Parise leads Eastern YoungStars to win

By Ken McKenna

New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise already has earned one MVP award in his career, at the 2004 World Junior Championships in which the USA won gold. He now adds another such award after helping the Eastern Conference YoungStars to a 9-8 victory in the 2007 NHL YoungStars Game.

Parise earned his honor on the basis of a two-goal, four-assist performance, including assists on three consecutive goals. And the prize for his offensive performance? “I think I got a plastic star”, laughed the Devils young star.

Parise’s joking remark summed up the atmosphere surrounding this game, with players on both squads getting caught up in the “pond hockey” approach that is the norm for these affairs. Goaltenders Kari Lehtonen of the East and Peter Budaj of the West faced a total of 51 shots in this 30-minute, three period match, with many of those shots being of high quality. Of course, both goaltenders knew what was in store for them on this night, a fact they seemed to take in stride.

“We knew it was going to be a game like that with lots of scoring”, shrugged Budaj, the former OHL star and current Colorado Avalanche netminder. “It was fun, you know. Me and Kari talked about how we wouldn’t get much help this night. But it was a good experience and I was glad to be here.”

The goals came early and often in this game, with the first goal being scored by the West’s Anze Kopitar at the 27-second mark. Kopitar turned in a performance befitting a player who is a possible Rookie of the Year candidate. The Los Angeles Kings’ star netted two goals and added three assists for the Western squad, with his play late in the game nearly helping the West overcome a five-goal deficit.

Defensemen scored six of the seventeen goals tallied in this contest, with Ottawa Senators’ rearguard Andrej Meszaros and San Jose Sharks defender Matt Carle each netting two apiece. On this night, at least, defending was not a part of the plan, a fact duly noted by Carle.

“I don’t think we were playing a whole lot of defense out there”, smiled the former University of Denver star. “We could pick up some bad habits out there, but that is part of the fun for the fans so I hope we put on a good show for them.”

The Western squad’s near-comeback in the third period added a bit of drama to this game. Kopitar and Dallas Stars’ forward Jussi Jokinen both missed on opportunities to tie things up in the game’s last minute, helping the East to avenge their loss to the West the last time this game was held, back in 2004.

Boston Bruins’ rookie Phil Kessel may have provided the most inspirational note of this game, and perhaps of the entire All-Star week, as he netted three goals and added one assist for the East. Kessel is just over a month removed from cancer surgery.

For most of the players that participated, though, this game represents a stepping stone to what is hoped will be bigger and better things.

“I think the biggest thing is that you have to be confident that you can play in the NHL”, said St Louis Blues’ winger and Western squad member Lee Stempniak. “Getting the experience at this All-Star Game and All-Star Week, and getting to play with such young, good players makes for a special experience.”