- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Hockey’s defensive stranglehold is now choking the NHL All-Star Game.

Normally a free-wheeling, high-scoring affair with minimal checking, the game turned into a goaltending clinic as the Eastern Conference posted a 6-4 win yesterday in the lowest scoring All-Star Game in eight years.

Even without defensive hallmarks like the left-wing lock and neutral zone trap, a parade of goalies led by Minnesota Wild star and local favorite Dwayne Roloson held off one point-blank chance after another and sprawled around the crease as if it were the heart of the playoffs.

“Goaltending has changed everything in hockey over the past 15 years, and we saw that again today,” New York Rangers center Mark Messier said. The 43-year-old Messier scored a second-period goal and added his 14th career assist in All-Star competition, an NHL record.

“The athletes are better. The training is better. The equipment is better. It’s completely altered how the game is played and the entire discussion about what we should do about hockey going forward,” Messier said.

The victory, coupled with a rout Saturday night in the Skills competition, gave the East a sweep of the weekend’s All-Star festivities.

“This was a tight game, quite a lot of defense,” said Florida goalie Roberto Luongo, who held off a furious late Western Conference rally and kept it scoreless over the final 13 minutes. “I really didn’t feel shelled [by shots] at all.”

Regular-season scoring, at just five goals a game, is at its lowest levels in more than five decades. The last All-Star Game to have less scoring was 1996, a 5-4 victory by the Eastern Conference.

Just three years ago, any traditional notion of hockey, even in the context of an exhibition like this, vanished in a ridiculous 14-12 win by the North American team. Over the past 14 years, NHL All-Star Games have averaged 16 total goals.

Yesterday, checking was even in vogue. Philadelphia center Jeremy Roenick, who promised an unusual level of contact in the normally light contest, traded body slams with former teammate and rival Keith Tkachuk, rallying the sold-out but rather quiet crowd at Xcel Energy Center.

“It didn’t look like anybody wanted to lose,” Dallas right wing Bill Guerin said. “We played position hockey, and that’s tough to do in an All-Star Game. You could tell both teams were into it, both offensive and defensively. We have to give credit to the goalies. They all were very good tonight. There were a lot of highlight saves.”

Colorado center Joe Sakic, the league’s MVP three years ago, won yesterday’s All-Star MVP trophy with a hat trick in a losing effort.

The Eastern Conference, led by two goals and an assist from Ottawa right wing Daniel Alfredsson, took control with a four-goal second period and never trailed.

Washington Capitals center Robert Lang, playing in his first All-Star Game, recorded an assist by helping set up Messier’s goal.

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