COLUMBUS, Ohio – Zemgus Girgensons’ first time on the ice at an NHL All-Star event was a treat for his ears and eyes.
Girgensons, who earned a hearty ovation from the sellout crowd during introductions Saturday night, helped Team Foligno earn a 25-19 victory over Team Toews during the All-Star Skills Competition. Girgensons took part in three of the six events in Nationwide Arena.
The Sabres center gave Team Foligno a clean sweep in the Fastest Skater competition, the first event of the night. After watching teammates Phil Kessel, Jonathan Drouin and Jiri Sekac win their races, Girgensons downed St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko.
Girgensons, who wore a camera on his helmet to document the lap, took advantage when Tarasenko stumbled early. Girgensons’ time of 14.101 seconds was seventh among the eight skaters, so he drew a fortuitous slot to earn the victory.
“I took a bad turn on the first one, too, so I thought I was done already at the first turn,” Girgensons said. “The helmet was pretty heavy and it was going side-to-side, but it was fun trying something like that out.”
Drouin, the rookie from Tampa Bay, had the best time at 13.013 seconds. The opening race was the closest as Kessel edged his eternal trade link, Tyler Seguin, by a few hundredths of a second (13.596-13.631).
Girgensons and seven teammates combined for one of Team Foligno’s few early losses. Girgensons, Duncan Keith, Nick Foligno, Jiri Sekac, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Drew Doughty, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Marc-Andre Fleury struggled during the Challenge Relay. Players needed to connect on two one-timers, shoot a puck in four mini-nets, stickhandle around cones and pucks, and have a goaltender score twice on ice-length shots.
Girgensons went 2 for 4 on his one-timers from the top of the circle as the team had an event-worst time of 2 minutes, 19.793 seconds.
“The relay was the most fun, seeing the guys put the puck in the little net and the goalie shooting,” Girgensons said. “That’s not too easy.”
New York Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak stopped Girgensons during the Shootout. Team Foligno had a commanding 15-4 lead entering the final event.
The Breakaway Challenge gave the players a chance to show off their creativity as well as their skills. The minds worked better than the bodies. The challenge featured puck juggling, baseball swings, an Ohio State jersey and props.
Hometown favorite Ryan Johansen of the Blue Jackets earned the victory and the loudest ovations for his three breakaways. First, the forward removed his Columbus sweater to reveal an Ohio State football jersey. On Johansen’s third attempt, he used four teammates to form the “Flying V” made famous in “The Mighty Ducks” movies.
During Johansen’s second breakaway, he stopped short of the goal and retreated to the bench to grab Cole Vogt, the 7-year-old son of Blue Jackets athletic trainer Mike Vogt. The crowd loved it when the kid scored, but the fans laughed more when the move was imitated later.
Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek also stopped short of the goal, but instead of plucking a child he grabbed Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau. Voracek guided the wobbling, 5-foot-9, 150-pound Gaudreau to the puck for a goal.
“That was funny,” said Girgensons, who played one season of junior hockey with Gaudreau. “There’s been plenty of jokes before about him being a kid.”
The NHL nixed Gaudreau’s breakaway idea. The rookie asked for permission to light his stick on fire.
“Unfortunately I had to be Director of Funland Security on that one after every attorney in our offices had simultaneous heart attacks,” Patrick Burke, the director of Player Safety, wrote on Twitter.
Shea Weber showed that it’s not wise to step in front of his slap shot. The Nashville defenseman won the Hardest Shot, unleashing a 108.5 mph blast on his final attempt. The players tapped their sticks in admiration when his speed hit the screen.
“It’s part of our job where we have to block the shots,” Girgensons said, “but when you have to face that one, you think a little bit more.”
Weber nearly matched Zdeno Chara’s slap shot of 108.8 mph, taken during a preliminary round in 2012.
Patrick Kane won the Accuracy Shooting challenge. The Chicago winger busted his four targets in just 13.529 seconds. The win gave Team Foligno a 10-1 lead after three events.
Girgensons has a chance to play in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which was announced Saturday. One of the eight squads will be Team Europe, consisting of players outside Sweden, Finland, Russia and Czech Republic. Should Girgensons make the team, he would be paired with players like Anze Kopitar of Slovenia, Thomas Vanek of Austria and Zdeno Chara of Slovakia.
“To start it might feel a little bit weird because you’re bringing everybody together,” Kopitar said, “but I think a similar thing is in golf when they bring together the Ryder Cup team. I think we can kind of draw on that.”
Another team will be made up of North American “Youngstars,” players age 23 and younger from Canada and the United States.
“It’s intriguing,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “It’s potentially a Cinderella team. It creates a lot of great story lines, and it gets a lot of exposure for some great young players in our league that might not otherwise get it.”