While the rest of their teammates rested and/or relaxed for the better part of the last three or four days, Caps coach Barry Trotz, captain Alex Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby represented the team at the NHL’s All-Star Game in Tampa.
The midseason festival took place the same weekend as the Gasparilla Pirate Festival in Tampa, leading to a confluence of pucks and eye patches, of hockey sticks and planks, and of garish sweaters and puffy shirts.
A good time was had by all.
With sharp-shooting rookie Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks taking MVP honors, the Pacific Division won Sunday’s round robin tournament by way of successive 5-2 victories over the Central and Atlantic Divisions. In between, Trotz’s Metro Division charges came out on the short end of a 7-4 loss to the Atlantic.
Local hero Nikita Kucherov notched a hat trick for the Atlantics, scoring the first and last of five goals against Holtby in the game’s second half after the Metro aquad owned a 3-2 edge at “halftime.” Kucherov’s final goal was the dazzler of the weekend, a sort of change of pace mixed with some deception that earned Holtby’s admiration and fear.
“He surprised me,” said Holtby of Kucherov. “It’s a great move. I was saying after that he is one of those players who thinks like a goalie, so it’s scary when guys think that way.”
“Obviously in the first game he was unbelievable,” said Ovechkin. “He scored every chance he had, like he was feeling it. So I’m pretty happy for him.”
Ovechkin was asked whether he’d be capable of pulling off a similar move.
“I don’t have that skill,” he responded, without hesitation.
Four Metro players and four Atlantic players each scored once, and Kucherov’s hat trick was the difference.
“Braden couldn’t do anything about any of the goals,” said Trotz.
“You kind of just go in there with an open mind and hoping you guess right sometimes,” Holtby shrugged. “And they made some pretty good plays. It’s good. No one came here to watch saves anyway. The first game, there were too many saves. I thought I’d let a few in.”
On the Metro side, Ovechkin played with Sidney Crosby. Each set up the other once for a goal and both players finished with a goal and an assist, the only two Metro players with multiple points.
“It was good,” said Ovechkin of playing with Crosby. “Obviously we don’t have lots of time to play out there, only a couple of shifts. But it was fun.”
“Those are moments that anybody who was here can say, ‘Hey, I saw maybe two of the greatest players of their generation playing together in an All-Star Game,’” said Trotz. “You don’t get those moments very often. I think that’s what the All-Star Game is. There are moments that leave a lasting impression for hopefully a die-hard hockey fan, but also maybe a new fan who is seeing our game.”
Trotz also noted that while the Metro roster featured the likes of thirty-something stalwarts such as Crosby and Ovechkin, the more youthful Atlantic squad featured some of the game’s youngest up-and coming talent.
“The thing that I thought was really unique for the fans today is you had some of the I’ll say older faces – the Crosby and Ovi playing together,” says Trotz. “And then on the other side you had a guy like [Toronto’s Auston] Matthews and [Buffalo’s Jack] Eichel, who were outstanding.
“[Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper] started all of his Lightning players, which obviously here in Tampa is the right thing to do, and on our side we went with Brian Boyle and Zach [Werenski], who were playing in their first [All-Star] game. And obviously Boyle played in Tampa, so there were some great moments.”
A late replacement for the injured Taylor Hall, Boyle appeared in his first All-Star Game in the city where he played the better part of four seasons and where he was playing at this time last year. Throughout the weekend, many of the loudest ovations were for Boyle, a popular player at each of his previous NHL stops.
Shortly after signing with New Jersey as an unrestricted free agent last summer, Boyle was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a type of bone marrow cancer. Despite missing 10 games while undergoing treatment early in the season, Boyle’s 11 goals ranks fifth on the Devils as he takes aim on his second 20-goal season in the league and his first since 2010-11 when he was with the New York Rangers.
“It was great,” said Holtby of Boyle’s warm reception at his former home. “It’s obviously great in his situation to be able to be here. But in another aspect, I think he has been an extremely underrated player for a long time.
“All-Star Games are a lot about the highest scorers are all that, and he does things – I’ve played against him a lot obviously in the playoffs and everything – and he does the little things to create wins [like] win face-offs, penalty kill and all that. So it was kind of nice to see a guy like that at the All-Star Game, guys that us goalies really appreciate. So it’s great for him, based on the year that he’s gone through and he is still playing at a high level.”
The Tampa Bay franchise was struggling a decade ago, and this All-Star weekend provided a solid reminder of how far the franchise has come in its quarter century of existence, and in the last decade in particular.
“I’ve always thought it’s been one of the best fan experiences in the league,” said Holtby.” I was a Black Ace here when they swept us in the playoffs [in 2011] before, so I was a third goalie and no one knew who I was. So I was out there watching the bands and the stuff before [the game].
“I thought it was amazing how they were making it real enjoyable for the fans and creating that energy before everyone got into the building. I think it’s no different now. You can tell how passionate people are about the team here because they’ve done a good job of building the culture of a high energy crowd.”
“It’s a great town,” said Ovechkin. “Lots of good memories here; great fans. I think everybody here who came from different teams enjoyed it. And if the fans enjoy it, we all enjoy it as well.”