RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—If you ever see Zdeno Chara bearing down on you, duck behind something immediately. Like a sofa. Or a continent.
Rookie New York Islander forward Michael Grabner won fastest skater and Capitals sniper Alexander Ovechkin inspired enough fan votes via text message to win the breakaway challenge. Vancouver's Daniel Sedin dropped jaws and received a standing ovation for his display in the accuracy contest, hitting eight targets in just nine shots. Anaheim Duck Corey Perry took the final event of the night, besting Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis in the final round of the elimination shootout.
Fans madly applauded the four Carolina Hurricanes in the skills display. Goaltender Cam Ward—in full pads, mask, glove and waffleboard—beat Bruins netminder Tim Thomas in his head-to-head heat in the fastest-skater contest, as Thomas tumbled behind one of the goals. Eric Staal victimized Thomas later in the shootout, flicking a quick forehand shot beneath his pads before he could get down in his butterfly stance, but Staal was eliminated later by Anaheim's Jonas Hiller, perhaps a small measure of revenge for Staal's hat trick against him here before Christmas.
Jeff Skinner and Jamie McBain were not as lucky in the shootout. Buoyed by deafening cheers, Skinner tried to pick a top corner, but Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury knocked it aside. Fleury denied McBain as well, kneeing a wrist shot into the corner.
Skinner did play a role in the most playful moment of the evening. Montreal's P. K. Subban donned Skinner's sweater before his turn in the breakaway challenge. Although it energized the crowd, it didn't give him luck. Subban tried a fantastic move, though—flipping the puck into the air, skating around the back of goal, and trying to bat it in from other side. But the puck died short of the goal line.
Subban, perhaps the poster child for this kind of spectacle after having elicited criticism from other players—most notably the Flyers' Mike Richards—for being too flashy and outspoken, could not stop smiling after the game. "I really enjoyed it out there. That's going to be a memory that I'll keep the rest of my life. Playing, being out there, just talking to the guys. Talking to Dan Boyle and Patrik Elias... It's a cool experience."
As for the puck flip and jersey switcheroo with Skinner, he laughed, "I haven't had any chance to practice that. I just kind of went out there and was winging it. It seemed like the crowd liked what I tried to do out there. I just tried to put in all this effort and impress the fans, and hopefully they leave the building happy.
"One of the players was like, 'Hey man, you need an idea.' Just throw a jersey on down below. And I thought 'That's a pretty good idea. The crowd would like that.' So I threw it on and they liked it. That's what it's all about—it's about the fans here. But to be honest, I'm more comfortable in my jersey," patting the CH logo on his Montreal sweater. "That jersey was snug, and there's a little too much black in it. I prefer the bleu, blanc, et rouge, you know what I mean?"
Skinner, looking a bit overwhelmed by the love-fest that fans have been showering upon him all week, had a good time with the sweater swap, too. "He sort of surprised me with it. I didn't know it was coming. And he just sort of came up to me and said 'Hey, I need your jersey' and I just sort of tried to play along with it. He just did a good job and put on a good show."
Zdeno Chara was one of the few competitors who took his contest seriously.
"Obviously it was tough. Guys were shooting really hard. It pushed me to the limit. A lot of credit goes to them, especially Shea Weber—he was shooting incredibly well tonight. I like to have fun at these things. I enjoy it. At the same time, when it comes down to showing what you have, you have to sell it. You have to compete, and I think that's what we did tonight."
Chara seemed as awed by the crowd as they were of his cannon shot. "It was awesome. I loved it. I mean, they gave me the extra energy and a big thank you goes to them. It's always overwhelming when you get this kind of a reception in an away stadium from away fans. It's incredible. It's something that will stick in your memory. You treasure that."
Perhaps the greatest thrill of the night for a hockey fan was just seeing the 50-odd All-Stars and top rookies doing a skatearound before the evening's show, each in their team jerseys.
Overall, the SuperSkills evening is a stretch. Terribly contrived in comparison to the Fantasy Draft, which provided entertaining moments because no one could anticipate what would happen, and even the All-Star Game itself, which will put players' skills in the context of game action (albeit without stakes), the skills competition's moments are few and far between.
Players may or may not be enjoying it, although they all say over and over again that they are enjoying it. Announcers are playing it up, talking like adults talk to little kids to get them excited about something they don’t want to do or are going to find really boring: “Hey, we’re going to Aunt Sarah’s! Maybe she’ll let you help her vacuum!”
The crowd genuinely responded to the hardest-shot contest because of Chara's visible competitiveness, and they registered how impressed they were with Sedin's accuracy with spontaneous cheers. Parts of the elimination shootout got a rise as well, particularly Martin St. Louis' swivel moves, in which he turned his back completely to the goalie and skated in backwards before shooting.
The speed skating competition came off cold other than Ward's turn, and the display of backwards skating from Pittsburgh's Kris Letang and Chicago's Duncan Keith. The arcane skills challenge—a kind of mini-Olympics in which five different tasks had to be completed on the ice—was certainly an impressive display of skills but was thoroughly tedious viewing. Even the breakaway display, in which most players tried dazzling moves that failed to score, grew tiresome after a while in that way that slam-dunk contests and home run derbies also do. It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters, except if they missed their shots.
Maybe the league should consider replacing the dud competitions. A fighting contest would draw a lot of crowd noise. Or perhaps some competitive slashing or trash talking. Or change it up completely and have a competitive eating round in which tables of chicken wings and hot dogs are rolled out onto the ice.