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First-rate players, first-place team, first-class time

by Tom Halkin, || AHL On The Beat Archive

08rask_200.jpgThe 2008 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Reebok was a resounding success for coaches, players and, most importantly, fans as the Canadian squad shot its way to a 9-8 shootout win over the PlanetUSA team. On hand to represent the Providence Bruins were Boston NHL apprentices Tuukka Rask, Matt Lashoff and Brett Skinner.

“Skinny” suited up for the Canadian All-Stars, while Tuukka and “Lash” were both named starters for the PlanetUSA team, coached by none other than Scott Gordon and Rob Murray, their Providence mentors, who were named to the game because the P-Bruins hold the best record in the AHL (and are, in fact, on pace to set an AHL record).

To all five guys, their respective selections were a testament to the whole P-Bruins team.

“Obviously to be here says a lot about the team we have this year, and the effort that we put forth,” said Gordon. “To be honest with you, there are probably another three guys that could have deservedly had the opportunity to come here too.

“The guys that are here are going to play in the NHL, and we are very fortunate to have the personnel that we do.”

The three skaters and two coaches had to hop into a van immediately following their Saturday night game in Hartford against the Wolf Pack and arrived in Binghamton later that night.

After getting some time to catch their breath Sunday afternoon, the players arrived at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena to prepare for that night’s Skills Competition.

Rask was in great spirits and expressed his excitement of playing in his first ever All-Star game, as there are no types of All-Star games in his native Finland.

“It’s a great honor for sure,” said the smiling Rask. “I’m glad to be an All-Star.

“…I must have done something right,” he added with a laugh.

Rask then turned a little serious.

“It’s great to be here with my coaches and teammates. It’s nice and it definitely makes it easier. They’re all great guys. We always have a good time and there’s never a dull moment.

“For the coaches, it is a nice reward for them. They are both excellent coaches. I’m sure it will be nice for them not worry about systems this week and just relax.”

Lashoff, attending his second straight AHL All-Star Classic, had similar feelings but was especially thrilled that his family was able to attend.

The East Greenbush, N.Y., native’s home is only a couple hours away.

“It feels great,” said Lashoff. “It’s always an honor to be voted an All-Star. This year is extra special with all the guys from Providence here with me. It’s great — it speaks a lot of our team this year. It’s also nice to have my family in the crowd. It will be nice to look up and see them.”

08lashoffLashoff was excited to hang out with some of his friends from around the league that he didn’t always get to see during the season.

“I made a lot of good friends last year [at the 2007 game in Toronto]. Of course Tuukka and Skinny are here too, but it’s good to get to hang out with you play against but don’t always get to talk to,” said Lashoff.

“[The weekend] is about having fun, meeting new people, and being in the locker room with different guys.”

The Skills Competition
The Skills Competition turned into the Tuukka Rask show. The P-Bruins netminder led the PlanetUSA All-Stars to a 15-9 victory, and he narrowly missed tying for the top goalie award handed out at the end of the night.

The Rapid Fire event was Rask’s first experience in net for the night.

With him alone in net, two Canadian shooters were stationed with a pile of pucks inside the hash-marks of the face-off circles. The shooters were able (technically) to take turns picking the goalie apart from their position, firing away as the goalies were forced to scramble back-and-forth across the crease.

However, it was Rask who left the shooters shaking their heads as he saved seven of the 10 point-blank bids against him from Denis Hamel of the host Binghamton Senators and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers’ Jeff Tambellini.

Next, Rask faced Hamel, Binghamton’s Lawrence Nycholat and Andrew Ebbett from the Portland Pirates in the Pass and Score competition, essentially a 3-on-0 game.

Again, Rask came up big for his team, stopping all three attempts that the trio got off against him.

Finally, Rask was able to stop five out of the six breakaways against him in the Breakaway Relay before fan favorite Hamel beat him on the last shot.

During the competition, Tuukka also drew big rounds of applause for his theatrics as he whirled and windmilled his glove around a couple of extra times on one stop and then pretended to throw his stick against the boards after Hamel scored on him.

He was again all smiles as he talked about his antics. When asked about his exaggerated glove save, the young Finn was comical.

“C’mon, it was a great save, did you see it? Highlight save!” Rask laughed. “It’s good to have fun here. That’s what it’s all about, a little entertainment.

“I don’t think I would do that in a game though,” he concluded with smile.

Lashoff and Skinner, being defensemen, had a harder time making an impact in the competition, which is more geared for forwards and goalies to show their skills. Lashoff, who didn’t get into an event until after four had already passed, jokingly said he was cold.

“Muscles stiffen up pretty quickly during stuff like that when you’re just sitting there for a while,” he quipped.

