Women take centre stage at NHL all-star skills competition

Canada beat the United States 2-1 in a spirited 3-on-3 game between female players Friday night

The women were on centre stage at the NHL all-star skills competition for a second straight year.

And they hope that exposure will eventually lead to brighter days in the not-too-distant future.

Canada beat the United States 2-1 in a spirited 3-on-3 game between female players Friday night. Rebecca Johnston and Melodie Daoust scored for the Canadians, while Hilary Knight replied for the Americans in the 20-minute showcase.

While the game didn’t have the intensity of a true international, there were big saves, breakaways and some physical play inside Enterprise Center, where fans chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” off the opening faceoff.

Kendall Coyne Schofield turned heads at the 2019 event in San Jose in the fastest skater competition, while Brianna Decker impressed with her deft puck skills in the passing event. Female players were also on hand at the 2018 all-star game in Tampa, Fla.

In terms of NHLers on Friday, New York Islanders centre Mathew Barzal dethroned three-time defending champion Connor McDavid in the fastest skater competition with a time of 13.175 seconds. McDavid, who suffered a serious knee injury at the end of last season, actually posted a faster time (13.215 seconds) than his three previous victories. Barzal’s mark was just 0.003 seconds off of the record set by Detroit’s Dylan Larkin in 2016.

“He flies,” McDavid, the captain of the Edmonton Oilers, said of Barzal on Friday afternoon. ”He skates like the wind and he’s got real good hands and he’s definitely a player that’s fun to watch.”

Apart from the women’s 3-on-3 game, another addition to this year’s skill competition was the so-called “Shooting Stars” event that saw players positioned on a raised platform behind one of the goals at Enterprise Center fire pucks at a variety of targets.

Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks won the event, while Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin also took part in the 10-competitor field.

St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington thrilled the hometown fans by winning the save streak/shootout challenge with 10 straight stops — including one on San Jose’s Thomas Hertl as he sported a Justin Bieber mask.

Montreal Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber won the hardest shot with 106.5 miles per hour, just ahead of Washington Capitals blue-liner and defending champion John Carlsson’s 104.5. Weber also won three straight from 2015 to 2017, but wasn’t named to the all-star game the last two years.

Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Jaccob Slavin, meanwhile, took home the shooting accuracy award.

The Canadian roster for the women’s game included Daoust, Johnston, Poulin, Meghan Agosta, Blayre Turnbull, Sarah Nurse, Natalie Spooner, Renata Fast, Laura Fortino and Ann-Renee Desbiens.

The U.S. countered with Coyne Schofield, Decker, Knight, Amanda Kessel, Alex Carpenter, Annie Pankowski, Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson, Kacey Bellamy, Lee Stecklein and Alex Rigsby.

Friday marked the biggest stage the NHL has ever provided the women’s game, and the second-biggest overall aside from the Olympics. The players are banking on it eventually leading to a sustainable league in partnership with the NHL.

“I’m thrilled that we have an opportunity for the women’s game to be demonstrated,” said commissioner Gary Bettman. “They’re excited to be here, we’re excited to have them. The fact we can shine a brighter light on the women’s game is a positive for them, for the game and for young girls watching and aspiring to do the same thing.”

But it’s also unclear if the NHL is willing to go any further in its support.

“We are all hopeful,” Johnston said. ”Us being here, I think that’s a step in the right direction. The NHL is supporting women’s hockey. They’re helping us get the exposure that we need.

“The partnership is there. It’s not something you can just build over night. For us it’s just being patient, trying to grow the game.”

McDavid not expecting any tkachuk fireworks

McDavid missed Thursday’s all-star media availability, but spoke ahead of the skills competition. Apart from discussing the seriousness of his knee injury — the full details weren’t released until a documentary aired Friday — the 23-year-old said he doesn’t expect there to be any issues between himself, Edmonton teammate Leon Draisaitl and Calgary forward Matthew Tkachuk. The Oilers and Flames played a heated game two weeks ago where Tkachuk levelled Edmonton winger Zack Kassian with two huge hits. That led Kassian to jump a turtling Tkachuk and earn a two-game suspension. It also sparked a war of words as the Battle of Alberta went from simmering to red-hot. “We’re here to have a good time,” McDavid said. ”Whatever is going on it will be settled, (but) definitely not at the all-star game.” The Flames and Oilers play in Edmonton on Wednesday in Kassian’s return from suspension.

Puck and player tracking on track

Bettman said puck and player tracking technology will be ready to go in each of the 16 arenas hosting playoff games this spring, and in all 31 buildings by the start of next season. The tracking is also being used at the all-star game for the second straight year. “It’ll be, as a fan and a viewer, what you want it to be,” Bettman said. “You’ll be able to watch the game as you’ve always watched it traditionally if that’s what you want. There’ll be broadcast enhancements … and there’ll be more data than ever before.”

No Olympic decision

Bettman said there’s still no decision on the NHL going to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, but things don’t sound promising. While the NHL Players’ Association and the International Ice Hockey Federation would like to see it happen, the league views the tournament as a major inconvenience in the middle of the schedule. The NHL went to five Winter Games between 1998 and 2014, but didn’t participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. ”Going is extraordinarily disruptive,” Bettman said. “We were very comfortable not going.” IIHF president Rene Fasel has set an August deadline for the NHL to decide if its in or out.

O’Reilly showing support

Blues centre Ryan O’Reilly sported a different look during warmups — a Kansas City Chiefs football helmet. The team advanced to the Super Bowl last weekend for the first time in 50 years, and will take on the San Francisco 49ers in the big game Feb. 2.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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