VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) -- Statement game for the Olympics? Hardly. It was yet another high-flying, defense-optional NHL All-Star show.
Keith Tkachuk scored twice and Wayne Gretzky had two assists to become the leading scorer in All-Star history Sunday as North America rallied for a 8-7 victory over the World team.
The World's Teemu Selanne was named MVP, becoming the first European player to register an All-Star hat trick, as the teams combined for 15 or more goals for the seventh time in the 1990s.
In just a few weeks, 36 of the 46 participants -- 18 on each roster -- will head to Nagano, Japan, for the first Olympics ever to include NHL players. The league will take a 16-day break, beginning Feb. 8.
Several players thought the change from an East-West format to North America-World would make for a more defense-minded, tighter-checking game. The United States and Canada, favored to win the gold medal, would try to send a message to the stars from Europe.
That notion, however, was quickly put to rest as the World set a record for fastest three goals at the start of an All-Star game by one team -- three in four minutes, including two by Selanne.
The North Americans came back and took control, going up 8-5 as Mark Messier celebrated his 37th birthday with a goal on an assist by old buddy Gretzky with 16 minutes left. Goals by Igor Kravchuk and Igor Larionov made things interesting but the Canada-United States team held on.
Gretzky, appearing in a record 17th consecutive All-Star game, passed Mario Lemieux to become the all-time scorer in the event with 22 points.
Twelve of the last 14 All-Star games have produced double-digit goal totals after that happened only four times in the first 37 years.
Patrick Roy, one of the top goaltenders ever, allowed three first-period goals to become the most scored-upon man in All-Star history. The three-time Vezina Trophy winner has given up 24 goals in All-Star competition, two more than Glenn Hall, and has a career 7.58 goals-against average in the event.
Though the game was a nightmare for goalies, as usual, it was a pleasant departure for the goal-starved league.
At the break, NHL games are averaging 5.28 goals -- on pace for the 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.
The league is talking about possible rule changes, including eliminating the red line, prohibiting goaltenders from handling the puck out of the crease, reducing the size of goalie pads and letting power plays run a full 2 minutes even if a goal is scored.
But while scoring has steadily decreased, offense has boomed in the All-Star game. In the 1990s, the average All-Star game has produced 16.5 goals. Since 1983, the norm has been 14.2.
After anthem singer Bryan Adams, a Vancouver native, messed up "O, Canada" -- despite having the words printed in front of him -- the tighter-checking game some anticipated due to the format change never materialized.
The World beat Roy on three of its first five shots, with Selanne sandwiching a goal by Jaromir Jagr. North America rallied, outshooting the World 13-2 the rest of the period and beating Dominik Hasek three times to tie. John LeClair, Tkachuk and Scott Niedermayer scored from point-blank range with little defensive opposition.
Theo Fleury gave North America a 4-3 lead at 1:53 of the second period but Selanne followed with his third goal and Jari Kurri also beat Ed Belfour as the World went up 5-4.
After a momentary defensive "lapse" -- the World's Daniel Alfredsson actually sacrificed his body to block Mark Recchi's shot -- Eric Lindros scored on a rebound to tie it for North America at 12:36 of the second. That began a string of four goals that provided the margin for the winners.
Tony Amonte scored from behind the net at 16:19, banking the puck off the stick of goalie Olaf Kolzig, to give North America a 6-5 lead after two. Tkachuk and Messier then scored in the first four minutes of the third.
Finland, which finished third in the 1994 Olympics, isn't expected to win a medal in Nagano. But the Finns were well-represented Sunday, with Selanne, Jari Kurri, Saku Koivu and Jere Lehtinen combining for four goals and six assists.
Tkachuk also had an assist, making him one of six players with three points. The list also included Selanne, Lehtinen, Koivu, Fleury and Chris Chelios.
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