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Alfredsson rides top pick to Sens Skills triumph

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Team Black's Milan Michalek weaves his way through the cones in taking top honours in the Ottawa Citizen puck control relay event during Sens Skills presented by Metro (Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

The captain's prime choice proved to be the biggest difference maker of them all.

Thanks in great part to the efforts of Jason Spezza, Team Black turned back Team Red 16-13 in another entertaining afternoon of Sens Skills presented by Metro, which provided two hours' worth of holiday fun and frolic for the 13,481 in attendance at Scotiabank Place.

When Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips held a draft to divvy up the players into two squads, the former made Spezza the No. 1 overall pick for Team Black. It proved to be a most astute selection, as the Senators' leading team scorer went out and won the Home Hardware hardest shot competition with a best effort of 103.8 miles per hour.

Spezza also was the lone player to go 4-for-4 in the Bell Accuracy shooting event, though Nick Foligno of Team Red edged him in a one-on-one showdown for top honours in the category. But Alfredsson, whose squad had fallen to Phillips' charges each of the last three years, knew exactly who drove the Team Black engine to victory.

"We expected to ride him hard, but I think our MVP today was Spezza, without a doubt," said Alfredsson afterward. "He came through big for us a couple of times."

Though Spezza quipped "I felt the pressure of being No. 1, so I had to make sure I put on a good show," he also admitted the hardest shot competition was a bit of a surprise. Defending champion Matt Carkner of Team Red was eliminated in the preliminary round and it came down to a showdown between Spezza and Colin Greening, who mustered a 99.5 mph best effort.

The second hottest shot of the day actually belonged to rookie blueliner Jared Cowen of Team Black (102.0), but only the top shooter from each squad made the final.

"I thought Carks would beat me," admitted Spezza. "I knew I could get over 100, I just didn't know how hard (I could go). I was worried about Carks and Jared — he's a big guy with a long stick, and he shoots it hard, too."

As it turned out, Spezza was a mite shy of the Sens Skills all-time record of 105.0 still owned by Mike Fisher.

"Last year was the first year I've ever done it and I got right around 100 or so," he said. "I've known I can shoot the puck hard and I work on my shot. I just never knew how hard it could be."

Speed, however, wasn't of the essence in accuracy shooting, where Spezza patiently weaved his way though the only 4-for-4 target hitting display of the day.

"Accuracy shooting can be a tricky one," he said. "If you get into a rhythm, you're all right. That's why I took my time on the first shot. If you rush it ... over the years, you learn that's when you can find yourself out of a groove. Accuracy can be real good or real bad, so I was happy to get on a bit of a roll there."

Greening, the surprise star of last year's Sens Skills competition, didn't go home empty-handed this time, either. The second-year forward smashed his own record in the Recharge with Milk fastest skater event, whipping through a lap around the Scotiabank Place ice in 13.434 seconds. Team Black's Erik Karlsson was next best at 13.688.

"I wasn't sure I was going to beat last year's (time)," said Greening. "I felt like I had a really good run last year, but I feel like I'm a good skater and that's one of my best attributes. But to get a (time) like 13.4 was a bit surprising."

With Team Red rivals looking on, Team Black's Jason Spezza unloads a 103.8 mph blast to win the Home Hardware hardest shot event at Sens Skills presented by Metro (Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).
Other individual winners on the day — both from Team Black — included Milan Michalek, Ottawa Citizen puck control relay, and Erik Condra, who topped the Metro Elimination Shootout to seal his squad's triumph. But the biggest winners of them all were the fans, young and old, who took in the day and the Sens Foundation and the NHLPA's Goals and Dreams Fund, which donated $75,000 from the day's proceeds to assist in building outdoor rinks in the community.

"Having all the kids here (makes it fun)," said Alfredsson, one of several Senators players who brought their families to the event. "They bring a lot of energy to the rink. And we show off some different skills that maybe we don't do in games because we don't dare to try it, but we have in our back pocket for occasions like this."

Added Spezza: "This is a great day for families and kids. And the guys get to bring their families to the rink, which is pretty rare. It's (all) business around here most of the time, so it's nice to have everybody interacting and they get a chance to see the kids."

For Phillips and Team Red, it marked the end of a three-year run of victories.

"All good things come to an end, I guess," he said afterward.

Alfredsson, meanwhile, revelled in his team's come-from-behind win.

"It's been a tough few years, so this makes this one even sweeter," he said. "We got off to a tough start, but we rallied at the end. The relay at the end and the shootout proved to be a difference."

Phillips didn't participate in the competition because of an upper body injury he suffered late last week against the Carolina Hurricanes. But the veteran blueliner, who's only sat out two games in the last five seasons, is hopeful he'll make his return Friday, when the Calgary Flames visit Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200).

"It's been a long time since I missed one," said Phillips, who hasn't had that happen since the flu sidelined him for a game in 2007-08. "It's hard, no matter what, watching and not being in there. Hopefully, I'll be back in there for the next one.

"I'm going to go out and practice tomorrow and see how that goes. We'll see how it responds for (Friday)."

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