This weekend, Atlanta will be the center of the hockey universe, as the city plays host to NHL All-Star Weekend.
The 2008 celebration of hockey marks the first time Georgia has hosted the star-studded affair, which will feature the NHL Dodge SuperSkills Competition Saturday (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio) and the All-Star Game Sunday (6 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio).
"We're excited about hosting it," Thrashers' interim coach and General Manager Don Waddell said. "It's something we had booked for the 2004-05 season that we lost. So we're anxious for this weekend to come. We have a lot of planning that's gone into it for a lot of years now. It's an ideal situation to showcase the best players in the League to our fans. Our fans have been looking forward to this. It's an exciting time in Atlanta and I'm positive we'll put on a good show for everybody coming into the city, along with our fans."
The centerpiece of the hockey event will be the 56th NHL All-Star Game, which will be held Sunday at Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta. The Thrashers will have two representatives, Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa.
Kovalchuk, who was the League’s top vote getter for the 2003-04 contest, will be participating in his second All-Star Game.
"It's always fun to play in the All-Star Game because all the best players are going to be there," he said.
Hossa, who in 2006-07 became the first player in Thrashers history to score 100 points, will be playing in his fourth All-Star Game.
"I've been to a couple of them already, but it's always an honor to be selected, especially the first time in my career I get to play in front of my home crowd, which is always exciting,” Hossa said. “So I'm really looking forward to it."
The Atlanta crowd will also be looking forward to watching the YoungStars Game Saturday, where hometown favorite Tobias Enstrom will be showcasing his skills. But if the choice was left up to Kovalchuk, Enstrom would be playing in the main game with the big boys.
"He's our No. 1 ‘D’ right now," Kovalchuk said. "He's plays with a lot of patience and he's great with the puck and without the puck. He also knows what he's doing and plays his position really well. I think he deserves to be in the main event – the big game, not just the rookie one."
Hossa has also been impressed with Enstrom.
"Tobias has played really well for us this season – his first year in the National Hockey League. He's been our best defenseman by far. It's unbelievable how well he skates, how he moves the puck and how smart he is with the puck. He's having such a great year."
According to Waddell, Kovalchuk and Hossa were also having pretty good seasons.
"Kovalchuk has been leading the League most of the year in goals,” the coach said. “He's having a terrific year. We feed off of him when he's going good. Our team seems to play much better. The passion that he shows for winning games – not just scoring goals, but winning games – this year has been tremendous. He continues to impress us as he gets a little bit older.
"Hossa had a little bit of a slow start because of an injury and he's really turned it on. I think it's well deserved. From goal line to goal line he might be one of the best players in the League because he's so good defensively. He's as good defensively as any player in the League. You can play him in all situations. He kills penalties for us, plays on the power play. He can do anything. Well deserved for both players."
Waddell also sang the praises of his young defender Enstrom, who was honored as the NHL Rookie of the Month in November.
"Enstrom has been tremendous for us. He's been our catalyst back there. He's played the most minutes for us on our team. For a young player to have the composure that he has coming into the League for his first year, it's been extremely remarkable and a well-deserved honor."
Who's hot? -- Heading into the All-Star break, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin has points in seven-straight games, posting seven goals and six assists during the hot streak. His best performance came in a 6-5 win Monday night in Pittsburgh when he torched the Penguins for three points in regulation and netted one of his team's two scores in the shootout. … Florida's Olli Jokinen has eight points in his last seven games off four goals and four assists. The Panthers' captain looked strong heading into the break with an assist in Florida's 5-3 win over Ottawa on Tuesday and a goal against Edmonton in a shootout loss on Thursday. … Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk went into the break collecting 41 points (23 goals, 18 assists) in his last 33 games, including 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in his last 14 games. Atlanta is 18-9-2 when the All-Star forward scores a goal. … Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis has eight points in his last six games off two goals and six assists. St. Louis helped the Bolts beat the Oilers 4-3 Tuesday night by notching one goal and two assists. … Carolina's Eric Staal went into the All-Star break riding a five-game points streak, where he posted four goals – including his fourth career hat trick – and seven points.
Southeast Quotes -- "It doesn't amaze me because it's been like that for the last two or three years. There's a little more parity in the League. You've got to take it game by game and make sure we keep playing the way we are."
-- Tampa Bay's Vinny Lecavalier in regards to the Lightning still being in the playoff hunt in the East despite sitting in last in the Southeast Division at the All-Star break.
"It's going to be fun. It's nice when people appreciate what you do out there."
-- Thrashers rookie Tobias Enstrom in regards to being picked to participate in the NHL YoungStars Game this weekend.
A look ahead -- League play shuts down through Monday due to NHL All-Star Weekend. The 2008 NHL All-Star Weekend will feature live national broadcasts of the Dodge/NHL SuperSkills event Saturday and the NHL All-Star Game on Sunday on Versus in the United States and CBC and RDS in Canada. NASN and other international broadcasters will provide live coverage of both the Dodge/NHL SuperSkills event and the NHL All-Star Game to more than 115 countries and territories in Europe. NHL Radio on Westwood One will provide exclusive national radio coverage which can be heard on stations around the United States and Canada as well as on XM Satellite Radio's NHL Home Ice and NHL.com.
Regular-season play resumes in the Southeast Tuesday, Jan. 29, when the Hurricanes take on the New York Rangers at home, the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Buffalo Sabres and the Washington Capitals travel to Montreal. On Wednesday, Jan. 30, the Florida Panthers open up their second half of the 2007-08 season by hosting the Sabres and the Thrashers welcome the Pittsburgh Penguins.