NHL playoff series digested: Ottawa Senators – Boston Bruins (4-2)

Enmeshed until the waning days of the regular season in a battle for home ice advantage in the first round, the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins – divisional opponents since 1993 – secured the second and third places in the Atlantic Division to lock horns in the postseason for the first time ever.

The three point gap between the teams in the final standings foreseen a close series and expectations hardly could have been more on point. After six thrilling games, all decided by one goal and four only settled after extra time, the Sens took advantage of a battered foe to advance to the second round for the first time since 2013.

Series Results:

Game 1: Boston Bruins 2 @ 1 Ottawa Senators

Game 2: Boston Bruins 3 @ 4 Ottawa Senators (OT)

Game 3: Ottawa Senators 4 @ 3 Boston Bruins (OT)

Game 4: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 0 Boston Bruins

Game 5: Boston Bruins 3 @ 2 Ottawa Senators (2 OT)

Game 6: Ottawa Senators 3 @ 2 Boston Bruins (OT)

 

Superlative Erik Karlsson shreds Boston apart

It’s a rare occurrence in the unique battleground of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but from time to time we get to witness it. A player emerges from the mist of two conflicting 20-men factions to define a playoff series, inspire his side to victory, and cement a legacy with an extraordinary performance for the ages. In this series, Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson ascended to that rarefied pantheon, and on his way the two-time Norris trophy winner defeated the last sceptics, who now understand the tag “generational player” suits him just fine.

In fact, the 26-year-old defenseman turned an entire series on its head with three mindboggling plays in consecutive games, as a looming 2-0 series lead for the Bruins morphed into a commanding 3-1 advantage for Ottawa due to the power of his sheer brilliance.

Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson tries to contain the progress of David Pastrnak in Game 5 (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

To wit, first he ambled at the top of the zone before firing a gorgeous cross ice feed for Derrick Brassard’s game tying goal in the third period of Game 2. Then, he wired a physics-defying, jaw-dropping 116-feet long, 10-foot high, saucer pass from behind his goal line that landed perfectly on the tape of a darting Mike Hoffman, who converted on the breakaway to open the score in Game 3.Finally, he delivered a flawless, one-timed slap pass right on the tape of Bobby Ryan for the game winning goal late in Game 4.

Still, beyond all the highlight-reel moments, the Swedish rover was an absolute rock on the backend, accounting for a 67.46 adj. SCF% and 58.74 adj CF% (+11.37 rel CF%), picking up 12 hits, 12 blks and 6 total assists while skating to a +3 in 30:23 mins per game – tops amongst all players in round one. And all this in spite of enduring the excruciating pain caused by two hairline fractures in his left heel…

Boston gets punished for lack of composure late

Digging into the numbers, we may recognize the Senators were marginally better (187-165 SOG, 51.02 adj.CF%, 49.97 adj. xG%, 57.14 GF%) than the Bruins, yet the series arguably lurched Ottawa’s way because of Boston’s inability to stay out of the box in the dying minutes of action.

For instance, in Game 2, the experienced Zdeno Chara committed a delay of game infraction with just 13 seconds left in the third period and OT in sight. The Bruins penalty killing unit allowed their captain to return, but the Sens kept them hemmed in and just 10 seconds later a Dion Phaneuf blast flew past Tuukka Rask to tie the series at 1-1.

Senators players react after Dion Phaneuf’s overtime goal in Game 2 as the puck rests behind Tuukka Rask (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

On the following game, Bruins forward Riley Nash got involved in a skirmish with Bobby Ryan in extra time and was sanctioned with an unnecessary roughing penalty. On the ensuing powerplay, the same Ryan worked a two-on-one with Mark Stone to seal the deal and give Ottawa the series lead.

That’s two victories handed on a platter, and one would think the Bruins would be extra-careful from then on, but they weren’t finished undermining their own chances.

In Game 4, with the Senators clinging to a 1-0 lead and just over four minutes to go, a “Too many men” punishment was issued to the Bruins bench, stifling a reaction that could have found a crack at any time, while, in Game 5, a similar penalty put the Sens on the powerplay with just 2:28 minutes to go in the third. However, Boston managed to kill it with the season on the line, and escaped again on a Patrice Bergeron interference call just before gutting out a victory in the second OT to extend the series to six.

It was as far as it would go, though, as their luck run out when a holding penalty assessed to David Pastrnak five minutes into Game 6 overtime was quickly converted by Clarke MacArthur into the series-winner.

Goal-scorer Clarke MacArthur (#16) and teammates Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman rejoice after the series deciding goal in Game 6 OT (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The toll of Boston’s injuries proved too much to handle

The last few days of the regular season were nefarious for the Bruins roster, with powerplay quarterback Torey Krug and top pairing defenseman Brandon Carlo knocked out due to injuries, and things didn’t get any easier when the playoffs rolled around.

After playing just three minutes in Game 2, Adam McQuaid, a penalty kill stalwart, also went down with an upper-body injury and, as a consequence, coach Bruce Cassidy was forced to overplay his hand. He gave rookie Charlie McAvoy and usual third-pairing blueliner Kevan Miller over 25 mins of ice time per game, inserted 24-year-old Joe Morrow into the top four on his maiden playoff campaign, and drained 40-year-old Zdeno Chara, who logged an inappropriate 28:45 mins per game. The Captain and McAvoy were still able to keep the Sens at bay (54.72 adj CF%, SCF 8-6, GF 1-3), but the other pairs (Morrow/K. Miller and Liles/C. Miller) suffered with the skill scattered down the Sens lineup.

Meanwhile, up front, the scenario didn’t look more promising as second line center David Krejci missed the first two games of the series, only to drop out again after a knee-on-knee hit in the first period of Game 5. The Czech left a major hole behind the top line of Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak which David Backes tried to fill, but he could only leave a mark in Game 5, when his unit – comprising newcomers Sean Kuraly and Tim Schaller – scored twice.

Boston’s Brad Marchand is denied by a sprawling Craig Anderson in Game 4 (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Pastrnak teamed up with Krejci in Games 3 and 4 as Backes joined Bergeron and Marchand to some success (57.8 adj CF%, SCF 8-1, GF 1-0), yet the Bruins were actually shut out in the latter encounter and couldn’t muster enough offense, top to bottom, to progress.

It certainly didn’t help their cause that 39-goal man Marchand, Pastrnak, who amassed 70 pts during his breakout season, and Bergeron only combined for five total goals, but the problems simply rumbled much deeper, as attested by the fact that Sean Kuraly was their only two-time goal scorer at even strength.

Best players in the series

Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators)

We’ve already documented how Erik Karlsson towered over everyone else in this series, but Ottawa was far from a one-band crew, boasting a couple of high scoring forwards that made their fair share to deserved a slice of the spotlight.

With 8 points (2 goals) in six games, center Derrick Brassard was the top scoring non-Penguins player in the first round to substantiate the gamble Ottawa took on him last summer, while Bobby Ryan emerged from an anonymous regular season – he failed to register a point in 12 of the last 13 games – to collect 7 points and 4 vital goals, including two game winners, in just 15:54 min TOI/GP (8th most amongst Sens forwards).

Senators forward Derrick Brassard celebrates after scoring the tying goal in Game 2 (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Last but definitely not least, a shoot out to the martyrized Clarke MacArthur, who returned from two years battling concussions in time to score in Game 2 and draw the penalty that would allow him to finish off the proceedings in Game 6.

Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins)

With Boston’s big guns unable to light up the scoresheet, it’s far from a stretch to appoint the 19-year-old rookie as the best player during the Bruins’ short postseason run.

Signed to an NHL deal just a couple of days before the playoffs and rushed to the lineup due to multiple absences on the backend, the 14th overall pick in the 2016 draft had an amazing debut, logging 24:11 minutes and crucially holding the puck in the offensive zone before Marchand buried the game-winner, and kept impressing throughout the series.

Patrolling the ice alongside Zdeno Chara on the top pair and anchoring the main powerplay unit, McAvoy was pressed into many high-stakes situations as part of his heavy usage (26:11 min TOI/GP) and, for the most part, didn’t look overwhelmed, picking up three assists, driving possession better than any other Bruins defenseman (51.44 adj CF%, 60.08 adj. CF%) and taking care of the puck (just 1 giveaway to 6 takeaways). It was definitely a mouth-watering performance from a player that will be a cornerstone of Boston’s defence for years to come.

Charlie McAvoy (L) and David Pastrnak (R) exult after a Bruins powerplay goal in Game 3 (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the Boston Bruins return to the playoffs next year? 

Similarly to their rivals from Montreal, the Bruins won’t have their work cut out for them in the wide-open Atlantic Division, but they might just be able to sneak in if Rask doesn’t slip, their in-flux defence holds up and there are no decisive injuries up front.

In Tuukka Rask (UFA 2020), David Krejci (2021), Brad Marchand (2024), Patrice Bergeron (2024) and David Backes (2021), the Bruins have their building blocks in place even if all are already past the age of 30, except for Marchand (29) and RFA David Pastrnak (20), whose extension should be the team’s first order of business this offseason.

The Czech may be looking at upwards to 6.5M per year on a 7 or 8-year deal, and he will significantly whittle down the Bruins’ ability to add elsewhere, since they have just 10M in cap space and only Matt Beleskey (3.8M until 2020…) and Jimmy Hayes (2.3M) lined up as clear-cut options to trim. Drew Stafford and Dominic Moore are cheap veterans the team may try to resign, while RFAs Noel Acciari, Tim Schaller and Ryan Spooner have arbitration rights, with the latter perhaps in need of a change of scenery.

Patrice Bergeron, Charlie McAvoy, Ryan Spooner, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak (L-R) greet their teammates on the bench (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

On the blueline, Zdeno Chara is staring at, probably, his last NHL season as his contract ends in 2018 and the Bruins should hand the keys to Torey Krug (2020) and youngsters Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy (both RFAs in 2019). Meanwhile, John Michael Liles (UFA) and Joe Morrow (RFA) could return for another season where additional fresh blood should be piped into the lineup, including well-regarded prospects Matt Grzelcyk (a MA-native) and Rob O’Gara.

In goal, Anton Khudobin has one year left on his contract (1.2M) but his spot is far from safe after a poor season, as Don Sweeney may well look to save a few bucks if he believes either Malcolm Subban or Zane McIntyre, both RFAs, can do a better job or a solid veteran backup becomes available.

NHL playoff series digested: Montreal Canadiens – New York Rangers (2-4)

Three years after a contentious battle at the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers clashed once again in the postseason, with Habs fans still acrimonious about Chris Kreider’s hit on Carey Price that helped tilt the ice last time.

By virtue of being a Division winner, Montreal held home ice even if the Rangers actually amassed more points during the regular season to pick up the first Wild Card in the East and thus cross over to the Atlantic Division’s section of the bracket. For many, that meant an easier path to the Conference Finals and the outcome of this first round encounter didn’t rebuff those opinions, with New York taking out Montreal in six games to extend their lead to 9-7 in the all-time playoff series record between these two “Original Six” franchises.

Series Results:

Game 1: New York Rangers 2 @ 0 Montreal Canadiens

Game 2: New York Rangers 3 @ 4 Montreal Canadiens (OT)

Game 3: Montreal Canadiens 3 @ 1 New York Rangers

Game 4: Montreal Canadiens 1 @ 2 New York Rangers

Game 5: New York Rangers 3 @ 2 Montreal Canadiens (OT)

Game 6: Montreal Canadiens 1 @ 3 New York Rangers

 

Montreal dearth of scoring threats undermined their chances of progressing

It’s a drum banged to exhaustion regarding this Canadiens team and something everyone but GM Marc Bergevin could see a mile coming, yet here we are. A team built around their star goalie, lacking in puck-moving skill on the blueline and dressing just a couple of high-end forwards up top failed to muster enough offense to sneak past the first round…shocking.

Despite dropping the shot battle in just one of six games and controlling 51.69% of adjusted shot attempts, Montreal accounted for less scoring chances (48.17 adj. SCF) than their opponents in this series and the lack of talent certainly played a part in that.

Max Pacioretty, Montreal’s top goalscorer, was one of the most frustrated Canadiens in the series (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For instance, you can’t expect to go on a long run when your top line pivot is a player with 50 career points in 135 regular season games, no matter the decent enough job Phillip Danault (2 A,  57.61 adj. CF%) did driving play between Alexander Radulov (7 pts) and the struggling Max Pacioretty (0 G, 1A).

Furthermore, on his second unit, Claude Julien meshed 34-year-old Tomas Plekanec, coming off a 28-pts regular season, Brendan Gallagher and the tenacious Paul Byron, who posted career-highs of 22 goals and 43 pts this season but lacks the toolbox of an offensive force. To the surprise of no one, the trio slumped to an adj. 45.05 CF% and was embarrassed in scoring chances differential (4-12, 25.0 SCF%) in just short of a full hour of five on five play.

Meanwhile, the talented Alex Galchenuyk started the series on the fourth unit, lining up with notable goal scoring threats such as Andreas Martinsen and Steve Ott, before finally replacing Dwight King alongside Andrew Shaw and rookie Artturi Lehkonen (2G, 4 pts). In 25 min of action, they carved a 58.17 adj. CF% but couldn’t make it count on the scoresheet.

Creating chaos in front of Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t enough to beat the Swede in most occasions (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Jeff Petry, paired with Jordie Benn, tried his best to provide a boost from the backend but the unit’s 58.90 adj. CF% and 15-8 SCF differential failed to deliver the goods (1-2 GF), while the veteran top pairing of Shea Weber and Andrei Markov (51.23 adj. CF%, 15-12 SCF, 3-2 G) had enough on his plate just trying to slow down the speed of the Rangers to further focus on offense. Ideally, the Canadiens would possess a dynamic, risk-taking difference maker on the blueline to support the rush, however Montreal hasn’t been lucky enough to fall into one. Or have they?

Henrik Lundqvist edges Carey Price in showdown of superstar goaltenders

The matchup between two of the NHL’s premier netminders, New York’s Lundqvist versus Montreal’s Price, was one the major calling cards in this series and the duel definitely lived up to the hype. Both man performed up to their standards in the heat of the tight six-game quarrel, yet Lundqvist managed to stand a bit taller as he pushed the Rangers over the top by delivering a vintage performance, which came on the heels of a regular season that bred scepticism over his ability to carry the team at age 35.

The “King” kicked off the playoffs on the right foot, pitching a shutout while Price let in a single goal to allow the Rangers to steal Game 1, and from there he masterfully withstood several instances where his team got outplayed. With just 11 goals conceded in 206 shots, Lundqvist amassed a dazzling 0.947 Sv% and 1.70 GAA in round one – numbers only surpassed by Pekka Rinne and Jake Allen – as well as an eye-popping 0.952 even-strength Sv%, among the best of his career over a playoff series. Moreover, his 0.902 HD Sv% looked mightily impressive as no other goalie faced more high-danger shots (41) against, contributing decisively to a league-best 6.68 GSAA (goals-saved above average) rating.

