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NOTEBOOK: Panthers All-Star Preview

by Jameson Olive / Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers are gearing up for what’s guaranteed to be a memorable few days in the Music City as several of team’s prominent pieces prepare to compete at the 2016 All-Star Game in Nashville.

For the first time in franchise history, the Panthers will have four representatives at the annual event as ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr, who fans voted in as one of four captains, will be joined by defenseman Aaron Ekblad and goaltender Roberto Luongo on an Atlantic Division team coached by Gerard Gallant.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Gallant, who never appeared in an All-Star Game during his 11 seasons as a player. “We have three of our players there and we’re representing the first-place Florida Panthers. It’s a lot of fun and we’re certainly looking forward to it. It’s great for the franchise.”

All-Star Weekend will be held Jan. 28-31 at the Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville, with the centerpiece of the festivities being the unveiling of a new 3-on-3 tournament that pits the four divisions against one another in a winner-take-all format.

The Central Division will play the Pacific Division in one 20-minute semifinal game, and the Metropolitan All-Stars will play the Atlantic squad in the other. The winners of the semifinals will meet in the 20-minute championship game for a prize of $1 million that will be split evenly among each victorious player.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” said Ekblad. “It’s not going to be any easy task. But it will be a good experience, and hopefully we all learn a little bit from it and bring it back to our teams. Watching some of the things that all of those really great players do, maybe we can mimic it and win some games in the 3-on-3 [overtimes].”

At the NHL All-Star Skills Competition, players will have a chance to showcase their own personal strengths, as well as their creativity, as all 44 all-stars are required to compete in at least one of six different events that usually produce as many laughs as highlights.

This year’s skill-based contests include:

•Fastest Skater: This event consists of four players from each team testing their speed in a two-skater race. The skater with the fastest time in the head-to-head match-ups will also be given the opportunity to skate a full lap of the outside border of the rink, in the direction of their choosing, in an attempt to break Mike Gartner's record (13.386).

•Breakaway Challenge: In this event, shooters will attempt two shots against one goaltender provided by each time. Style, creativity, and flair are encouraged as fans in-arena and watching on television will crown a winner by voting during the event via Twitter.

•Accuracy Shooting: This event consists of four head-to-head match-ups, with one shooter from each team per round. The goal is to hit four 15-inch diameter targets located in each corner of the net. The first shooter to hit all four targets wins.

•Challenge Relay: This event is a timed relay consisting of 14 skaters and two goalies from each team. The relay centers around five skills (one timers, passing, puck control, stick-handling and goalie goals) and each skill must be completed before moving on to the next challenge with the exception of one timers, passing and goalie goals in which a maximum of forty-five seconds will be allocated. The goal is to finish all five challenges faster than the opponent.

•Hardest Shot: In this event, four shooters from each team will test their slap shot skill in a head-to-head match-up. Each player will attempt two shots, with teams alternating after each player.

•Shootout: In this event, 18 skaters and three goaltenders from each team will participate in the three-round shootout. Teams will alternate after each shot with each player having a maximum of 10 seconds to take a shot. Unlike the breakaway challenge, NHL shootout rules apply to each scoring attempt.

THE ALL-STARS

Aaron Ekblad

All-Star Appearances: 2015 & 2016

Summary: Ekblad, who was a late addition to last year’s All-Star Game roster after Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson opted to skip the event while recovering from a lower-body injury, will be making his second appearance at the event in as many seasons. He was the highest-scoring defenseman in last year’s game, scoring four points to match former Panthers Olli Jokinen (2003) and Pavel Bure (2000) for the most points at an All-Star Game in franchise history. The 19-year-old blueliner enters this year’s competition trailing Bure by just two points for first place on the franchise's all-time All-Star Game scoring list. Last year’s Calder Trophy winner, Ekblad leads all Panthers defenseman with 21 points in 45 games played this season.

Jaromir Jagr

All-Star Appearances: 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 & 2016

Summary: Although he joked that he’d rather spend his weekend enjoying the comforts of the Bahamas rather than chilly confines of Nashville, Jagr is guaranteed to be one of the most talked about players at this year’s competition as the 43-year-old forward prepares to make his first All-Star Game appearance since 2004. “I don’t deserve the rest,” Jagr joked. “I need to get into shape during the All-Star Break. Everybody else is going to have a vacation and I’ve got to play 3-on-3.” Jagr, who is tied for seventh on the NHL’s all-time list with 13 All-Star Game appearances, currently ranks second on the Panthers in goals (15) and points (33).

Roberto Luongo

All-Star Appearances: 2004, 2007, 2009, 2015 & 2016

Summary: Luongo will be making his sixth All-Star Game appearance and third as a member of the Panthers, tying him with John Vanbiesbrouck (1994, 1996-97) for the most in franchise history. “It’s always fun to be in an All-Star Game,” said Luongo. “You got to take it for what it is. You can’t go there expecting to play a defensive system. You have to enjoy the weekend.” The 36-year-old netminder has played a pivotal in propelling the Panthers into first place this season, posting a 22-13-3 record with a 2.08 goals-against average with a .930 save percentage in 36 starts. He stopped 13 of 17 shots at last year’s All-Star Game in Columbus.

Gerard Gallant

All-Star Appearances: 2016

Summary: In just his second season behind Florida’s bench, Gallant will become just the second Panthers head coach to represent the team at the All-Star Game, joining his longtime friend Doug MacLean who did it in 1996 and 1997. Coaches for the event were chosen based which teams were leading their respective divisions as of Jan. 9 – the midway point of the 2015-16 season.

THE SCHEDULE

Saturday, Jan. 30: NHL All-Star Skills Competition, 7 p.m. EST

Sunday, Jan. 31: NHL All-Star Game, 5 p.m., EST

Television: NBC Sports Network, CBC, TVA Sports

AHL ALL-STAR GAME

Not to be outdone by their NHL counterparts, forward Robb Schremp and defenseman Cameron Gaunce will be representing Florida’s minor league affiliate, the Portland Pirates, at the American Hockey League’s own version of the All-Star Game.

The 2016 AHL All-Star Classic will include the AHL All-Star Skills Competition on Sunday, Jan. 31, followed by the AHL All-Star Game on Monday, Feb. 1, taking place at the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena in downtown Syracuse, N.Y.

Schremp, 29, ranks first on the Pirates in both goals (16) and points (32) through 41 games this season. A former first-round pick, 25th overall, of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2004 NHL Draft, Schremp signed a one-year contract with the Pirates on Oct. 9.

Gaunce, who was one of eight additions to the All-Star rosters because of injuries and NHL call-ups, has a goal and 19 assists in 41 games for the Pirates this season. The 25-year-old blueliner singed a one-year, two-way contract with the Panthers on July 1.

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