team Lidstrom 11, Team Staal 10.
"It was incredible," Eric Staal said. "I thought the atmosphere, especially the start, was awesome. Fans were excited. The weather was unbelievable. The fans were tailgating. It was awesome, a lot of fun. It was just a good time."
Dallas forward Loui Eriksson's empty-net goal with 1:11 remaining proved to be the game-winner in an as expected offensive spectacle. Team Lidstrom, with four unanswered goals in the final 10 minutes of the first period, set a record for the biggest comeback in the history of the NHL All-Star Game.
Team Staal jumped out to a 4-0 lead just 5:41 into the game and also had a 6-4 lead by the 6:10 mark of the second period.
"I know, 4-0, usually the game is over," Lightning center Steven Stamkos told NHL.com, "but everyone knows in an All-Star event like this, it's never over until it's over."
Boston goalie Tim Thomas set a record by becoming the first goalie to post victories in three straight NHL All-Star Games. Thomas also won the games in Atlanta in 2008 and Montreal in 2009.
Chicago forward Patrick Sharp (1 goal, 2 assists, plus-2) took home the Honda Odyssey as the game's MVP, but Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, who was on the bench for Team Lidstrom with Vancouver's Alain Vigneault, thinks Thomas might have been robbed even though he allowed 4 goals on 15 shots in the third period.
"If I would have chosen an MVP I probably would have taken Tim Thomas, especially since it was his third All-Star win," Laviolette said.
Nicklas Lidstrom's plus-7 rating was the highest plus rating in an All-Star Game in 20 years, since Adam Oates was a plus-7 for the Wales Conference in 1991. Lidstrom's defense partner, Shea Weber, was a plus-6 with 4 assists.
But, stats aside, this game and this weekend had just about everything a hockey fan or player could want.
The inaugural NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft powered by Cisco played to rave reviews. The Honda SuperSkills competition capped a loaded All-Star Saturday that included big crowds at NHL Fan Fair and a 3 Doors Down concert in downtown Raleigh.
That Sunday's All-Star Game came down to the wire, to the final seconds, made it even more memorable.
"You could tell getting off the bus yesterday before the skills competition that there are a lot of fans here," Lidstrom said. "Pulling in before the game there were a lot of fans out there tailgating and getting ready for the game. It seemed like the crowd was really into the game. The whole game they were loud and cheering for goals. I think they helped to create this atmosphere. I really enjoyed my weekend."
In the locker rooms postgame players were walking around with Sharpies getting their jerseys, sticks and gloves signed.
Even the 40-year-old Lidstrom, who was playing in his 12th All-Star Game, collected some memorabilia for his children.
"It's a big memory for me," Eriksson, who finished with 4 points, told NHL.com. "This is my first time at an All-Star Game so I've been taking a lot of pictures and getting things signed for me. That's the fun part of it, too."
Team Staal gave the home fans reason to go bonkers early in the game by scoring four quick goals against Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
"We were like, 'OK, this is going to be easy,' " Ovechkin said.
Nah, not in an All-Star Game.
Anze Kopitar, Dustin Byfuglien, Eriksson and Matt Duchene all scored on Montreal goalie Carey Price to bring Team Lidstrom back before the first intermission.
"We got complacent," Staal said. "I'll take the brunt of it. Leave a little bit for (Joel) Quenneville, too."
Lidstrom's squad needed to come back again in the second after Sharp and Kris Letang gave Team Staal a 6-4 lead just 6:10 into the period. Kopitar, Stamkos and Danny Briere scored before the end of the second period to give Team Lidstrom a lead, 7-6, going into the third period.
That's when it got wild.
Staal brought the house down with his first goal of the game just 3:49 into the third to make it 7-7. Duchene appeared to have a glorious chance to give Team Lidstrom a lead less than three minutes later, but Ovechkin broke up his breakaway on Henrik Lundqvist by purposely sliding his stick along the ice.
The officials had no choice but to call a penalty shot, the first ever in All-Star Game history.
"I'm in history again," Ovechkin said with a smile.
Lundqvist stoned Duchene to keep the game tied at 7-7.
"I think fans love it," Ovechkin added. "He didn't score, right?"
No, but Letang did two and a half minutes later to give Team Staal an 8-7 lead. That just gave Lidstrom's group another chance to show its resiliency.
Briere and Jonathan Toews scored within 48 seconds to give Team Lidstrom the lead again, this time 9-8. Martin St. Louis made it 10-8 with 6:07 to play, but Rick Nash brought Team Staal within a goal just 78 seconds later.
Quenneville pulled Lundqvist for the extra attacker with about a minute and a half to play, but Eriksson got the puck on his stick and wasted no time putting it into the waning net. He only wished he could have scored the winner with Lundqvist, his good friend from back home in Sweden, in the net.
"I told him he was supposed to be there, so that's a goal against Hank," Eriksson said.
Staal made it interesting by scoring his second of the period with 33.6 seconds left, but the home team couldn't get another shot on goal.
It didn't matter.
The weekend was already a huge success.
"We felt the energy, the buildup coming into this weekend," Staal said. "The fans have been excited, and then they delivered. It was awesome."