Together in standings, Central now together in pursuit of $1-million prize
Nine points separate the top six teams in the Central Division at the All-Star break. Chicago, uncharacteristically in last place, is just four points out of the second wild-card spot. But for these couple of days in Florida, they will put that pressure aside to try and get the better of top players from the league's other three divisions with a 3-on-3 tournament, with the winning division splitting $1 million.
"It's going to be competitive and a dog fight, to be honest, all the way to the end of the year," Eric Staal of the Minnesota Wild said of the compressed Central Division standings. "It's been like that since Day 1 of the start of the season and that's not going to change at this point, I don't think, it may get even tighter. To have a weekend like this to play with some of these guys that you're fighting tooth and nail every single day with, it's going to be fun.
"You've got to enjoy it. You've got to do your best to set some of that aside to enjoy the weekend, and hopefully, we'll play well. Some good players -- some great players -- and we'll have fun."
Laviolette once a fan, now a coach
Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, who will also command the Central Division bench today, was in the stands in Nashville two years ago when the 3-on-3 format was unveiled.
He liked what he saw.
"It was way different from the previous All-Star Game, where they're just out there doing their thing," he said. "What's at stake and players' pride and an actual competition -- I always find, even in practice, if you put one player against another player and you tell them the winning team gets Five Guys burgers, they're going to play like it's nobody's business. So the fact that there's something at stake, there's a little bit of money, there's a little bit of pride -- players compete hard and that's what I noticed most about Nashville is how hard they competed against each other, I thought it was awesome, so that was my first time seeing it I was there as a fan.
"I sat in the stands and I thought it was terrific, so I'm looking forward to seeing that again."
Along with Staal, Laviolette has a pretty good connection with a number of his Central players.
"I only really don't know three or four players on my team that well if you go through the roster," he said. "I worked with Patrick Kane in the Olympics, so I know him a little bit. Blake Wheeler -- obviously Pekka (Rinne) and P.K. (Subban). Connor Hellebuyck was on a World Championship team, Eric Staal, Brayden Schenn in Philadelphia.
"So there's only a few guys that I don't know. It's the first thing I noticed about my roster is there's going to be a lot of familiar faces."
Hey, I know you
Nice weekend for Staal, the father of three boys, to catch up with his former head coach Laviolette. with whom he won a Stanley Cup in Carolina back in 2006.
It actually came down to two former coaches for head-coaching honors at All-Star as Laviolette nudged out Paul Maurice of the Winnipeg Jets.
"I was excited when I found out," Staal said. "Either him or Maurice, and I liked them both, to be honest, so they were both great coaches and they're both still in the league, and it's been 15 years. Pretty impressive what coaches they are.
"He's a great coach and he's meant a lot to me and really helped me as a young player to develop and take steps to be at an event like this."
Staal has enjoyed a renaissance since signing with Minnesota prior to last season and leads the Wild in goals and points.
Video: Klingberg and Seguin discuss Skills Competition
Grand reunion of two greats
One of the best moments of last year's All-Star event in Los Angeles (apart from watching Chris Pronger bury Justin Bieber into the boards during a celebrity game) was watching the interaction of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, Metropolitan Division teammates and longtime rivals since they came into the league together in 2005-06.
Several times, the two iconic stars were on the ice at the same time, bringing fans to their feet. Well, Metropolitan coach Barry Trotz, who coaches Ovechkin in Washington, knows a good thing when he sees it.
"I probably will put them together for a bit just because they're two of the faces of the league for a long time, and I know they played a little bit together and I know, just from my own satisfaction, I'd like to see them on the same side for a few shifts," he said.
But Trotz noted there are some other interesting storylines in the Metro.
"I mean, Claude Giroux and Sid had some battles over the years, so I may mix it up," he said of Crosby and Giroux, who actually fought in a playoff series in 2012.
"I think the great story on our side is Brian Boyle. I'm looking forward to having him on our group. I know he's a quality, quality guy; he's a funny guy. I think we'll have a lot of laughs on our side."
Video: Hardest Shot: Klingberg opens up event at 96.6 mph
Speaking of Brian Boyle ...
It was a bittersweet return to Tampa for Boyle, the popular veteran forward who returned to action for New Jersey this season after battling leukemia.