Henrik Lundqvist reacts to the empty net goal in Game 6, which sealed the Rangers series’ victory (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Conversely, Price laboured to a 0.933 overall Sv%, 0.936 EV Sv% and 1.86 GAA, all comfortably amongst the top half in the first round, but couldn’t come up with the extra save the Canadiens desperately needed in key situations. Case in point, we’ve referenced Tanner Glass’ eventual winner in Game 1, but may also mention Jesper Fast’s shorthanded tally to tie Game 5 or Matt Zuccarello’s short side marker in Game 6, the only powerplay goal Montreal’s goaltender allowed in fifteen opportunities.

It’s unfortunate for Price that the team in front bears such a narrow margin of error, yet his antagonist stole a game or two and he could not.

The Rangers speed finds a way to swing the momentum

On a series stuffed with nail-bitters and as tight as this one (12-11 NYR in terms of non-empty net goals), the winner usually emerges as a convergence of a few small details that add up for one side, and something as little as a minor change can function as a catalyst.

A few days after deciding Game 1 with a rare goal, fourth liner Tanner Glass was taken off the lineup with his team down 2-1 in the series and in need of a jolt. Youngster Pavel Buchnevich was slotted in by Alain Vigneault with a dual purpose: a complete reshuffling of the deck on offense, with four new lines breaking in to reset the matchups, and a return to the four-line rotation stocked with speed and skill that fuelled the Rangers in their early season success.

It was time to double down on their determination to skate the Habs out of the building and expose the lack of mobility on their defence, and it worked as the Rangers slowly turned the tide in the series at the same cadence their new combinations jelled.

Mats Zuccarello and fellow Rangers’ forwards celebrate the tieing goal in Game 6 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

New York dominated and won Game 4 – breaking a six-game losing streak at home in the playoffs – with the first goal stemming from a turnover forced by their hard-checking fourth line, featuring the likes of Michael Grabner, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast. Later, they ripped further benefits in Game 5 overtime, when a gassed Montreal team scrambled to keep up with the Rangers until Mika Zibanejad’s unit (Chris Kreider and Buchnevich) sealed the deal as the shot counter flashed a NY 10-3 advantage in extra time. Then, in Game 6, the same line drew the penalty that originated the 1-1, before Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes and JT Miller manufactured the second goal that would stand as the series-winner.

Best players in the series

Alexander Radulov (Montreal Canadiens)

With Max Pacioretty, his linemate and team captain, unable to break through all series, Alex Radulov stepped up to the task and was absolutely instrumental in Montreal’s two victories. In Game 2, he assisted on the late equalizer by Plekanec before barging to the net to jam in the overtime game winner, while in Game 3 he added one assist before generating a spectacular, highlight-reel goal that put the game away late in the third period.

Montreal’s Alexander Radulov is grabbed by teammates Shea Weber and Max Pacioretty after scoring the overtime winner in Game 2 (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

However, the Russian winger wasn’t satisfied and also featured prominently on the team’s solitary tallies in Games 4 and 6 to close the series with 2 goals and a team-high 7 pts, his strength and skill noticeable in every contest as he tried to carry the offense on his back. He missed out, but picked up a few more fans amongst the Habs faithful on the way home.

Henrik Lundvist (New York Rangers)

We’ve documented the heroics of Lundqvst above and his numbers leave no room for discussion, yet a few other Rangers also filled critical roles to propel the team over the hill.

For example fellow Swede Mika Zibanejad, the only Rangers player to collect 4 points and scorer of a huge goal in the overtime of Game 5 to put his team on the verge of advancing. Or Matt Zuccarello, who potted three goals, including two in the series clincher, and led Rangers forwards in ice-time (20:48min TOI/GP). Even the much-maligned Rick Nash, who barrelled his way to two goals and three even strength points, including the game-winning goal in Game 4, while playing relevant minutes in all-situations, or bottom-line forward Jesper Fast, who also tallied twice, including a shorthanded goal, and ended up with a +5 rating.

Rangers’ forward Rick Nash scores on Carey Price in Game 2 (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the Montreal Canadiens return to the playoffs next year? 

The answer to this question may well hinge on the moves GM Marc Bergevin is able to do this summer, since the Atlantic Division is overflowing with uncertainty and as much as six teams have a decent shot at winning the Division next season (Montreal, Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Ottawa, Florida) if they play their cards right.

Montreal’s franchise player, Carey Price, is a UFA in 2018 and therefore the Canadiens time to strike is now. They currently have 22M in cap space but over half of it should be set aside for UFA Alex Radulov – should Bergevin agree to give him a long-term contract – and RFA Alex Galchenyuk. The 23-year-old completed a bridge contract worth 2.8 M per year, and might be looking to double that amount, yet his inconsistency and failure to stick at center may convince the Habs that a trade is the right course of action (it’s not).

If one or both forwards leave, the team may use its vast resources to plunder the market, where names like TJ Oshie and Martin Hanzal stick out. Moreover, don’t rule out a push for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who would be a great replacement for veteran Andrei Markov (5.75M), an UFA whose time in Montreal may be ending at age 38.

Montreal’s Bell Center will be as raucous as ever next year regardless of the Habs’ ability to improve their roster in the offseason (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Elsewhere, the Canadiens have to decide whether to keep defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and Nikita Nesterov (both RFAs) or offer opportunities to their two best prospects, former first round picks Noah Juulsen (2015) and Mikhail Sergachev (2016), while depth forwards Dwight King, Brian Flynn, Andreas Martinsen and Steve Ott are UFAs whose permanence shouldn’t be a priority.

NHL playoff series digested: Pittsburgh Penguins – Columbus Blue Jackets (4-1)

The peculiarities of the NHL playoffs divisional format determined a 1st round confront between two of top four teams during the regular season as the Pittsburgh Penguins renewed hostilities with the Columbus Blue Jackets three years after their first and only postseason battle.

In 2014, after six hard-fought encounters, the Pens marched on by disposing of their industrious opponent, and the same fate was destined this time, with the firepower of the star-laden defending Champions proving too much for their rivals.

Series Results:

Game 1: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 2: Columbus Blue Jackets 1 @ 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 5 @ 4 Columbus Blue Jackets (OT)

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 4 @ 5 Columbus Blue Jackets

Game 5: Columbus Blue Jackets 2 @ 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

 

Columbus fails to capitalize on frantic road starts

Playing a perfect road game in the playoffs usually entails deference to a series of bullet points, and the first item in the list usually calls for a fast start that can temper the home crowd and harness the opponent’s grumble coming out of their locker room.

The Blue Jackets game plan in their playoff debut incorporated these notions and right from the hop they set out to follow it, especially with Marc-André Fleury forced to man the net for the Penguins after Matt Murray’s warmup injury. They wired 16 shots on goal to just 3 from Pittsburgh in the first period, but were unable to find the opener and would pay for it later. The home side scored three in the second to seize control and Game 1 fell to Pittsburgh.

In Game 2, a similar story. With eight minutes played, the Jackets held a 15-2 advantage in shot attempts but a blunder by Sergei Bobrovsky led to a Sidney Crosby tally, and the Penguins were once again in the lead despite making zilch to deserve it. Pittsburgh cruised to a 4-1 final scoreline and 2-0 advantage in the series.

Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta knocks out a flying puck in front of his net to deny the Jackets an early goal in Game 5 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Back in Columbus, the Jackets stuck with their approach but his time reaped the dividends, scoring just 11 seconds into Game 3 and twice more in six minutes to rock their own building. They would let that match slip away, but not the ensuing Game 4, avoiding the sweep by riding their 2-0 advantage after twenty minutes.

However, in Game 5, with the chance to plant the seed of doubt on their opponent, the Jackets clocked six shot attempts in the first three minutes but again failed to make it count. Pittsburgh would score twice in the second period to jump in front and despite peppering Fleury with 51 shots on goal, Columbus wasn’t able to stave off elimination.

Sergei Bobrovsky’s Vezina-level play vanishes in the first round

Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was, arguably, the driving force behind Columbus franchise-record, 108-points regular season campaign. Still, his career playoff totals were mediocre entering this postseason and the Jackets just couldn’t afford another middling showing – he amassed a 3.17 GAA and 0.908 Sv% against the Pens in the 2013-14 series – if they hoped to outlast Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately for Jon Tortorella’s squad, the 28-year-old was even shoddier this time,  posting a 3.88 GAA – tied for worst amongst starters in the first round -, a 0.882 Sv% and 0.898 EV Sv% – both 2nd worst in the NHL – and conceding 10 goals in 37 high-danger shots against (0.729 Sv%). It was a calamitous performance that only Calgary’s Brian Elliot could match in round one, and helped amplify a woeful playoff trend for the Jackets, who have now allowed 3 or more goals in every one of their 15 playoff games.

The puck shot by Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl finds the net behind Sergei Bobrovsky. Not a lot went well for Columbus’ All-Star goaltender (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Individually, in 18 career playoff games (14 starts), Bobrovsky has collected just three wins and compiled a mediocre 3.63 GAA and 0.887 Sv%, numbers completely out of place measured against his massive 7.425M cap hit and simply unacceptable for a goalie of his rank.

The Penguins superstars took over when necessary

The Columbus Blue Jackets carried the play for most of the series, and while you can attribute some of it to score effects, it’s still difficult to explain how they lost in just five games despite a 194-171 edge in SOG or an adjusted 53.7 CF%, second best in the first round to the Minnesota Wild. As referred, the subpar goaltending of Sergei Bobrosvky was a key factor, but we also can’t dismiss the effect having elite offensive talent can have on the outcome. The gap between the teams is steep in that area and it showed.

With the help of a powerplay rolling at 33.3 % (5 of 15), Pittsburgh’s superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel accounted for six goals and 26 pts in five games, and most of those proved absolutely essential to save their team from tricky situations.

Penguins’ forward Phil Kessel reacts after scoring a PP goal in Game 1 (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Malkin (2 G, 9 A, 11 pts) and Kessel (2 G, 6 A, 8 pts) led all NHL players in points during the first round and their partnership at even strength (87.27 GF%) pulled the matchup Pittsburgh’s way. The duo ended with a sparkling +7 rating and provided the basis for Bryan Rust’s four-goal tally across the series, which included the opener in Game 1, two goals in the second period of Game 3 to rally the team back to 3-3, and another marker in Game 5 to pad the score after Kessel’s short side snap shot with the man advantage broke the ice.

Meanwhile, Crosby (2 G, 5 A, -2 rating), riding alongside rookie Jake Guentzel, also found a way to contribute despite a bumpy matchup at even strength (48.27 CF%, 39 GF%, 46.32 SCF%), featuring on the team’s first two goals in Game 2 before dancing behind the net to set up Guentzel’s overtime winner in Game 3. Furthermore, the Penguins’ captain would put the exclamation point in the series with a powerplay blast that halted the Jackets’ comeback in Game 5.

Best players in the series

Jake Guentzel (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Pittsburgh’s rookie winger closed the regular season on a five-game goal spree and he sustained his form into the playoffs, becoming the first newcomer since Maurice Richard in 1944 to tally five times in his first four playoff games. Guentzel notched the GWG in Game 1 by finishing a two-on-one with Sidney Crosby, but the highlight was definitely the hat-trick in Game 3, which included two identical goals where he deftly banked the puck off Bobrovsky’s body plus the overtime decider on a quick flick from the slot.

At times, his line was goaded into a frenzy of odd-man rushes both ways and his -2 rating showcases that, but you can’t deny Guentzel’s productivity and impact on the series ending.

Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel (#59) and Sidney Crosby (#87) celebrate the Penguins second goal in Game 2 (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

William Karlsson (Columbus Blue Jackets)

The Jackets third line (Matt Calvert-William Karlsson-Josh Anderson) manufactured two goals in their Game 4 victory, significantly outperformed the opposition (51.32 CF%, 64.29 SCF%, 3-0 GF) and gave the Penguins fits throughout the series with its physicality, so it’s fair they get the spotlight here.

Karlsson, the 24-year-old center, tied for the team lead in goals (2), points (3), +/- (4) and even strength points (3), won a healthy 53.5% of his faceoffs, fired 12 shots on goal and soaked 2:16 min of shorthanded time per game, the most of any Columbus’ forward. Not bad for a playoff debutant.

Will the Columbus Blue Jackets return to the playoffs next year? 

In the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, only a couple of teams are safe from a severe tumble down the standings and the Jackets don’t strike as one, so it’s entirely possible they fail to build on this season’s success.

In fact, with a roster populated by pricy, lengthy contracts (Dubinsky, Foligno, Hartnell, even Bobrovsky) that aren’t bound to age well and just 2.9M of cap space for next season, Columbus margin for improvement is rather thin. UFAs Kyle Quincey, Lauri Korpikovski and Sam Gagner, who picked up 18 goals and 50 points this season for just 0.650M, are unlikely to return but that won’t open the necessary breathing room for substantial adjustments.

Columbus’ Fifth Line will return with the Jackets in 2017-18, but maybe not to the playoffs (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Top-line center Alexander Wennberg is the team’s notable RFA and Jarmo Kekalainen will have to play his cards right to extend the Swedish pivot long term without further compromising their salary structure. To clear the books, the Finnish GM would love to offload Scott Hartnell’s 4.75M cap hit, but it’s doubtful he’ll find many suitors eager to take on a broken down, 35-year-old forward with two years remaining on his deal.

It helps their cause that Zach Werenski and fellow blueliners Gabriel Carlsson and Markus Nutivaara are still tied up on their entry-level deals, yet more decisions loom around the corner, with defenseman Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray in need of new deals in 2018, just like the team’s leading scorer, winger Cam Atkinson. To muddle things up, LW Pierre-Luc Dubois, the 3rd overall pick in 2016 and their only Grade-A prospect, laboured through an unimpressive, injury-marred season in junior and isn’t ready to crack the lineup just yet.

In short, don’t expect Columbus to contend for the Stanley Cup in the near future unless Kekalainen can work a few miracles along the way.

NHL playoff series digested: Edmonton Oilers – San Jose Sharks (4-2)

After an absence of 11 years, the Edmonton Oilers broke the NHL’s longest playoff drought this season to grant Connor McDavid the first taste of postseason action on his burgeoning career. The 19-year-old could have hardly projected a more challenging opponent to serenade a fiery baptism, with last year’s Stanley Cup runners-up, the San Jose Sharks, standing in his way.

