TAMPA, Fla. – There was backchecking, highlight-reel saves and clutch defense.
Basically, it looked like a normal night for the Wild and its closest rivals.
“That’s the Central, eh?” Blues center Brayden Schenn said. “We just check teams right out of it.”
Not even a 3-on-3 setup featuring the NHL’s elite could snap the Central Division players out of the defensive struggle that’s headlined much of their play during a season in which only 13 points separate first from last.
This style wasn’t enough to keep the Central relevant in the All-Star Game on Sunday at Amalie Arena, as it was eliminated by the Pacific Division 5-2, but the division undoubtedly will be one to watch the rest of the way amid what looks to be a photo finish.
And the focus shifts back to that race now that Wild center Eric Staal’s All-Star experience has concluded.
“I was working hard to keep the puck out of our net,” he said. “A couple poke checks my brother would appreciate. Would have liked a couple of shots back. Tried to bury one. It was quick. It was fun, but I enjoyed the whole week.”
The Central and Pacific were the first to square off in the tournament-style competition, which ultimately pitted the Pacific against the Atlantic Division. The Pacific stars emerged with a 5-2 victory, and 20-year-old Burnsville native Brock Boeser was crowned MVP in front of a rowdy announced crowd of 19,092 after a three-point effort that included a pair of goals.
Terrific play from Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, which included a slick save off Oilers phenom Connor McDavid that bounced off Rinne’s back before rolling out, combined with a blistering shot from Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon had the Central up 1-0 after the first 10-minute session — this after Rinne shined the night before in the save streak challenge at the skills competition.
“Rinne went on a 13-save run, and then I think we missed a bunch in a row and we were saying, ‘That’s why our division is 2-1, 1-0 every night,’ ” Staal said.
But the action opened up in the second half; goals from Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and Golden Knights winger James Neal put the Pacific ahead before Predators defenseman P.K. Subban tied it on a breakaway.
After that, though, the Pacific took over, with Boeser scoring the winner before empty-net goals from Sharks defenseman Brent Burns and Neal.
“We had fun,” said Staal, who aside from his slick defensive poke check had two shots on net in his fifth All-Star appearance but first without a point. “It’s a great weekend altogether. Would have been nice to keep playing, but we’ll keep looking forward to the rest of the season.”
How that plays out is a mystery.
Winnipeg leads the Central, but by just a point over Nashville. St. Louis fills out the top three, but Dallas is only three points behind. And the Wild, at 57 points, is tied with Colorado and has only a four-point edge over No. 7 Chicago.
“I’m guessing we’ve never seen anything like how it’s going to be,” Stars center Tyler Seguin said. “You look at the Central and feel like you’re playing really well as a team. You’re really only just keeping up.”
Just ask the Avalanche.
“We won 10 in a row, and it just put us in a tie for wild card,” MacKinnon said. “We win 10 in a row; other teams win eight out of 10. It’s tough.”
Talk of the logjam even came up over the weekend among the players.
It wasn’t a focal point, not when a lighthearted vibe permeates an exhibition like this. But everyone was aware of what awaits them when they rejoin their teams.
And to Staal, who has been the Wild’s most reliable scorer this season with a team-high 20 goals and 43 points, it’s already clear what it’ll take for the team to have a chance to jump up into a playoff position once the season resumes Tuesday in Columbus against the Blue Jackets.
“It’s going to be a dogfight, to be honest,” Staal said. “There’s so many good teams. For us, it’s about building momentum when you have it and trying to stay with it. We’ve been really solid at home. We’ve got to to find a way to a better job on the road and pick up points. But every night, it seems like someone in our division is picking up points and wins.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us, but we should be excited for it [and] be refreshed by these couple days.”