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NHL: Pacific powerhouses eye All-Star jackpot

Las Vegas is the place for hockey fans as the NHL looks to steal the spotlight in the entertainment capital with its All-Star Weekend.

Spread across two days, the best and brightest the league has to offer will gather to mark the traditional halfway point in the season, competing in a series of skills games, followed by a mini tournament.

The 3-on-3 single-elimination event pits the best teams each of the four divisions can assemble against one another with the winning roster splitting $1million between them.

McDavid chasing sprint record

Before the divisions do battle at the T-Mobile Arena, there's the All-Star Skills portion of the weekend to enjoy on Friday, 4th February with several old favourites making their returns. Fastest Skater, Hardest Shot, Save Streak and Breakaway Challenge are all on the slate with Edmonton star Connor McDavid looking to make history in the sprint event.

McDavid is a three-time winner of the Fastest Skater prize and could make NHL history were he to clinch the top prize again. There are also a couple of Vegas-themed skills games taking place on the Strip before the main event of the All-Star tournament.

Inexperienced Central face being overwhelmed

The switch to a 3-on-3 format was made in 2016 and has proved popular, providing plenty of fast-paced, goal-filled action and the 20-minute games average 10.8 goals per match. The Pacific Division has proved particularly adept at the format, winning three of the five titles, including the last event in 2020, with the Metropolitan Division coming out on top in the other two runnings.

The Pacific look a strong contender again having assembled an impressive line-up, led by McDavid, who has proved adept at 3-on-3. He is 16/1 to finish as the league's top goalscorer and 5/4 to be the top points scorer, which takes account of goals and assists. He will be supported by fellow Oiler Leon Draisaitl, 11/4 to be top goalscorer, and the Pacific could be a more cohesive unit than some with former Edmonton forward Jordan Eberle, now at Seattle, also selected.

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There are also three Golden Knights on the 11-man roster in Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Pietrangelo with the latter the only defenceman on the team. It's a side built to blow opponents away and history suggests they can do it, the Pacific side having averaged 5.75 goals per game.

The Central are hoping a young, untested side can end the Pacific's reign with eight All-Star debutants on the roster.

There's some impressive, in-form talent among their ranks, including Nazem Kadri, Kirill Kaprizov and team captain Joe Pavelski, while two of the top five highest-scoring defensemen, Cale Makar and Roman Jose, are also included. However, there's no getting away from the fact Colorado ace Nathan McKinnon is missing, while doubts persist over the goaltending with the Wild's Cam Talbot enduring a below-par season.

Ovechkin absences hurts Metro chances

While the Central will struggle to halt the Pacific's All-Star run, the Eastern Conference showdown between the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions promises to be a tighter affair. The Metro's chances of adding to their three All-Star titles haven't been helped by several withdrawals with Alex Ovechkin forced to pull out on Wednesday.

The Capitals' topscorer is replaced by defenseman Tom Wilson - hardly a like-for-like swap. New York Rangers duo Adam Fox and Mika Zibanejad have also dropped out from the original squad, while the one remaining Ranger, Chris Kreider - who is the league's top scorer and 3/1 to finish in that position - struggled on his last All-Star appearance.

The Atlantic look well stocked with three members of the reigning Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay Lightning on the roster. Vezina Trophy candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy - 11/2 to be the league's best goaltender - an in-form Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, who impressed in the 2020 All-Star tournament, are a strong trio from Tampa, ably backed up by Toronto's Auston Matthews and the league's leading point-scorer Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers, who is 9/2 to take that crown at the end of the campaign.

It's a dazzling Atlantic roster, one that could set up a repeat of the 2020 All-Star Game when they lost narrowly to the Pacific 5-4. In a tournament packed full of stars, those two divisions shine the brightest with the Pacific's track record and on-ice chemistry giving them a slight edge over the rest of the field.

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