He added that, “Actually we just got too fancy in the 3-on-0’s, and then in the Breakaway Relay, he just didn’t bite on my fake.”

The last words of the night were from Rask.

“It’s a good warm up for tomorrow. It was a real fun day.”

The (Pre)Game
08skinnerBefore the actual All-Star Game, as the players readied in their perspective locker rooms, Brett Skinner took some time to talk about his experience so far and his thoughts on the game later that night.

“It’s been a lot of fun so far — getting out here, being able to put personalities to names of guys you play against, it’s been great,” Skinner said.

As far as that night’s All-Star Game, Skinner was a little worried about facing off against the rest of the Providence contingent.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work out for me. (Providence head coach Scott Gordon) and (Providence assistant coach Rob Murray) probably have pre-scouted me and are giving away all my special secrets,” joked Skinner. “But other than that, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, especially getting a chance to play against those guys; there’s definitely going to be some bragging rights on the line.

“I definitely don’t know any of Tuukka’s secrets I can tell the boys because I haven’t scored on him [in practice] all year,” he laughed. “I think that definitely adds a little something to it though, playing against those guys.”

Skinner said it was all strategy that the Canadians beat them the night before.

“I think that was our plan, let them win the Skills, so that they can go to sleep last night and feel good about themselves. Now today we can come out and get a jump on them right away.”

The Game
Much like the Skills Competition, it was Rask who shinned through, staring the first period and leaving PlanetUSA with a lead.

Rask allowed the fewest goals of his PlanetUSA teammates, letting only two pucks get past him. The Milwaukee Admirals’ Pekka Rinne and Jimmy Howard of the Grand Rapid Griffins each allowed three.

Rask came up big for his squad early in the first, stopping back-to-back bids by Canadian players, first sliding out of his net to his left to stack the pads, and then seconds later stopping a point black bid from the low slot. He again got the sold-out crowd in Binghamton on its feet when he came way out of his net to stop a potential breakaway, clearing the puck out of his zone by pulling off a nifty spin-o-rama on the attacker bearing down on him.

“Guys are coming down, 3-on-1’s, breakaways… You can’t take it too seriously, otherwise you are going to lose your mind out there, so I just tried to have fun,” said Rask afterwards. “I got to try it here because I can’t try it Providence. You have to have fun out there, put on a show for the fans.

“Improvise, that’s what all about.”

His coach hesitantly agreed.

“As long as it doesn’t carry over into the regular season,” laughed Gordon, when asked about Tuukka’s theatrics. “He has a flare for the dramatic, but I did tell the guys, you have to go out and have fun.”

Meanwhile, Skinner was able to collect the lone point of the night for Providence skaters when he grabbed the second assist on San Antonio Rampage forward Joey Tenute’s second-period marker.

Lashoff spent most of the night paired with fellow starter Erik Reitz from the Houston Aeros but was unable to find his way to the score sheet.

coachesIn the end, PlanetUSA squandered the lead that Rask had built and lost in an entertaining shootout 9-8.

“I think if you could really picture how you would want a game to go for fans and TV, that’s how you’d want it to go,” said Skinner afterwards. “It was nice to get the win too.”

With victory, Skinner is now afforded some locker room bragging rights.

“There was a little pride factor on the line there at the end,” said Lashoff. “You want to win, you want to pull it out so that you can brag a little — especially for me and Tuukka because we got Skinny on the other side.

“But he ended up pulling it out, so he should be jiving us for a little,” Lashoff added with a chuckle.

When told of Lashoff’s confession that he could go ahead and start gloating, Skinner decided to playfully put salt in Matt’s wounds.

“Well, I thought Lash had a hamstring injury or something in the first, because I couldn’t really even tell he was on the ice, until he started chirping me,” Skinner quipped.

“Nah, he played good,” Skinner finally confessed. “But I definitely get the upper hand on him for a little bit now.”

Final thoughts…
Before the players all headed back to the hotel for the night they had some final thoughts on the events.

“I think it was fun for everybody,” said Tuukka. “The Skills Competition, then the reception party afterwards, hanging out with the guys, it was a great time.”

Lashoff turned reflective, when describing his second All-Star Classic.

“It was a great experience for myself to be able to have fun with the guys and my teammates and also see some guys that I don’t get to throughout the season that I’m good friends with,” said Lash. “That’s the main thing that you have to take away from this — that I had a great time and got to play with some world-class players and a lot of great people.”

Skinner also admitted that he had a great time in Binghamton, but there was still one thing bothering him.

“I still didn’t score on Tuukka,” laughed Skinner. “Which I guess doesn’t surprise me.”

Tom Halkin is a media relations intern for the Boston Bruins and a contributor to