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Southeast boasts plenty of star power

by Mike G. Morreale
The Southeast Division will be well represented at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game at Bell Centre in Montreal on Jan. 25.

Here's a closer look at those Eastern Conference All-Star reserves from the division:

Alex Ovechkin, Capitals -- "Ovie" will be making his third All-Star Game appearance. The 23-year-old wing shared the NHL lead in goals (27) and ranked second in points (53) in 39 games played prior to Friday's game against Columbus. He also leads the League in shots (245) and is tied for fourth with five game-winning goals. Ovechkin has fueled the Southeast Division-leading Capitals to their best first half in franchise history at 27-11-3 (57 points).

Ovechkin appeared in the 2007 All-Star Game in Dallas and the 2008 All-Star Game in Atlanta, scoring goals in each game (1 in 2007, 2 last year). He is the only Capital ever to have three goals in all-star games and trails only Peter Bondra (5), Rod Langway (4) and Mike Gartner (4) in appearances for the club.

"I don't know why Semin is not over there, and 'Greenie' and 'Backie.' I think they are top players in the League right now," Ovechkin said on Thursday. "So it's pretty strange for me."

Eric Staal, Hurricanes -- The 2008 All-Star Game Most Valuable Player will be making his third straight All-Star Game appearance. Staal, 24, currently leads the Hurricanes and is tied for 12th in the NHL with 18 goals this season, ranks first on the team with a plus-10 rating and ranks second among Carolina players with 32 points. Staal has played in 296 consecutive regular-season games and has missed just one NHL game since turning pro in 2003.

Staal won the 2008 All-Star Game MVP award with 2 goals and 1 assist in the Eastern Conference's 8-7 triumph at Atlanta's Philips Arena.

"It's an honor. Any time you get named with those types of players it's a good feeling," Staal said. "Especially coming out of this locker room, there's some good players on this team, as well. It should be fun and hopefully I can represent our team well. It's an honor to be selected and to be a part of that, especially in Montreal. I'll try to represent the Carolina Hurricanes well."

Jay Bouwmeester, Panthers -- Bouwmeester, 25, is the only defenseman to be named among the Southeast players. He will be making his second All-Star appearance. He's the Panthers third-leading scorer with 22 points (7 goals) and ranks third in the League in average on-ice time (27:34).

"It's an honor, things like that are always nice, and being in Montreal will be pretty neat, too," Bouwmeester said. "The last time was pretty neat. You get to meet some guys you watched growing up as a kid, so that's kind of special. So it should be fun."

"He's been our MVP to date," said Panthers coach Peter DeBoer. "He's done it all for us. He hasn't missed a game, plays against everyone's top players, logs more ice than anyone in the league, and on and on."

Vincent Lecavalier, Lightning -- The big center, named to his fourth All-Star Game, leads the Lightning with 16 goals, 5 power-play goals, 4 game-winning goals and 146 shots on goal. Lecavalier served as the captain of the Eastern Conference team at the 2008 All-Star Game and also appeared in the '07 and '03 games.

"It's a great honor to be chosen," Lecavalier said. "I'm obviously very happy, but I wish Marty (St. Louis) could've come with me, because I know its going to be pretty special. It's the 100th year of one of the greatest organizations in sports. It's going to be a great time."

Ilya Kovalchuk, Thrashers -- Kovalchuk, who is making his third All-Star appearance, leads Atlanta with 42 points, 27 assists and 132 shots through 42 games this season. The 25-year-old left wing appeared in the 2004 and '08 All-Star Games. He was actually named a starter for the 2004 Game after receiving the most votes in fan balloting.

"It's all about fun, hopefully make some good plays so fans can enjoy a couple of moves or some good goals or somebody checks or something," Kovalchuk said. "It's fun, especially in a city like Montreal. It's religion there. They know so much about hockey. I think it's going to be a really good time."

"He's certainly deserving," Thrashers coach John Anderson said. "Every time he touches the puck it's a bit of excitement both ways. I can't think of too many players that are much better than him in the whole NHL. People come to watch him specifically."

Golden stick -- Atlanta Thrashers prospect Angelo Esposito is dedication personified. After being cut three previous times from Team Canada's national junior evaluation camp, the 19-year-old Esposito finally earned a roster spot for the World Junior Championships in Ottawa this season and didn't disappoint.

"The only thing I was thinking about was winning that gold medal," Esposito told "I always had it in my mind to make sure I was competing hard and was always the first one on the puck. It was a pretty special moment when I received word that I had made the team because I had worked so hard. They told me they wanted an energy role-player out there and I just made certain I improved every day."

It wasn't soon after that Esposito went from fourth-line duty to top-line checker alongside John Tavares and Chris DiDomenico.

"They were two great players," Esposito said. "John can see the ice so well and I learned so much from practicing and playing with those guys. They took care of all the little things, used their speed and worked to get the puck on net. I know my role wasn't to become a goal scorer, but to work hard and create chances and I adapted to that role the best I could."

