NEW YORK -- It is a rarity in an NHL All-Star Game, where defense seems to have become an afterthought.
But yesterday, Eastern Conference goalie Mike Richter walked off with the Most Valuable Player award, when his team rallied from two goals down and took a 9-8 victory over the Western All-Stars.
"It's overwhelming," Richter said. "You play 20 minutes of the game because there's six goalies. There's a lot of great saves on all ends. Some forwards had great games. I don't think it was a landslide victory for me. Maybe there was a little hometown balloting."
The NHL was looking for a showpiece yesterday. On national television, the league did not want another 16-6 blowout as it had a year ago in Montreal.
And the league was lucky. It got the best of both worlds.
It got 17 entertaining goals, a few good hits, exceptional goaltending in the second and third periods and a come-from-behind victory.
It got Ottawa rookie Alexei Yashin scoring the game-winner with 3:25 to go.
It got an exciting scramble at the finish, with the Western stars using a sixth attacker in an effort to set up overtime.
And it also got Richter, a local player making good in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden.
And while this MVP win wasn't filled the emotion displayed last year in Montreal when Rangers forward Mike Gartner, playing in his sixth All-Star Game as substitute for injured teammate Mark Messier, this one had its moments.
A year ago to the day, Richter was playing for the Rangers' minor-league team in Binghamton, N.Y., trying to make his way back to Manhattan.
"It's quite a bit of a turnaround," Richter said. "But going there probably has something to do with why I'm playing so well. That, and the team that's playing in front of me -- the All-Stars and the Rangers. I'm glad I went to the minors, and I'm glad the Rangers showed faith in my play to bring me back."
Yesterday, the Western All-Stars held a 4-3 lead after the first period.
In the second, Richter faced four breakaways by Western star Pavel Bure and stopped them all.
He gave up two goals, to Paul Coffey and Sandis Ozolinsh, but as Western star Al MacInnis said: "Mike Richter stood up to a physical game, and if not for him, our lead would have been more than two goals. We would have been running away."
And Sergei Fedorov, who set up many breakaways for his Western teammates as well as scoring one goal and assisting on another, shook his head over Richter, who had given up five goals on six shots in the skills competition the night before.
"He positioned well and stopped everything," Fedorov said. "Amazing. But that's the way it goes."
But Richter would not brag.
He is the first goaltender to win the MVP since Grant Fuhr in 1986, but he would not revel in it.
He would not say the MVP award was the crowning moment of his comeback from Binghamton -- though he did seem delighted to receive a new pickup truck. He wouldn't even claim it as the highlight of this season.
He made 17 saves on 19 shots and he walked off with the MVP award with 20 minutes worth of work.
But Richter was not at all sure he deserved what he had been given.
"I think it was just the way the game unfolded," he said. "There was no individual who dominated offensively. I think I have to be low key. I gave up two goals. What's that over three periods? A 6.00 goals-against. Maybe if I'd played a whole game or two periods, I'd feel more deserving."
NOTES: Former Rangers G John Vanbiesbrouck, who plays for the Florida Panthers, played the third period for the East and made four saves to maintain the victory. . . . Besides Yashin,
Florida's Bob Kudelski had two goals for the Eastern stars. Western All-Star Brendan Shanahan had two goals and so did Sandis Ozolinsh. . . . Western star Wayne Gretzky said he would have given two MVP awards, one to Richter and one to Mark Messier, the Eastern captain. "Mike played exceptionally. If he didn't get it, I thought Messier would have. Either way, the fans go away happy." . . . Before the game, said Messier, there was a lot of talk about playing a good game, playing hard and playing well defensively, "but it's just impossible with all those great players. The talent level of the guys that were out there is absolutely incredible."
Goalies who have been MVPs in NHL All-Star Games.
Year ... Player, Team
1968 ... Bruce Gamble, Toronto
1978 ... Billy Smith, N.Y. Islanders
1981 ... Mike Liut, St. Louis
1986 ... Grant Fuhr, Edmonton
1994 ... Mike Richter, N.Y. Rangers