His young son was admitted to hospital with his own cancer scare after Boyle was announced as a replacement for the Devils' Taylor Hall (injured). But further medical tests revealed it wasn't cancer and Boyle said his wife insisted he come to the All-Star Weekend.
He was greeted to a thunderous ovation from fans when he was introduced at the skills competition Saturday.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was among those thrilled that Boyle was going to be part of the festivities.
"I was very excited. I texted him right away. We'd just played in Philly and found out the news, so I know it's very special for him, and especially considering what he's gone through before the season with the diagnosis," Stamkos said. "If anyone was going to go through that we knew that, Boyler would be the guy that was going to fight it and he appreciates everything he gets in life and is an unbelievable teammate.
"He has that fiery personality on the ice, but off the ice, he's one of the gentle giants. Just a great human and a great teammate and we were sad to see him go. But everyone who knows him has been supporting him since Day 1 and it was just special to see him come back and play an NHL game, let alone the season that he's had."
Video: Burnside and LeBrun talk All-Star Game
Stamkos talks Tavares
The Tampa Bay star and captain of the Atlantic Division squad in today's 3-on-3 tournament was asked about New York Islander captain and All-Star attendee John Tavares, who is in the final year of his contract with the New York Islanders and could become an unrestricted free agent in the summer.
Stamkos was in the same position two seasons ago before signing an eight-year deal to remain with the team that drafted him first overall back in 2008.
It was an emotional year for Stamkos, although Tavares seems to have been able to push the contract issue, which is also tied to the future move for the Islanders to a new building to the side.
"To be honest, I haven't really had a discussion with John about that," Stamkos said. "It was something that, as a player, you've earned the right at this point in your career to have conversations, to not have conversations, to do what you want regarding your contract. If he ever asked me, I'd give him my opinion.
"He's obviously having an unbelievable season and is probably doing a better job of not letting it affect him than maybe I did. It's in the back of your head for sure. For him, to see the season that he's had under the circumstances, probably goes to show you the type of obviously character that I know he has, and that you guys probably know that he has."
Video: Seguin and Klingberg check in from Tampa
Commissioner to referees: Chill out
There has been no hotter-button topic this season on the ice than the rulings on goaltender interference.
A couple of weeks ago, Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock was incensed at losing a goal in Columbus when Alexander Radulov drove the net but was ruled on a challenge to have interfered with netminder Joonas Korpisalo.
The Stars earlier had a goal overturned on challenge after Ben Bishop was clipped behind the Dallas net against Colorado, but that review took an extremely long time, even if it appeared to be a clear-cut case of goaltender interference.
And last week, both Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, who are both in Tampa, essentially showed up on-ice officials after goals were taken away from their respective teams on marginal interference calls.
Commissioner Gary Bettman, in his annual address to the media, said league officials, a couple of coaches and on-ice officials met in Tampa to discuss the situation. He admitted the system has not been without its flaws.
"When you say a bit of confusion, that's right. Overall, the system works, but I think we've gotten to the point where everybody's overthinking the review," Bettman said. "The intention, particularly on goaltender interference, is: 'Did you miss something?' 'Was there a glaring error?' Not, 'Can you search for something that might overturn the call?'"
A memo will follow but the upshot from the league to referees: take a look and move on.
"It's really more we need to give a refresher and we'll send a memo to the officials. Take a quick look, but don't search it to death," he said. "The presumption should be the call on the ice was good unless you have a good reason to overturn it, and you shouldn't have to search for a good reason."
Full circle for Ovechkin
It was in the spring of 2004 that Ovechkin got his first taste of what life was going to be like as an NHLer as he and other top draft prospects visited Tampa during the 2004 Stanley Cup final between the Lightning and Calgary Flames.
"Yeah, I think I was really excited that was first game in NHL was Stanley Cup final against Tampa and Calgary," he said. :I get chance to go downstairs to see locker rooms. The atmosphere in the stands was unbelievable."
Ovechkin had, perhaps, the line of the day when he was asked what has made the Vegas Golden Knights so unbelievable at home, where they are a league-best 19-3-2.
He described the in-arena vibe as being unlike anything anywhere else in the league.
"Holy Jesus, are we having a hockey game or a pool party?" he quipped.
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter at @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.