NASHVILLE – From his days in Buffalo, we all know Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff is as much of a hockey fan as he is a hockey coach. And he’s as curious as everyone else is to see what will happen here Sunday when the NHL All-Star Game turns into a 3-on-3 challenge.
“I think it can really be exciting,” Ruff said Friday in Bridgestone Arena. “You will see a lot of good scoring opportunities and the competition is going to be good. When you have that much ice, that much time to make plays, guys will be excited about operating at that level.”
Ruff will be coaching the Central Division team in the event. The Central stars will meet the Pacific Division stars in a 20-minute semifinal game, with the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions playing in the other. The two winners will meet in a 20-minute championship game, with the winning team splitting $1 million.
And Ruff agreed that this version could be more exciting than the regular season version since that comes after a 60-minute game.
“There’s no reason for guys to be tired here,” Ruff said. “If you use your six forwards and three defensemen evenly, they’ll probably play 6½-7 minutes. That’s not really a lot of hockey for them. They can go.”
Ruff said the regular-season OT has produced 3-4 good scoring chances every game but admitted he senses coaches are strategizing more to slow the game down. That could lead to more shootouts in the second half of the season.
“I think we’re seeing that,” he said. “The first time we played we had four 2-on-1s and now by the end, we’re not getting those. Scoring chances are down and it’s tightening up.”
One area of practice has been line changes. Players instinctively dump the puck into the offensive zone and sprint to the bench. In 3-on-3 play, you can’t do that. Changes have to be done while players circle and one maintains possession.
“We practiced through training camp and during practice to even throw the puck back to your goaltender if you need to,” Ruff said. “Once you don’t have it, it’s hard to get back.”
Ruff will have Dallas standouts Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on his roster. He will have four Nashville Predators, as James Neal was added to the roster in place of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who is ill. Preds GM David Poile said here Wednesday Ruff should play some shifts with all four hometown players on the ice, using Neal with defensemen Shea Weber and Roman Josi and goaltender Pekka Rinne.
“Maybe at some point we can. I don’t think it’s bad,” said a smiling Ruff. “They’re all good players.”
Saturday’s Skills Competition begins at 7 p.m. Eastern time and will be televised by NBC Sports Network. Individual and team champions will be crowned.
The six events will be Fastest Skater, Breakaway Challenge, Accuracy Shooting, Skills Challenge Relay, Hardest Shot and Shootout.
Each All-Star will compete in at least one of the six rounds. The winning conference earns the right to select when its semifinal 3-on-3 matchup will be played on Sunday, either as the first game or the second game.
Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly was trying to soak in the atmosphere at Media Day and around town as he’s at his first All-Star Game.
“It was exciting, especially coming to a town like this where everyone is excited for the event,” O’Reilly said. “It’s nice to get in here and take in the whole experience. Today is a busy day but a fun day too. A lot of prep and media. It’s been great.”
In Saturday’s skills competition, O’Reilly is entered in the shootout relay and the one-timers events. The other exciting part of All-Star Weekend? Each player gets a personalized Gibson guitar in a swag bag compiled by organizers. O’Reilly said it will be added to his collection of about a dozen.
“I’m getting it shipped back to Buffalo,” he said. “That was definitely a nice surprise, being a guy that loves music. To get an authentic Gibson guitar like that is pretty special. I play a little bit. I try. I may not be that good but it’s definitely a hobby I’ve always loved.”
Jaromir Jagr, the 43-year-old Florida forward who is the Atlantic Division captain, admitted he did not want to serve a one-game suspension by the NHL and that’s why he agreed to come. But Jagr was in excellent spirits when talking to the media, smiling and laughing through his whole session. A sample:
Is this your last All-Star Game? “Yes.”
What’s the key to play against the Panthers? “I don’t want to help any GM.”
How old do you feel? “42.”
Why is he not in the Fastest Skater contest? “I don’t want to embarrass anybody out there. What about if I win, at my age?”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will have his regularly scheduled meeting with reporters here Saturday and it’s likely there will be confirmation that next year’s game will be held at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Board of Governors will also meet here Saturday to get an update on expansion, but no decisions are slated to be made.