For the first time in an All-Star Game since Ray Bourque thrilled the home crowd in 1996 in Boston by beating Felix Potvin in the final minute to give the Eastern Conference a 5-4 victory, the contest was somewhat interesting.

Often called a “meaningless exhibition,” last Sunday’s game proved once again that even when there is only pride on the line, hockey players hate to lose. The first 45 minutes were actually quite boring. Sure, Atlanta sophomore Danny Heatley scored four goals through the first two periods to keep the East in the game, but the game didn’t display the action of the previous years’ contests.

The start of the third period was no different, until something interesting happened: Jeremy Roenick — notorious for being the “All-Star Goon” — delivered a crushing check on Eric Brewer with about 12 minutes to go, getting both teams, not to mention the fans, back into the game. After outstanding goaltending by Patrick Lalime and Marty Turco, overtime ended with the score tied 5-5, sending the game to a shootout.

Fans at the Office Depot Center in Sunrise, Fl. rose to their feet and watched the most exciting way to decide a game in any sport. After both goalies stopped the initial shots they faced, the West scored three consecutive goals to defeat the East 3-1 in the shootout, clinching a 6-5 win.

Now, the break is over as the teams returns to action. For the next two months, teams will battle for playoff position, and if they play as hard as those All-Stars did during the final minutes of the game last Sunday, it’s going to be a heck of an ending to the season.

Central DivisionEven without Chris Pronger for the entire season, the St. Louis Blues, led by Al MacInnis and his 98.9 mph slapshot, lead the Central Division — for the time being. Unfortunately, during the game MacInnis ripped a shot directly into the left ankle of teammate Doug Weight, who will be out for at least a week. With the Red Wings right on their heels, the Blues will have a daunting task ahead of them. If they can get strong goaltending from Fred Brathwaite and Brent Johnson, as well as full recoveries for both Weight and Pronger, the Blues could be one of the teams to beat in the West.

Curtis Joseph hasn’t been himself this season, Steve Yzerman has yet to play a game and Luc Robitaille was benched for the first time in his career, but the Red Wings are still the Red Wings, and are therefore still in contention in the West. Nicklas Lidstrom is still unquestionably the best defenseman in the NHL, and Sergei Fedorov and Brett Hull lead a potent scoring attack. Anything Yzerman can add when he returns from knee surgery will be a plus, and when CuJo snaps into shape, the Wings will be ready to defend the Cup.

After losing Tony Amonte before the season, the Blackhawks started the year concerned that they wouldn’t have enough scoring to compete with the Vancouvers and Detroits of the NHL, but thanks to goalie Jocelyn Thibault, that’s hardly been a problem. He’s already played in 45 of Chicago’s 52 games, but without a solid backup, he will continue to carry the load into the playoffs. Tyler Arnason’s 26 points puts him in contention for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, and the Hawks will count on him to continue to score down the stretch.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, despite firing their coach earlier this season, haven’t been all that bad. Led by veterans Geoff Sanderson, Andrew Cassels and Ray Whitney, Columbus also has a promising group of young players in Rostislav Klesla, goalie Marc Denis and future star Rick Nash. With a solid mix of young and old, Columbus is setting itself up to be a top team in just a few years.

Nashville, on the other hand, seems to be going nowhere fast. They traded goalie Mike Dunham, leaving Tomas Vokoun as their starter. And although he has played well, he doesn’t seem the likely choice to lead a young team on a playoff run. With the Predators ten points out of the final playoff spot, their season ticket holders, who were promised last year’s ticket prices if the team didn’t make the postseason, will be getting a refund in a few weeks.

Northwest DivisionFormer Ranger goalie Dan Cloutier was the Player of the Month for November, and has helped the Canucks to the top spot in the division. Since last year’s All-Star break, no NHL player has more points than former Islander Todd Bertuzzi. The 235 pound forward, alongside Markus Naslund, leads the NHL’s top scoring attack. If the Canucks keep up their strong play, they will win the Northwest and could make a playoff run.The closest team to Vancouver in the standings is the Edmonton Oilers. However, the Oilers are also only five points ahead of Anaheim, the ninth seed in the West. Without a superstar, the Oilers have relied on a balanced scoring attack. Tommy Salo has been solid in goal once again, and Eric Brewer has established himself as one of the top young defensemen in hockey. Look for the Oilers to solidify their playoff position in the coming weeks.

Marian Gaborik of the Minnesota Wild is one of the NHL’s top scorers, and a case could even be made for him as an MVP candidate. Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez have combined to form one of the top goalie tandems in the league, and Jacques Lemaire’s trap is very difficult to play against. After going years without a squad, the die-hard hockey fans in Minnesota deserve a playoff run by a team that will be a force for many years.

With superstars Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Peter Forsberg and the greatest goalie in hockey history, Patrick Roy, somehow the Avalanche are still not among the top teams in the Western Conference. Their poor start prompted the firing of coach Bob Hartley, but they have not been able to climb in the standings. Colorado remains in playoff contention, and with an All-Star cast could defeat a top- seeded team, as long as it gets in.Roman Turek has been solid in goal, but other than that, not much has gone right for the Calgary Flames this season. MVP runner-up Jarome Iginla has been a far cry from last year’s performance, and Craig Conroy and Chris Drury haven’t been up to par either. With Iginla’s and Drury’s contracts up at the end of the season, both could be gone at the trading deadline, potentially signaling the beginning of the end of hockey in Calgary.

Pacific DivisionThe Dallas Stars look ready to win the Stanley Cup — this time without controversy. Marty Turco has taken Ed Belfour’s spot in goal and has been outstanding all season. Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen are arguably the best two-way forwards in hockey, and Bill Guerin has proven very quickly that he is well worth the money. To boot, Dallas has even acquired former playoff hero Claude Lemieux. If anyone can dethrone the defending champion Red Wings, the Stars are the team to do it.

Adam Oates has only 22 points, yet the Mighty Ducks are still in position to make a playoff run. They currently sit on the edge, but the acquisition of defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh could change that very quickly. J.S. Guigere has been solid in goal and Paul Kariya is scoring at a point per game pace. The addition of Ozolinsh gives Anaheim one of the league’s top offensive defenseman. Another team from Anaheim snuck into the playoffs, and ended up winning the World Series — just a reminder anything’s possible.

With Tony Amonte on board, the Phoenix Coyotes expected to compete for home-ice advantage in the playoffs. Instead, they’ll be lucky just to get in. Sean Burke has been injured nearly all season, and Brian Boucher never really filled the void. Zac Bierk has stepped up with a 1.33 goals against in 10 games, but is only 4-4-1 to show for it. The Coyotes need Sean Burke to return quickly and Amonte to step up if they are to make a playoff run.

Instead of battling Dallas for the division lead as the Sharks thought in October that they would be doing this time of year, San Jose is battling Phoenix and Los Angeles to stay out of last place. Evgeni Nabokov has played decently since his return from an early season contract dispute, but the eff

ects of his absence have lingered, as the Sharks still haven’t recovered from a horrid start to the season.

The Los Angeles Kings have many marquee names on their roster, yet they are currently mired in last place in the Pacific Division. Plagued by injuries, Jason Allison has missed more than half of L.A.’s games thus far. Adam Deadmarsh has also been fighting the injury bug, and the effects of a concussion have kept him out for over a month. To make matters worse, Felix Potvin was just placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, and with him out for at least six weeks, his season, as well as the Kings’, is effectively finished.

Swidler can be reached at

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