Set to shine
East-West matchup has distinct northern flavorPosted: Saturday February 01, 2003 2:02 PM
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) -- With the NHL All-Star game back in an East vs. West format, attention is surprisingly focused on the North.
The teams are loaded with players from Ottawa and Vancouver -- small-market clubs holding top positions in their conferences.
The bankrupt Senators will have three players on the East team for Sunday's game: forward Marian Hossa, defenseman Zdeno Chara, and goalie Patrick Lalime. Their coach, Jacques Martin, will lead the East team based on the Senators' position atop the conference.
It didn't matter that these players had to wait extra weeks to get their first paychecks of the new year; they knew the money was coming eventually. As long as they focused on the games, everything would be all right.
Ottawa entered the break with a 32-13-3-4 mark and 71 points. Vancouver, another of Canada's six remaining NHL teams, was atop the Western Conference on Jan. 8, the cutoff for picking who would coach the teams.
"It's a great honor for our organization, and I'm the one that gets the benefit from the play of the team," Canucks coach Marc Crawford said. "I certainly have to give them the credit, because they're the guys that go out and play."
The Canucks have slipped to third in the West since then, but they can take pride in having the league's best turnaround over the first 41 games, compared with last season. They finished 2002 with the NHL's best record for the calendar year.
Three Vancouver players will be on Crawford's bench for Sunday's game: Markus Naslund, the league leader with 35 goals, is joined by forward Todd Bertuzzi and defenseman Ed Jovanovski. All were chosen as reserves.
"I think it's fun to hook up with star players around the league that you didn't get to see every day, and just watch them closely," Naslund said. "I think for a lot of guys, we've had heroes growing up; there are still some of those guys around that you get a chance to maybe play with."
When the All-Stars hit the ice, there won't be any teammates playing against each other, as there were in the five previous midseason exhibitions. Gone is the North America against the rest of the world format that was launched to maximize interest in NHL players taking part in the past two Winter Olympics.
"I think it's good. You need to change it once in a while," said Western forward Peter Forsberg, one of three Colorado representatives.
Naslund also favored the switch. "I think you shouldn't have to go against a teammate," he said. "I think it's a better format."
Another change will come next year when the game shifts to Minnesota, breaking a two-year warm-weather streak that began last year in Los Angeles.
One streak that won't come to an end is the separation of former Pittsburgh linemates Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, who were scheduled to reunite for the first time since Jagr was dealt to Washington in 2001.
They missed the chance to play together last year because of the All-Star format. This year, a groin injury forced Lemieux to withdraw, leaving Jagr with another former Pittsburgh teammate, Alexei Kovalev, on the starting forward line for the East.
"Every time I play with Paul, it is very special for me," Selanne said. "We had a great relationship, great chemistry on the ice, and I really miss Paul. What a great player he is, and it is always great to play with him."
Ed Belfour declined an opportunity to be on the East squad, now that he has left Dallas for Toronto. But the need to rest his back will keep him away from Florida. Saku Koivu was chosen an All-Star a year after cancer kept him off the ice for nearly the entire regular season. The Montreal forward will not play because of a prescheduled medical checkup.
Sandis Ozolinsh will be able to start on defense for the East, despite his trade from the host Florida Panthers to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks on Thursday night. The NHL, citing a precedent from 1990, announced that Ozolinsh won't become a Westerner until after Sunday's game.
Bernie Nicholls was traded from Los Angeles to the New York Rangers 13 years ago on the eve of the All-Star game, but he didn't switch sides for that exhibition.
The Dallas Stars took advantage of great home attendance and a fine first half to land three players on the West squad -- including Bill Guerin and Mike Modano, who were the first Dallas players elected to the starting lineup.
New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens will be the East captain. Stevens will play in his 13th All-Star game, the most among this year's group of players.
The Senators' bankrupt brethren, the Buffalo Sabres, haven't enjoyed nearly the same success as Ottawa. Buffalo is at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, tied with Atlanta with just 41 points.
The low finances partly explain the Sabres' on-ice troubles, but the New York Rangers, who own the NHL's highest payroll, are only slightly ahead of their in-state rivals at the bottom of the East standings.
Brian Leetch was elected as a starting defenseman, but an ankle injury that has limited him to 28 games this season will also keep him out of the All-Star contest. He was replaced by teammate Tom Poti, who leads the Rangers in scoring.