While playing with Tavares and DiDomenico, Esposito chipped in with 3 goals and 1 assist in six games. He scored the team's only shorthanded goal of the tournament, beating Sweden's Jacob Markstrom with a backhand from the edge of the left face-off circle in the gold-medal game.

The stick with which Esposito scored that goal, which proved to be the difference in a 5-1 victory against Sweden, is headed to Toronto to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"That's going to be pretty cool to have a piece of memorabilia in the Hockey Hall of Fame," Esposito said. "I've been there a lot and have always looked at the historic pieces. You never think about your stuff going in there. That's going to be special, for sure."

John Esposito, Angelo's father, knows good things really do come to those who wait.

"I think it sends a special message to all the kids who play sports, and who don't play sports, that they should never give up, that they should always keep working to fulfill their dream," Esposito told CTV's Canada AM. "And if they work hard enough, maybe one day their dream will be fulfilled."

"I love the story," said Canada coach Pat Quinn. "A lot of people -- including perhaps his agents -- said, 'Don't bother going, you've been cut so many times' ... but he wanted to come. He wanted a chance to play, he wanted a chance to live his dream, and he was not going to be denied. We had to pick him for this team. It was a strong pick and he performed well."

Esposito will never forget his time spent under the tutelage of Quinn.

"Pat Quinn is pretty special and has so much experience," Esposito said. "He doesn't say a lot, but when he does, you really listen to him and his great words of wisdom. He really gets you excited about playing the game and playing hard."

Originally selected by the Penguins in the first round (No. 20) in 2007, Esposito was dealt to Atlanta, along with Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and a 2008 first-round draft pick (center Daultan Leveille) for forwards Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis last Feb. 26.

Boo-hoo -- Florida Panthers defenseman Bryan McCabe anticipated the cold shoulder when he stepped on the ice at Air Canada Centre to play against his former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, last Tuesday.

McCabe, who was traded to Florida in September after spending seven seasons in Toronto, was often the scapegoat for the Maple Leafs' struggles last season.

"They booed me when I played there, so I wouldn't expect anything different," McCabe said. "I enjoyed all the time I had there."

As it turned out, McCabe had the last laugh as he finished with one assist while earning a team-leading 18:17 of ice time in a 4-2 victory.

"They were really flat," McCabe said of Toronto. "We really outplayed them, got up a couple, and we really didn't look back from there. It was a good game. The boos weren't too bad out there. I got it much worse when I played here so it was fine."

Florida coach Peter DeBoer admitted McCabe had been preparing all week for the treatment he would receive in Toronto.

"The guys around here have been booing him to get him prepared, kind of getting him immune to it for the last two days," DeBoer said. "I've got all the respect in the world for Bryan McCabe. I think he's handled the situation like a consummate professional and I can't say enough. I can't imagine anyone would handle the situation better than he has."

McCabe injured his back in the season opener and missed 10 games, but is still fourth on the team in scoring with 19 points, including 7 goals. He also has 4 power-play goals and a plus-4 rating. McCabe had 23 points in 54 games with Toronto last season.

"I can't say enough to how he's contributed to us staying in the race," said DeBoer, whose team is three points behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the Southeast Division race.

Seeing is believing -- Tampa Bay Lightning wing Gary Roberts is determined to return to the lineup because he believes in what coach Rick Tocchet is trying to accomplish.

"I believe in what our coaching staff is doing," Roberts told The St. Petersburg Times. "I really do believe this organization is getting things turned around and we're heading in the right direction with the people we have running our team. My goal is still to help this organization."

The 42-year-old Roberts, who has been sidelined 21 games with a left elbow injury, has 2 goals and 1 assist in 19 games. He will not require surgery and has been working hard to get back on the ice with his teammates.

"I still try to be physical. But for me to play my game and play that way, I have to be healthy," said Roberts, who is in his 21st season. "If I get this elbow taken care of, I feel I'm still in good shape, I'm skating good and still can be a factor for the team. I still try to hang around practice and talk to guys in the morning and try to give guys feedback. I really do care about the organization. I didn't come down here just to retire."

Father vs. son -- When Hurricanes center Brandon Sutter stepped on the ice to face off against his father and New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter on Tuesday, it marked the fifth time in League history that a son was matched against a coach who happened to be his dad.

"Obviously, it's a little cool and a little different to play against him," Brandon Sutter said. "But once the game got going, it was just another game -- that's how I treated it. We're at the halfway point now, and we've started to climb a bit in the standings and we're playing good hockey. We're going to keep that going."

It was actually the first time the scenario played out since Oct. 6, 2007, when Brady Murray (LA) played against the team coached by his father Andy Murray. There was also Rik Wilson and Landon Wilson, Bill Dineen and Gord Dineen and Bob Johnson and Mark Johnson.

"Once the game got started, which I kind of figured would (happen), my focus was behind the bench and making sure I was doing the right things," Brent Sutter said. "His focus was to play the game. I thought he played pretty well."

Brandon Sutter, whose team scored a 3-2 victory, came close to celebrating a goal but hit the post late in the second period. He took three shots and earned 7:34 of ice time.

Contact Mike Morreale at

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