- Barry Melrose, NHL studio analyst
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All-Star Weekend is upon us and if the 2004 game is as good as last year's -- which ended in a 5-5 tie and was won by the Western Conference in a shootout -- we're in for a treat. As an added bounus, we saw solid goaltending and tough play along the boards -- and here's hoping we see more of the same this year.
Besides the obvious conference prestige and bragging rights, the NHL has made the game as competitive as possible with money bonuses for the winning team, and the players have responded.
But the All-Star Game itself is only part of the weekend. I coached in the inaugural YoungStars Game two years ago and had the pleasure of watching players like Mike Comrie, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Roberto Luongo showcase the future of the league, and the SuperSkills competition is probably my favorite part of the weekend.
It's just amazing to see up-close how fast NHL players skate, how skilled they are in handling the puck and how hard they shoot it. It's good for the fans to see for themselves -- in a completely different setting than a game -- just how good these players really are.
And watch out for some budding young stars in this year's All-Star Game. Datsyuk is among the league scoring leaders but has been hidden away a bit with all the talent surrounding him in Detroit, and if Columbus' Rick Nash, who leads the league in goals, is healthy enough to play I look forward to him showing everyone he is for real. And who knows, maybe a goalie like Nashville's Tomas Vokoun can make some noise after quietly putting up good numbers over the first half.
No matter who steps up, the entire weekend should make for quite a show.
This week's starting lineup
Andrew Raycroft, Boston Bruins: The rookie has won 10 of 12 decisions since Jan. 7 and continues to impress people all over the league with his 1.89 GAA and consistent play. Raycroft has to be one of the front-runners for the Calder Trophy.
Rob Blake, Colorado Avalanche: Colorado looks right now like the best team in the Western Conference and Blake continues to be solid defensively while his 43 points are second among defenseman.
Glen Murray, Boston Bruins: He's on fire right now -- goals in six of his last seven games, including a hat trick against the Penguins -- and contributing big-time for a team that is starting to climb the Eastern Conference standings.
Keith Primeau, Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers are playing very well since Primeau's Jan. 16 return from a hand injury. Primeau is playing against the opposition's top lines and the players in the Philly dressing room will tell you he is their MVP when he's healthy.
Plus: New York Islanders
The Isles have overcome various injuries to some of their biggest names -- Alexei Yashin, Mark Parrish, Michael Peca -- yet they continue to win. Rick DiPietro is playing the best hockey of his young career in goal and everyone is contributing up front, meaning the Islanders have been able to find different ways to win all year. They are showing tremendous heart and character.
Minus: New York Rangers
What's new? The Rangers spent more money to bring in Jaromir Jagr and lost 9-1 in his first game, and on Feb. 4 the Garden was electric after the retirement ceremony for former goalie Mike Richter's No. 35 jersey, yet the Rangers blew a lead and the game against Minnesota. The team is out of the playoffs right now and probably the biggest disappointment in the league over the first half of the season.
Why is there such a difference in playing styles between the Western and Eastern conferences?
-- Steve, Grand Rapids, Mich.
The biggest factor is the skill and talent level of the players out West. The West is much more talented up front than the East, and with all the firepower the top teams have it would be ridiculous to turn them into trapping teams. Eastern teams like like New Jersey play a slower, grind-it-out style because they don't have the offensive talent to play wide-open games. And with their physical, clog-the-neutral zone style trapping teams can negate that skill advantage.
If the Los Angeles Kings make the playoffs, do you think Andy Murray should be Coach of the Year considering the plethora of injuries the team has suffered?
-- Albert, Irvine, Calif.
Definitely, Albert. If L.A. can continue to hang on to a playoff spot despite losing Adam Deadmarsh, Jason Allison, Zigmund Palffy, Martin Straka and Aaron Miller for all or parts of the season, then Andy Murray will be the coach of the year. Ron Wilson has also done an outstanding job in San Jose, but with all the Kings have overcome Murray deserves to be the guy. It'll be a battle to hang on to that spot, though, because Calgary and St. Louis are right there with the Kings. It's an amazing thing they're doing, though, so don't count them out, especially with the heart and resilience they've shown already this year.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He'll answer selected questions submitted to his e-mail bag each week. Also, click here to send Barry a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
In anticipation of All-Star Weekend, players in this week's starting lineup are all stars.