However, Peter DeBoer’s seasoned group ended the regular season banged-up and limping to the finish line, and they wouldn’t be able to muster enough to hinder the enthusiasm of a bunch of kids eyeing some prom shenanigans. Back in 2006, the Oilers ousted the Sharks in six games on their way to the Cup final and this season the outcome was the same. Only time will tell whether they have what it takes to go that far again.

Series Results:

Game 1: San Jose Sharks 3 @ 2 Edmonton Oilers (OT)

Game 2: San Jose Sharks 0 @ 2 Edmonton Oilers

Game 3: Edmonton Oilers 1 @ 0 San Jose Sharks

Game 4: Edmonton Oilers 0 @ 7 San Jose Sharks

Game 5: San Jose Sharks 3 @ 4 Edmonton Oilers (OT)

Game 6: Edmonton Oilers 3 @ 1 San Jose Sharks

 

Inexperienced Oilers rebound from losses in style

Facing a team of greybeards, Edmonton’s ability to keep the emotions in check as they balanced out the highs and lows of a playoff series would determine their chances of success.

With their brand-new barn rocking in Game 1, the Oilers quickly jumped out to a two-goal lead but got caught in the frenzy to allow the Sharks to steadily battle back, tie the game and eventually prevail in overtime. It was a game that exposed how much experience can influence the momentum swings in playoff action, but the Oilers brass and, in particular, Todd McLellan, made sure the Oilers reacted the right way to adversity.

In Game 2, a thoroughly dominant performance by the hosts avoided a trip south of the border with a troublesome two-game disadvantage, and then Edmonton also responded positively in a tense, tight-checking, playoff-type Game 3 that would fall their way after a defensive zone miscue by the Sharks.

Zach Kassian celebrates the GWG in Game 3 against a backdrop of stunned Sharks’ players (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The less be said about the shellacking of Game 4 the better yet, once again, Edmonton rebounded impressively in Game 5, showing resiliency and maturity beyond the age of most of their key players. The Oilers still opened the score, but only to see San Jose notch three times in 18 minutes to take the reins of the match and, in the eyes of many, the series. Wrong. Edmonton clawed back to make it 3-3 late in the third and then snatched victory in an overtime session where they flexed their muscles (27-7 CF, 11-2 SCF).

Two crass errors by the Sharks in Game 6 generated the breach they needed to finish the job back in San Jose and they wouldn’t throw the opportunity away, hanging onto their lead until the handshakes were inevitable.

The revolving door of playoff heroes

It is an annual playoff tradition. In the heat of postseason action, where all details are accounted for and matchups step into the forefront, more times than not the best players on both sides cancel each other, vacating the stage for unheralded figures, names not used to hit the board regularly.

In this 1st round battle, Edmonton’s grunts stepped up to the task and contributed directly to all four victories, with the winning goal always coming off the stick of one of their bottom line attackers. In Game 2, rugged forward Zach Kassian broke the deadlock on a shorthanded breakaway after a mistake by Sharks captain Joe Pavelski and he would also end the stalemate with less than 10 minutes to go in Game 3, shrewdly taking advantage of a dismal defensive zone turnover.

In Game 5, with the clock ticking and the Sharks closing on a 3-2 series-lead, fourth line center David Desharnais wheeled around the offensive zone to set up Oscar Klefbom’s blast that tied the score, and later sneaked into the slot to seal the contest in overtime.

David Desharnais’ shot finds the mesh behind Martin Jones to give Edmonton victory in Game 5 (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

In Game 6, the honour of scoring the series-clinching goal would fall to Anton Slepyshev, who beat Martin Jones on a breakaway to give Edmonton a 2-0 lead the Sharks could only cut in half.

With Connor McDavid (4 pts, but none 5 on 5) hounded by Marc-Edouard Vlasic throughout the series, Leon Draisatl quiet for the first four games, and the second unit (Lucic-RNH-Eberle) bogged down with defensive duties against the Sharks greatest threats, Edmonton needed timely contributions from their unsung players and they answered the call at all the right times.

Hobbling and wounded, San Jose’s big guns misfire

If you take away the empty net goal in Game 6, Connor McDavid was largely ineffective at even strength, as the Vlasic/Braun pair was able to slow him down despite getting caved in possession (42.9 CF%). Neutralizing McDavid is a big step towards beating this Oilers team, yet the Sharks also needed something from their own stars and they didn’t respond.

In fact, outside of Game 4, where Joe Pavelski’s goal just 15 seconds in set the tone for the 7-0 drubbing, the Sharks top-five earners combined for just 2 goals and 5 points throughout the series and went a putrid 1-18 with the man advantage, contributing decisively for a 12-7 goal deficit that ruined their chances of advancing.

Logan Couture slams into the boards in Game 2. Not a lot went well for San Jose’s best players against the Oilers (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

The aforementioned tally constituted the only even-strength point for captain Pavelski, while All-Star defenseman Brent Burns unloaded 28 shots but couldn’t find the back of the net or pick up a point in any of their losses. Logan Couture, who played much of the series with a full cage and a wrecked jaw, tallied twice in Game 4 but posted a single assist elsewhere, whereas Joe Thornton, miraculously suiting up for the last four matches despite a torn ACL and MCL, pitched in two assists, one of those in Game 4. Veteran Patrick Marleau performed better, scoring the go-ahead goal in Game 5 and the late mark in Game 6, but it wasn’t enough to swing any of those encounters.

After carrying the team to the Stanley Cup final last summer, the Sharks core group faltered when it mattered the most this season, and it’s likely they won’t get a chance to atone for it in the future.

Best players in the series

Cam Talbot (Edmonton Oilers)

The backbone of Edmonton’s success in the regular season was also their safety valve in the first round, cleaning several rookie mistakes and holding the fort in the instances San Jose found another gear and put the Oilers on their heels, such as in the third period of Game 6.

Beyond two crucial shutouts in Games 2 and 3, Talbot posted a 2.03 GAA and a solid 0.927 Sv% that would look even better (0.950) if not for the team’s disastrous appearance in Game 4, where he gave up 5 in 24 shots.

Oilers’ goaltender Cam Talbot aknowledges the crowd after securing a SO in Game 2

Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks)

The young Czech forward didn’t light up the scoresheet, notching just two assists in six games, but his all-around effort in the postseason was certainly encouraging as a pivotal time for the future of the franchise approaches.

Centering the Sharks second line  – third unit after Thornton’s return –  Hertl was heavily relied upon by Peter DeBoer for his ability to drive the puck in the right direction, logging 19:17min TOI/GP, second amongst Sharks forwards, winning 62.6% of a team-high 83 faceoffs, and compiling an excellent 59.7 SCF%. He also dished out 13 hits, blocked 6 shots and fired 15 SOG for a body of work that stands out in a disappointing team campaign.

Will the San Jose Sharks return to the playoffs next year? 

With the emergence of Edmonton and Calgary, the Sharks presence at the 2018 NHL playoffs is far from guaranteed regardless of the important decisions they make this offseason.

Franchise icons Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both 37 years old, are free agents and assuming they return with something resembling their current cap hits, the team will have around 4.5M to add a couple of forwards and re-up with RFAs Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney. That would mean, though, that they’ll take another couple of swings at the piñata with one the oldest cores in the NHL, as Pavelski (33), Burns (32), Vlasic (30) and even Couture (28) are also past their premium years.

