NHL All-Star Game storms in to Atlanta

NHL All-Star Game storms in to Atlanta

NHL All-Star Game storms in to Atlanta

There has been a rash of injuries and personal obligations that have forced some players to withdraw from this weekend’s NHL All-Star game in Atlanta. But there are still a lot of exciting players who will make the trip to Philips Arena for the midseason showcase.

In the East, Pittsburgh’s reigning MVP Sidney Crosby along with Ottawa sniper Dany Heatley have both been sidelined by injury, and taking their places will be Crosby’s Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin and Boston playmaker Marc Savard.

Crosby (high ankle sprain) and Heatley (separated shoulder) are both out indefinitely, but Malkin and Savard are more than deserving players to fill their spots. Malkin would be the star of the Penguins if it were not for the presence of the Wizard of Croz. It is fitting that Malkin replaces his more famous teammate in the All-Star Game because he is going to have to take up the slack for the injured Crosby in Pittsburgh when the regular season resumes next week.

Savard is tied with Crosby for the NHL lead in assists, and has been a massive part of the Bruins’ surprising first-half performance. New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur was voted to start in goal for the East, but a family obligation will prevent him from playing, so Savard’s Boston teammate Tim Thomas gets the nod. Thomas has the best save percentage in the league, and has won more than a few games for the Bruins all by himself.

In the West, Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo will not attend because he has chosen to stay home with his pregnant wife, so his goaltending duties will be split between St. Louis’s Manny Legace, San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov and Detroit’s Chris Osgood. All three of these netminders have had outstanding seasons so far and all are very deserving of their All-Star selections, but look for Osgood to get the start in goal.

Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg (back spasms), Colorado’s Paul Statsny (appendix) and Dallas’ Sergei Zubov (foot) will all miss the game with their ailments, and they will be replaced by Dallas’s Mike Ribeiro along with Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer and Corey Perry. Ribeiro is on pace for a career season, while Niedermayer has sparked the Ducks’ recent revival. Perry combines with Ryan Getzlaf, who is also on the West team, to form one of the league’s top young duos at the forward position.

The West has won two of the last three All-Star games including last year’s 12-9 shootout in Dallas.

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Stars have history of shining in home town

Hockey's midseason showcase can't catch a break.

The challenge last year was just finding the NHL All-Star game on TV. That was no easy chore once league officials exiled it to midweek on a network better known for covering the Tour de France, hunting, fishing and martial arts.

This time, the game is back in a familiar Sunday slot, and even casual followers of hockey have learned to dial up Versus on their remotes. Finding a player to light it up might prove an even taller order.

Pittsburgh phenom Sidney Crosby was generating plenty of buzz and positioning himself to become hockey's Tiger Woods. But the 20-year-old won't be on the ice when the puck drops, stuck rehabbing a high ankle sprain that will sideline the league's reigning scoring champion and MVP for six to eight weeks.

Making matters worse, goalies Roberto Luongo of Vancouver and Martin Brodeur of New Jersey, plus Detroit winger Henrik Zetterberg - all voted in by fans - will miss the game, too. As will four others selected by league officials and general managers.

''It's a physical game, these things happen,'' commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday in a telephone interview from New York. ''The good news is that it usually happens that someone else steps up and makes the difference.''

Like Woods, Crosby's value to his sport can't be overstated. The NHL's ratings are up this season - average viewership is around 262,000 per game, compared with 196,000 last season. It's encouraging enough that Versus recently exercised its option to carry league games through the 2010-11 season.

The numbers don't lend themselves to easily calculating a ''Tiger effect,'' but anecdotal evidence abounds.

The jersey he wore during the second period of the Winter Classic, the outdoor game played New Year's Day in Buffalo before 71,000 snow-covered fans to rave reviews, just fetched $45,000 at auction. The No. 87 Crosby jersey on the block as part of the league's ''Hockey Fights Cancer'' campaign hit $14,107.87 by midday Thursday - nearly double the $7,520 being offered for the sweater of Washington Capitals Alexander Ovechkin.

Speaking of him, Ovechkin would be the logical candidate to grab Crosby's starring role. After all, the two joined the NHL together, with the Russian taking rookie honors and their budding rivalry marketed as hockey's version of Bird vs. Magic.

But Bettman wasn't about to be pinned down on that one.

''With so much talent on the ice, seeing who grabs the spotlight is most of the fun at All-Star games,'' he said.

''Remember Ray Bourque in Boston, or Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, or Owen Nolan in San Jose,'' he said. ''We've been lucky that way.''

That means you, Ilya Kovalchuk, and you, Marian Hossa. And really, how cool would it be if one or both hometown wingers wound up filling Crosby's skates and rewarding the Thrashers' long-suffering fans?

Atlanta was slated to play host to the All-Star game in 2005 when a labor war scotched the season and the 2006 game was canceled so players could compete in the Winter Olympics. Last year's game fared only slightly better after being moved to Wednesday night to escape the crush of weekend sports but wound up opposite ''American Idol.''

The final tally that night - American Idol drew an estimated 37 million viewers, the All-Star Game an actual 672,948 - hints at that misguided choice. Without acknowledging the mistake, Bettman said, ''We're back to Sunday for the more traditional fan. Plus, it's a lot more family friendly.''

More important, the sport is also more user-friendly than it's been in a long time. Rule changes have cut out the wholesale hooking, holding, clutching and grabbing that passed for defense, a big reason why hockey is on a nice little roll. Scoring is up, as are revenue and attendance figures.

Maybe it's too much to ask that an All-Star game missing so many leading lights would produce something as memorable as the 1996 contest, when Bourque scored the game-winner in the town where he labored so honorably for so long with 37 seconds left; or the following year, when Nolan called his shot on a breakaway against goalie Dominik Hasek, then scored top shelf to complete his hat trick in San Jose.

Then again, maybe not.

''Hometown favorites,'' Bettman said, ''have a way of showing up.''

So tune in, if only to find out how the same network that featured a ''Karate Kid' movie marathon last Sunday fares this week in its search to find a replacement for ''Sid The Kid.''

Associated Press

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Hockey Today

All-Star game at Atlanta (6 p.m., EST). The Western Conference won last year, 12-9.

SURPRISE ACCOUNT


Former Vancouver coach Marc Crawford will testify that he yelled at Todd Bertuzzi to get off the ice before the attack on Colorado player Steve Moore, an Ontario court heard Friday. The statement shocked a pretrial hearing in Moore's multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Bertuzzi and Orca Bay Hockey which stemmed from an incident on March 8, 2004, in which Bertuzzi grabbed Moore from behind, punched him in the head and landed on top of him during a game. Moore had three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a concussion and facial cuts, and hasn't played since. The disclosure came on the heels of a claim by Bertuzzi, contained in court documents, that during the second intermission of the game, Crawford pointed to Moore's name on a roster board and said, ''He must pay the price''.

SIDELINED


Toronto center Alex Steen is expected to miss 10 to 14 days because of a separated right shoulder, and center Darryl Boyce is out indefinitely with a separated left shoulder. They were injured Thursday night in the Maple Leafs' loss in Washington.

SPEAKING

''I didn't really learn a lot about Mr. O'Ree until I got to the NHL and realized he was the first. I know that his path was a lot harder. He had a lot more difficulties. I had it a lot smoother, and he was a big part of that. I'm very thankful for his determination and his courage and perseverance because I do know that looking up to those guys when I was younger helped a lot.'' - Calgary captain Jarome Iginla on Willie O'Ree, who was honored at Friday's NHL diversity luncheon for breaking the color barrier 52 years ago.

Associated Press

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