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Time to Choose: Team Malkin or Team Neal/Letang?

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
OTTAWA – The teams at the 2012 NHL All-Star Game are technically named for captains Zdeno Chara of the Bruins and Daniel Alfredsson of the Senators.

But for Penguins fans, they’ll have different names:

Team Evgeni Malkin or Team James Neal/Kris Letang?

“I have no idea (who will win), but I hope us,” Malkin grinned of the game, which will be played Sunday at 4 p.m. at Scotiabank Place.

After Chara and alternate captain Joffrey Lupul took Malkin with their third choice (fifth overall) of the 2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Player Fantasy Draft, Alfredsson and his alternate captain Henrik Lundqvist ensured Penguins fans’ loyalties would be split when they picked Letang with their fifth choice (10th overall).

Then Alfredsson and Lupul decided it’d be wise to break up the undeniable chemistry between usual linemates Neal and Malkin when they selected the 24-year-old winger with their 14th choice (28th overall).

“I was a little nervous back there,” first-time All-Star Neal smiled about waiting to be chosen. “You never know who’s going to go next. But it’s just a cool thing to be a part of. All the guys were joking around back there. It’s just nice to be a part of this and to be alongside all the players in the league.”

It didn’t help that Malkin was giving his teammate – who Letang said expressed his worries about being selected last in the car on the way to the draft – a hard time as he waited to be selected.

“He was looking over to me acting like he was driving a car,” Neal joked. “I think he wanted me to go last. But we get to play against each other. I think he likes it like that.”

But Malkin insisted that he didn’t want Neal to go last for the embarrassment factor – he just wanted his friend to have a brand-new set of wheels, as the consolation prize for being the last one chosen (which ended up being San Jose’s Logan Couture) was a new 2012 Honda Crosstour 4WD EX-L.

In addition, the NHL Foundation and the NHLPA Goals & Dreams fund each will donate $10,000 in Couture's name to the grassroots hockey program of his choice.

“I hope he wins the car, you know?,” Malkin joked. “I want a car. I wasn’t going to worry if I was the last one. There are lots of good players here. But we just tried joking around.”

In all seriousness, Malkin and Letang knew Neal wouldn’t be on the board for long.

“He thought he could be one of the last guys picked, but there was no way,” Letang said. “He’s such a big asset in those types of games. He got picked pretty early too. It was fun to see that.”

Malkin will certainly be a lot for Neal and Letang to handle, as he’s currently the NHL’s leading scorer with 58 points in 42 games – but they’re definitely looking forward to it.

“We’d always battle in the summer in the skates,” Neal said. “He’s definitely a tough guy to play against and get the puck off of, that’s for sure. It’ll be fun to play against him.”

“I don’t know how to do that because it never happened against me,” Letang added of defending Malkin. “But I will do my best.”

And Malkin said he may have a trick up his sleeve in order to face off with his linemate.

“I played against him before when he played with Dallas, but now I know a little bit more about him,” Malkin said. “We’re good friends on the team, but it’s going to be fun to play against him. Maybe we’ll (match up) on different lines, but I’m going to stay out a little bit longer on my shift and wait for him.”

And that'll certainly be a blast for Penguins fans to watch, no matter where their All-Star loyalties lie.
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