It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s probably the only pathway the Sharks can pave which doesn’t include a complete teardown, since in neither this year’s underwhelming free agency class, nor their own roster or prospect pool, they will find contributors to soothe the transition in the immediate future. If Thornton and Marleau leave, San Jose can only hope Tomas Hertl and 20-year-old RW Timo Meier evolve into standout top-six forwards or wait something else falls onto their lap.

The San Jose Sharks may look very different next year..or not. All will depend on whether they stand pat or start a retool (Photo by Scott Dinn/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Sharks’ two goaltenders are under contract for 2017-18 as is all of their defence, including Brent Burns, whose monstrous 64M, 8-year extension kicks in exactly 12 months before Vlasic is scheduled to become a UFA in line for a significant upgrade on his current 4.5M annual pay check.

NHL playoff series digested: Minnesota Wild – St. Louis Blues (1-4)

Two years ago, the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues squared off in the first round of the NHL playoffs, with the Wild, who finished the regular season nine points behind, upsetting in six games a Blues team with eyes set on the Stanley Cup. Entering the 2017 playoffs, the roles were reversed, with the Wild, fresh of pushing forward all their chips at the trade deadline, expecting a long spring campaign and the underdog Missourians determined to crash their party.

Funny enough, former Wild coach Mike Yeo also exchanged benches in the meantime, and he played his part to once again shake hands for the winning side as St. Louis extolled their small revenge to book a place in the second round. How did they manage it?

Series Results:

Game 1: St. Louis Blues 2 @ 1 Minnesota Wild (OT)

Game 2: St. Louis Blues 2 @ 1 Minnesota Wild

Game 3: Minnesota Wild 1 @ 3 St. Louis Blues

Game 4: Minnesota Wild 2 @ 0 St. Louis Blues

Game 5: St. Louis Blues 4 @ 3 Minnesota Wild (OT)

 

Jake Allen bested Devan Dubnyk

On his first NHL season as St. Louis’ undisputed starter, Jake Allen went through hell in the winter before finding his footing in March, arriving at the postseason on the crest of a 0.942 Sv% amassed over his last fifteen games. Truth be told, the Blues benefited from a soft schedule late and few believed Allen would maintain such a hot streak, yet he flat-out stole Game 1 in Minnesota with a 51-saves performance and then kept frustrating the Wild for the rest of the series.

Over five games, the 26-year-old posted a superlative 0.956 Sv% and 1.47 GAA, marks that ranked second amongst peers in the first round, and captured a series win his team had no business picking up. Not only because Minnesota significantly outplayed St. Louis in four of five matches, but also because his counterpart Devan Dubnyk put together an unappreciated effort that went to waste.

Jake Allen gobbles the puck on another Minnesota Wild chance in Game 2 (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Wild’s All-Star goaltender, who hit a rough patch late in the regular season, concluded the series with excellent numbers (.925 Sv% and 1.86 GAA) but he just couldn’t touch the same high notes as Allen. For example, at even strength, both man allowed one goal in low-danger shots and two in medium-danger opportunities, yet Allen blocked 23 of 24 (0.958 Sv%) high-danger chances whereas Dubnyk let in 4 of 20, sinking his EV Sv% to 0.911, fifty-seven points below Allen’s stellar 0.968.

Thus, it wouldn’t matter that Dubnyk stood close to perfection when the Blues were on the powerplay, deflecting 26 of 27 shots, as the one that snuck through went down as the game-winner in Game 2. So harsh can be the life of a goaltender come playoff time…

No Shattenkirk, no problem

With 19 points obtained in 26 playoff games over the last two postseasons, Kevin Shattenkirk was a major cog of St. Louis’ defence up to the deal that sent him to the Washington Capitals. While Doug Armstrong’s hand was forced by the need to recoup some assets, his absence represented a major drawback to the Blues’ chances this spring, and they needed someone to pick up the slack, especially five on five.

Cue the Blues second defensive pair, composed of sophomores Joel Edmudson and Colton Parayko. Mobile, large, strong and, in this series, effective on both sides of the puck, the duo did a commendable job stepping up to the challenge. The less heralded Edmundson scored the OT winner in Game 1 and later broke the ice in Game 2, posting a series-high +6 and 16 blks in 22.10 min TOI/GP. As for the 22-year-old Parayko, he opened the scoring in Game 3 and set up Alex Steen for the Blues’ second goal in Game 5, skating to a +4 with 14 SOG and 13 blks in vital 24.44 min TOI/GP.

It wasn’t always pretty, but Parayko and company found a way to keep the puck away from their net. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Much like the majority of St.Louis’ players, It’s fair to point out they got plastered five on five in terms of possession (39.7 adj. CF%), but the pair still came out on the positive side in Scoring changes for (6-5) and, naturally, goals (4-0), while the same can’t be said for the Blues No.1 pairing, as Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester amassed a 37.0 adj.CF% and bled scoring chances (5-9).

Parayko and Edmundson accounted for a 111 PDO, which means they’re bound to regress hard – probably already against the Predators – but, for now, they’ve rewarded Mike Yeo’s confidence.

Bruce Boudreau tinkered his forwards lines incessantly but couldn’t find the winning combination

The Minnesota Wild manufactured 3.21 goals per game during the regular season, second best in the NHL, but those numbers don’t necessarily portend they possess a surplus of firepower up front. Bruce Boudreau’s team lacked a 30-goal scorer or a 70-pts player, and boasted just two forwards (Mikael Granlund (69) and Eric Staal (65)) niched inside the list of top 50 point getters. In other words, they lack the game-breakers that usually come in handy at playoff time and against an inspired Jake Allen that deficiency proved fatal.

The Wild mustered just 8 goals in the equivalent to five and a half games of hockey, and only Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle accrued two points at even-strength. The Wild’s top nine forwards in Game 1 were staggered in an All-Finnish line with Erik Haula, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, a Zach Parise – Eric Staal – Nino Niederreiter combination, and the duo Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle flanking Martin Hanzal, but it didn’t stay that way for long as Bruce Boudreau cranked up the blender in a hurry.

Martin Hanzal rams through Jake Allen in Game 3, but to no effect. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

For Game 2, Zucker returned to the left of Koivu and Granlund to try to rekindle the magic of the regular season, while Niederreiter was dropped to the fourth line to make room for Charlie Coyle. Then, in Game 3, Haula was moved to centre between Jason Pominville and Chris Stewart, with Niederreiter joining Hanzal, but nothing seemed to juice up the offense.

Down 3-0 in the series, Boudreau separated the Granlund/Koivu and Parise/Staal duos and connected Pominville, Hanzal and Zucker, who scored on the Wild’s win. You don’t change what’s working, right? Nope. In Game 5, the wheel kept spinning, with Parise alongside the reunited Koivu and Granlund up to the moment Eric Staal left the game injured. After that, more reshuffling, obviously. And, soon after, the Blues closing the series in overtime.

All things considered, despite controlling the puck (58.9 adj. CF%) like no other team in the first round, averaging 9.6 more SOG per game (36.4 to the Blues 26.8), and slugging to a 55.1 adj. SCF%, the Wild scored just five even strength goals – one with Dubnyk pulled – and registered a single forward line who logged more than 20 minutes together. Jake Allen’s brilliance may have been the major reason for the Wild’s demise, but Bruce Boudreau’s actions didn’t help.

