NHL All-Star Weekend once again features a 3-on-3 tournament pitting stars from each of the four divisions. The matchups looked pretty even until injuries and illness took their toll.
The Atlantic Division lost Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, one of the elite puck-rushers in the league. The Metropolitan Division lost speedy New Jersey Devils winger Taylor Hall — another natural for this format — and puck-rushing Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones.
Over in the Western Conference, the Pacific Division took a big hit when acrobatic Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick begged out of the tournament. His aggressive style makes him a fascinating competitor in this wide-open play.
Here is how the tournament sets up:
Atlantic Division vs. Metropolitan Division
Interestingly, Lightning forward Brayden Point got the All-Star nod to replace the injured Hedman on the Atlantic Division team. That leaves only Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators and Mike Green of the Detroit Red Wings on defense for this squad.
“I was surprised,” Point told the Tampa Bay Times. “Obviously just super happy and honored to be picked. I’m a little nervous for it, to be honest with you. Being on the same ice with all those guys is pretty sweet. I don’t know what to expect, I’m just happy to be there and try to enjoy it as much as you can.”
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper will have to construct a three-forward unit for his rotation. But he had the advantage of having three of his Lightning skaters plus goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy playing on their home rink. It’s not hard to imagine the Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov tandem going crazy in this competition.
The Atlantic Division squad also features Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel, Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews playing at a high level. But is goaltender Carey Price still Carey Price? He allowed three or more goals in five of his last six games for the Montreal Canadiens before the All-Star shootout.
The Metropolitan Division features the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (20 points in 11 January games), Washington Capitals volume shooter Alex Ovechkin (seven goals in his last 11 games) and the productive John Tavares/Josh Bailey tag team from the New York Islanders.
Capitals head coach Barry Trotz can count on his goaltender Braden Holtby to play well, but is Henrik Lundqvist still Henry Lundqvist? King Henrik allowed three or more goals in four of his last six games for the New York Rangers and he lasted just 16 minutes and 21 seconds during a 6-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in his final appearance before the break.
Another concern for the Metropolitan Division: Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, normally a 3-on-3 monster, has not been himself coming back from foot surgery. He has a minus-24 rating in 42 games and he is minus-9 with just one assist in his last seven efforts.
That is a big reason why the Atlantic Division should advance.
Central Division vs. Pacific Division
It’s easy to love the Central Division in this format. Speedy Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon has torn up the league this season, scoring 60 points in 48 games. Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane and Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin are also deadly with open ice, as are defensemen P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators and John Klingberg of the Stars.
Predators head coach Peter Laviolette ought to keep the Stars tandem of Seguin and Klingberg together. The same goes for the St. Louis Blues duo of defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who has six points in his last seven games, and center Brayden Schenn.
Connor Hellebuyck has enjoyed his breakout season playing behind the freewheeling Winnipeg Jets, so he should be ready for this goaltending challenge. And Predators netminder Pekka Rinne has also been on top of his game, going 5-1 with a 1.82 goals-against average in his last six starts.
The Pacific Division team will miss Quick in goal, with veteran Mike Smith of the Calgary Flames taking his place. The squad’s other goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, has flourished playing behind the tight-checking Vegas Golden Knights. He will come under much more fire in this format.
Explosive Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid will have fun with all the skating room, but will Arizona defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson become a major liability? He is minus-36 in 50 games this season. Sure, the Coyotes are struggling overall, but OEL has been a turnover machine.
The Central Division has no such liability in the back end and should advance as a result.
A showdown between the Atlantic and Central squads would be a worthy NHL showcase. The edge would go to the Central side, based on its balanced talent from front to back and the strong recent play of both goaltenders.