MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens couldn't have asked for a better ending to all-star weekend.
A sellout crowd at the Bell Centre was roaring as the teams traded chances in overtime of the all-star game on Sunday and absolutely exploded when Habs forward Alexei Kovalev scored what turned out to be the shootout winner.
Kovalev also scored twice in regulation as the Eastern Conference All-Stars pulled out a 12-11 victory over the West and earned the MVP honours as a result. He won a truck along with the adoration of the hometown crowd.
The game ended up turning into the showcase of skill it's intended to be and the fans in Montreal responded in kind. The city is in the midst of a hockey renaissance that seems to be culminating now with the celebration of the Habs centennial season.
"I think hockey is more popular now than it was in the '70s when we won four Cups in a row," said former Canadiens player Serge Savard. "They had 22,000 people at the workout yesterday morning. And you can see people in the streets, people with cars with flags, with the 'CH' flag, the waiting list for season tickets.
"I've never seen that like it is now."
That was evident all weekend long as the four Habs participants - Kovalev, Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek and Carey Price - were the centre of attention everywhere they went.
The sellout crowd even chanted Kovalev's name after he assisted on a first-period goal, and went nuts when he later scored on a couple nice breakaway moves. Kovalev nearly had the hat trick, but had two different shots hit the post.
Martin St. Louis also scored twice for the East while Alex Ovechkin, Eric Staal, Andrei Markov, Zach Parise
, Evgeni Malkin, Dany Heatley and Jay Bouwmeester added singles.
Ovechkin also scored in the shootout.
Sheldon Souray, with two, Keith Tkachuk, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Rick Nash, Milan Hejduk, Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane replied for the Western Conference All-Stars.
The game featured all kinds of skill and helped make a case for leaving things as they are. There may have been no hitting or physical play, but that gave the players a platform to show off some smooth hands and flashy moves.
The nicest goal of the evening came off the stick of Malkin, who pulled the puck back between his legs before beating Niklas Backstrom at 7:45 of the second period. The Pittsburgh Penguins forward leads the league in scoring but isn't as well known as other star players because he speaks limited English.
Even still, he seemed to come out of his shell a bit during all-star weekend. Malkin went out of his way to sign autographs during Saturday's skills competition and tried a few different trick moves in Sunday's game that had the sellout crowd gasping.
The Eastern Conference was ahead 7-4 after Malkin's goal but the West kept coming. Nash, Hejduk and Souray scored within a span of 2:07 to tie it before Doan batted a puck out of the air 32 seconds into the third period to give the Western Conference its first lead since early in the game.
Like other all-star games, the overall pace picked up as the minutes wound down.
The energy in the building mirrored that as Bouwmeester's goal to tie the game 11-11 with less than four minutes to play got a big cheer. St. Louis had a glorious chance in the final minute but Roberto Luongo turned him away.
That helped set the stage for overtime.
Vincent Lecavalier was one of the few players not to register a point during the game. He also had a shootout attempt stopped.
Even still, he received another hearty ovation from fans who desperately want to see the Tampa Bay Lightning captain get dealt to the Habs before the March 4 deadline.
For his part, Lecavalier looked a little uncomfortable receiving so much attention.
The all-star game will take a hiatus next season because of the mid-season break needed for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The 2011 game is scheduled to be held in Phoenix.
Notes: Fifteen players made their first appearance at the game ... A message on the video board wished former Habs coach Pat Burns well in his battle with cancer ... Jean Beliveau and Bob Gainey dropped the puck for the opening faceoff ... Two of the officials were from Montreal - referee Marc Joanette and linesman Pierre Racicot ... Game-worn jerseys will be auctioned off for the Hockey Fights Cancer charity.