Best players in the series

Jake Allen (St. Louis Blues)

For the reasons exposed above, Jake Allen was the X-factor for St. Louis in the series, yet forward Jaden Schwartz deserves an honourable mention. The 24-year-old picked up a series-high 5 pts (2+3), and his contributions encompassed the game-winners in Game 2 and 3, three shots on goal per game, 22 min TOI/GP – tops among Blues forwards – and respectable underlying metrics. In fact, Schwartz and linemate Vladimir Tarasenko were the only Blues’ forwards simultaneously above 44.0 adj. CF% and 54 adj. SCF%.

Jaden Schwartz is about to blow the puck past Devan Dubnyk to give the Blues victory in Game 2 (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild)

Without standout Minnesota Wild performances in the series, left winger Zach Parise – 3 pts (1+2), including the late goal to tie Game 1 – wouldn’t be a terrible choice here. However, he also accounted for a -4 rating and 4 minor penalties, therefore I’ll appoint Mikael Granlund. Minnesota’s best forward during the regular season struggled to make an impact on the scoresheet, collecting just 2 assists in 5 games, but he still looked dangerous at most times, impacting the play with a massive 85.1 adj. SCF% (1st on the team) and excellent 63.1 adj. CF% (4th).

Will the Minnesota Wild return to the playoffs next year? 

Boudreau’s teams have always turned into regular season juggernauts, so you can safely bet on that. However, Minnesota’s long-term prospects don’t look good with Ryan Suter (32) and Zach Parise’s (soon to be 33) contracts running until 2071 (approximately) and age clearly catching up to them.

Dubnyk and most of the defensive core have contracts with a few years left, providing cost certainty in the near future, which is exactly why 22-year-old Matt Dumba (RFA in 2018) may have to be sacrificed in the expansion draft instead of Marco Scandella (UFA 2020) or Jonas Brodin (UFA 2021). In a perfect world, they would rather ditch 34-year-old forward Jason Pominville – whose 5.6M deal until 2019 looms large – yet his NTC/NMC prevents that.

The Wild have 15 players signed for next season and 11.4 M in cap space, but most will be absorbed by the contract extensions of RFA’s Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. In a conservative estimative, the Wild should assume their raises will trim that number to less than 3M, which won’t be enough to bring back 30-year-old Martin Hanzal, in line for a healthy increment from his current 3.1 M cap hit. And they can’t bring back the valuable picks they forfeited for his five playoff games either…

Maybe the Minnesota Wild will have more reasons to celebrate next season (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHL playoff series digested: Chicago Blackhawks – Nashville Predators (0-4)

On their way to the Championships in 2010 and 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Nashville Predators in the first round of the NHL playoffs. The Western Conference top seed had realistic expectations of reviving history, but facing a spiked, underperforming lower ranked team is always dangerous, and this time the Predators came out determined to bite back and change the narrative. They couldn’t have done it in a more emphatic way, authoring the most stunning first round sweep in the NHL this century and their maiden playoff triumph in just four matches. Let’s dive into the numbers to understand how such an outcome materialized.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 1 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks

Game 2: Nashville Predators 5 @ 0 Chicago Blackhawks

Game 3: Chicago Blackhawks 2 @ 3 Nashville Predators (OT)

Game 4: Chicago Blackhawks 1 @ 4 Nashville Predators

 

Pekka Rinne, the Great Finnish Wall

The career of the Predators goaltender has been dotted by more peaks and valleys than his pedigree would anticipate and, following an average regular season, all eyes were on him as pundits gauged Nashville’s chances of making a run for the Cup. In four of Rinne’s five previous playoff campaigns, his overall Sv% didn’t rise above .912, consequently it was time the Finnish goalie justified his hefty 7M cap hit in the postseason. However, few could have predicted the level of domination he displayed against the Blackhawks.

Nashville’s goaltender Pekka Rinne, erected a brick wall in net during the series first two Games in Chicago

The 34-year-old stonewalled the high-flying offense of Chicago on the road in the first two games of the series, turning aside all 59 shots thrown at his net, and kept his spectacular form in the friendly confines of the Bridgestone Arena, pitching two more wins to close out the series with only three goals allowed in 126 shots faced.

That’s a scintillating 0.976 Sv% and 0.70 GAA over a near perfect series, where Rinne allowed a single even-strength goal in 115 shots (0.991 Sv%!), 15 of those of the “high-danger” variety, and posted a preposterous 6.21 goals saved above average (GSAA) rating in just four games. Such brilliance turned the Predators into the 13th NHL team to quell their opponent to three or less goals in a four-game series, and just the fourth in the last 38 years (1994 NYR, 2001 TOR, 2003 ANA & 2013 BOS).

For good measure, Rinne also picked up two assists in Game 2, something no Blackhawks player could do over the entire series.

Pounce early on to steal away home ice advantage

The noise inside Chicago’s United Center after the usual pregame festivities is further amped up came playoff time, and it was imperative the Predators were able to withstanding the impact of the first few minutes on the road, as Chicago posted the second best Win% after scoring first (0.740) during the regular season.

Furthermore, Nashville had dropped 9 of the previous 10 games in Chicago and compiled the worst road record amongst playoff teams in the NHL this season, yet the visitors looked anything like an anxious bunch as they scored early in both games to put the Blackhawks on their heels.

The tallies by Viktor Arvidsson, with 7.52min played in Game 1, and Ryan Ellis, just 3.44 min into Game 2, both due to the work of Nashville’s top forward line against the Jonathan Toews unit, calmed the crowd, injected life into Peter Laviolette’s bench and forced the Hawks to take chances and shorten the bench as the clock advanced.

In Game 1, the pressure of Chicago, especially the Kane-Anisimov-Panarin trio, almost cracked Rinne, but the Predators were able to hang on to a 1-0 victory, while in Game 2 their strategy worked to perfection. They dominated possession and scoring chances metrics throughout, and took advantage of the Hawks lackadaisical defensive play to deliver two back-breaking goals in the second period that put the game away.

Nashville Predators players celebrate the team’s 2nd goal in Game 2 (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bolstered by two road performances “by the book”, the Predators returned to Tennessee with home ice advantage, a firm grasp on the series and the seed of doubt planted in the mind of their accomplished opponent.

The Predators top line tortured Chicago, the others delivered the knockout punches

Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg combined for five goals, 17 points, a  60.2 FF%, 12 scoring chances for and just 2 against – an outstanding 88.3 SCF% -, six goals for and 0 against while on the ice.

There’s no way around it. The Predators top forward unit dismantled the Hawks, who had no answer for them even if Joel Quenneville tried everything. Going power on power with the Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line, deploy Jonathan Toews to slow them down, tap on the defensive prowess of Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa, and shuffle his defensive pairs when Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson (13-28 Shots For, 3-8 SCF, 0-3 GF) botched the job. Eventually, he would be forced to load up with Toews between Kane and Panarin for Game 4, and they responded with a 66.7 CF% in 18 min together, despite struggling to create chances (1-3 SCF). It was already too late.

Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson exult after tieing the score late in Game 3 (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the No.1 line wreaking havoc on the Hawks, it was up to Nashville’s other forwards to find a way to impact the tie decisively, and all units had their moment in the sun. The physical Harry Zolnierczyk – Mike Fischer – Austin Watson group couldn’t drive play but still crafted a huge 2-0 goal in Game 2. Colton Sissons finished up a great shift by Craig Smith to follow up with the third on the 5-0 rout, and added a monumental tally in Game 4 that all but sealed the sweep. As for the second line, Kevin Fiala, Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal accounted for a 57.1 CF% and 61.6 SCF%, but looked snake bitten until they orchestrated the vital GWG in Game 3 OT.

