ST. PAUL, Minn. They call Minnesota the State of Hockey and, fittingly, the NHL's All-Star game there reflected the state of its hockey, too. The trend to defense has spread even to the sport's showcase game.
In a relatively low-scoring game befitting what is jokingly called hockey's dead-puck era, 43-year-old Mark Messier turned back the clock and Joe Sakic scored three goals, but the goalies dominated in the Eastern Conference's 6-4 victory Sunday over the Western Conference.
''The goaltending was unbelievable and we got a game out of it because of the goaltending,'' Messier said after four of the six goalies allowed only a single goal apiece. ''Otherwise I think it would have been up in the double digits for both sides.''
Messier, who was winning Stanley Cups before some current All-Stars were born, had a goal and an assist and Daniel Alfredsson had two goals and an assist for the East to overcome All-Star MVP Sakic's hat trick.
If it was his last All-Star game and, perhaps, the NHL's last for a while as it prepares for what could be months of divisive labor talks at least Messier left behind a lasting memory with his sixth multiple-point game in 15 All-Star appearances.
''There's no question he deserved to be here,'' Rangers teammate Jaromir Jagr said of Messier, whose selection was questioned for being more sentimental than reflective of his current skills.
Despite the big games by players (Messier and Sakic) with a combined 39 seasons of NHL experience, it was only the second All-Star game with fewer than 10 goals in the last 19 seasons. Nine goals were scored in 1996.
Only two goals were scored in the first period against goalies Martin Brodeur of the East and Marty Turco and in the third against the East's Roberto Luongo and the West's Dwayne Roloson as all four made a series of exceptional saves.
''I thought it was high tempo, it was quick out there, but the goaltending was great,'' the West's Jarome Iginla said. ''It could have been a really high-scoring game if they weren't so good.''
Not likely. Though the final score would be a shootout by today's standards in a sport where scoring had dropped by 2 1/2 goals per game in the last 15 years to an average of five per game, it was far below that of the 16-goal average of the last 14 All-Star games. Only three years ago, North America beat the World All-Stars by the football like-score of 14-12 in Denver, a game derided by hockey purists as being more like a home run derby than a real game.
On Saturday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league's general manager and a league-wide committee will look at ways to pump up the offense and improve the game.
''I think we can make a lot of changes, but we're never going to have the scoring we once did and today is proof of it,'' Messier said. ''I think a 6-4 All-Star game with that many chances, you can take out every red line and blue line in the game and you're never going to have the goal scoring that we had in the 80s.''
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