VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As usual, the goaltenders probably will end up shellshocked. And there again figures to be plenty of open ice for hockey's best skaters to pass, shoot and score.
Nevertheless, with a new North America vs. World format and with the Olympics only three weeks away, today's NHL All-Star game (4 p.m., FOX-54) figures to be at least a little more intense than those of recent years.
"There are so many skilled players, you'll see a lot of freewheeling," Montreal wing Shayne Corson, a member of the North American team, said Friday. "But I've got a feeling it's going to be a little different. There's a bit of a rivalry already because of the international theme."
Or as Montreal teammate but All-Star opponent Saku Koivu said: "All us guys from Europe came here to play hockey. We don't want to get embarrassed by those guys."
Detroit's Steve Yzerman, who won't play in the game but was in Vancouver to meet with his Canadian Olympic teammates, said the event "needed to change" from the East vs. West format.
"It had gotten stale," said Yzerman, an eight-time All-Star. "I would expect it to be more of a serious game."
Yzerman isn't the only notable player not taking part in the game. Paul Kariya, who signed last month after a long holdout, wasn't selected. Brett Hull is hurt. And Mario Lemieux, who shares the record of 20 All-Star points with Wayne Gretzky, retired after last season.
Lemieux helped usher in the era of high-flying All-Star extravaganzas, and nobody is naive enough to believe that today's game at Vancouver's GM Place will be a tight-checking, defensive battle -- format change or not.
"We all want a chance to showcase our talent," said Calgary's Theo Fleury, a North American star. "It will be interesting to see if it's a little more intense ... but I still wouldn't want to be a goalie."
Though hockey purists might scoff at the game's wide-open play, it should offer a pleasant departure from the clutch-and-hold regular-season grind.
At the break, NHL games are averaging 5.28 goals -- putting the league on pace for its lowest-scoring season in 42 years. Theories for the downturn abound, from improved goaltending to bigger goalie pads to defensive-oriented systems to a dearth of gifted scorers due to expansion.
But while scoring has steadily decreased since games averaged 8.3 goals during the 1981-82 season, offense has been booming in the All-Star game.
The stars combined for a then-record 12 goals in 1983, and that was only the beginning. There were 13 goals in 1984, 14 in 1989, 19 in 1990, 16 in 1991 and 1992, 22 in 1993, 17 in 1994 and 18 last year.
In the 1990s, the average All-Star game has produced 16.7 goals.
"Fans like scoring and we like to score," said Chicago's Tony Amonte, who will play for North America. "The Blackhawks emphasize defense so much -- heck, every team does nowadays -- that this is the one time all season where you can think about offense."
Aside from the new format, there will be an additional strangeness to this year's game because the Olympics are in the offing.
The United States and Canada are favored to battle in the gold-medal game, with Canada desperate to avenge its 1996 World Cup loss to the Americans. Yet come Sunday, they will band together.
The World squad also will feature players from Olympic archrivals teaming up: Sweden and Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic.
Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, a Swedish forward, expects it to be "the most competitive" All-Star game of recent years.
"We want to put on a show for the fans ... (but) it's European hockey versus North American," he said. "I bet both sides want to win."
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