On the other side, with the Patrick Kane unit unable to break through, the blender of Joel Quenneville functioned incessantly but to no avail. Their only 5 on 5 goal came off a good cycle by Marcus Kruger, Dennis Rasmussen and Richard Panik, opening the score in the second period of Game 3 and breaking Rinne’s SO streak, but the Hawks couldn’t hold onto the lead.

 

Best players in the series

Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators)

As evidence above, the performance of Pekka Rinne was the primary factor behind the Predators smashing triumph, but many of his colleagues also excelled individually.

For instance, center Ryan Johansen, who was a force up the middle and collected a series-high 6 pts (1+5), or Filip Forsberg, who posted 5 pts, including two goals in Game 3 to rally the Predators back. Meanwhile, defenseman Roman Josi netted twice in the series-clincher and his pairing with Ryan Ellis amassed a +5 rating in spite of heavy deployment and a whole lot of rubber flying around (24 blocked shots accumulated between the two).

Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks)

The reigning Hart Trophy winner couldn’t rise above the nightmarish series for the Hawks, failing to hit the scoresheet with the regularity Chicago fans expected, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. While fellow superstars Jonathan Toews (-5) and Duncan Keith (-6) were mostly invisible, Kane flung a series-high 23 SOG, logged 23.55 min TOI/GP, and notched a PP goal on Game 3 to extend the Hawks lead at the time. And while things never broke his way, he wasn’t careless with the puck, giving the puck only once and picking up three takeaways.

 

Will the Chicago Blackhawks return to the playoffs next year? 

Absolutely. There’s probably another long run left on this group although the Blackhawks status as the class of the West is ever more fragile with every member of the core over 28 years old and hence with its best years behind. More importantly, there’s not one of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford that doesn’t possess some kind of NMC/NTC protection, which severely limits Stan Bowman’s ability to shake things up after a second consecutive first round exit.

On the Chicago Blackhawks core group falls the responsibility to bring the team back into title contention next year (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Unless they decide – and find a way – to offload Seabrook, Crawford, Hossa or Anisimov, with Artemi Panarin’s extension kicking in and his cap hit jumping to 6M, the Hawks have minimal margin (around 3M) to compose their roster with two blueliners that can fill in for veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya – whose time in Chicago should be finished for good -, a couple of depth forwards and a solid backup goalie, now that Scott Darling appears ready for a more prominent role elsewhere.

RFA Richard Panik priced himself out of Chicago with a 22-goal season, and his role will have to be assumed by one of the young players that populated the lower lines this season (Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza, Dennis Rasmussen) with mixed results. Unless the exciting Alex DeBrincat, who scored 65 times in 63 OHL regular season games this season, can jump right into the spotlight.

NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Calgary Flames (4-0)

The back half of April comprises what is, by far, the most compelling portion of the NHL schedule. The 1st round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is a delightful feast of action-driven evenings and late nights when hockey fans can barely manage to catch their breath while the scaled up intensity of postseason play bristles in multiple channels. Keeping an eye on all happenings and storylines is virtually impossible, thus the need to compile reports on the feats taking place across different boards.

This spring I’m aiming to do just that, so after every playoff series reaches its epilogue, I’ll provide a roundup of the aspects that concurred for the end result, regardless of whether we witnessed a routine triumph by a top-seed, a tight seven-game series or an epic upset. To maintain some resemblance of consistency as we move forward, I’ll try to stick to a structure that I believe will allow for a concise, informative dispatch targeted to those that couldn’t follow the matchup in question, but still want to comprehend the outcome.

Hence, I’ll start by objectively pinning down the three key factors that justify the final scoreline, offering the underlying rationale, before electing the best player in the series for each side. Finally, with an eye on the future, I’ll dispense my prediction on the response for a simple question about the future of the team that just got laid off: Will they be back on the same stage next year?

Fifteen best-of-seven series are contested in the Stanley Cup playoffs until the chalice is awarded, and the first to be completed pitted two Pacific Division opponents that seemed to find their stride late in the season. The Calgary Flames entered with a large cloud hanging over their heads, as the Canadian side had failed to secure a win at Anaheim’s Honda Center in 13 years, a string of 25 consecutive regular-season matches, but despite that many – including myself – still expected a evened up encounter. Obviously, it didn’t unfold that way and I’ll try to explain why:

Series Results:

Game 1: Calgary Flames 2 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 2: Calgary Flames 2 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 5 @ 4 Calgary Flames (OT)

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 1 Calgary Flames

 

Brian Elliott sputtered badly

The veteran goaltender was one of the building blocks behind Calgary’s push towards a playoff spot after the All-star break, but he authored a disastrous array of games which effectively submerged his team’s chances of going deep into the postseason. Just 52 seconds into the first game, Ryan Getzlaf’s long wrister found a way past Elliott’s shoulder, and the puck would continue to trickle through his body in virtually every way possible from then on.

An Jakob Silfverberg snap shot from the top of the circles crept below his arm to stand as the GWG in Game 1, and the Swedish winger also whizzed another shot past his tucked-in glove to open the score in Game 2 before Rickard Rakell stuffed the puck from behind the net for a Ducks two-goal lead. Then, in game 3, the 32-year-old found another gear, spewing out a terrible rebound to the front of the crease, right towards the onrushing Nick Ritchie, to wake up the visitors, contributing decisively to their three-goal rally from 4-1 down when a Shea Theodore wrister handcuffed him on the second goal, and finally surrendering the OT winner by deflecting a puck thrown from the boards towards a teammate standing in front, where it ricocheted to the net.

The puck sits behind Brian Elliott after the OT winner in Game 3 (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Elliott probably didn’t deserve to start Game 4 with the Flames season on the line, but he did, and responded by giving up another snoozer on a Patrick Eaves attempt from the boards that squeaked in short side. Just 5:38 min into the night, his season was finished as he was mercifully pulled by coach Glen Gulutzan.

Overall, Elliott posted a putrid 3.89 GAA and .880 Sv% in four postseason games and conceded a mediocre 7 goals in just 42 low-danger shot attempts faced, which is absolutely unacceptable for the AHL, let alone the NHL playoffs. The sweep is on him.

Calgary’s top lines controlled the play but couldn’t convert 5 on 5

The Flames scored nine goals in four games and their PP looked sharp throughout, connecting on 6 of 16 chances, but they just couldn’t keep up with the Ducks five on five, at least on the scoresheet. At even strength, the Ducks tallied 10 times to just two by the Flames, and only one of those came from Calgary’s top-six forwards. The Gaudreau – Monahan – Ferland combo squared off almost exclusively against Anaheim’s premium shutdown unit (Cogliano – Kesler -Silfverberg) and ruled the matchup to the tune of 60 CF% and 70 SCF% (12 For – 5 Against) but was unable to hit the twine even once. In their defence, the Flames’ stars can point out the +4 penalty differential aggregated, which contributed to the four goals buried by the opportunistic Sean Monahan on the powerplay.

Meanwhile, the other battle of heavyweights had more balance to it, with the two-way mastery of the Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik line neutralizing Anaheim’s top guns, Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, at large, but failing to tilt the ice in the right direction as the Flames needed. The Backlund unit managed a 51 CF% and created six scoring chances for while allowing just five, but lost 3-1 in goals. Since further down the lineup they couldn’t make up the difference, with the third forward unit tallying once while Anaheim’s fourth-liner Nate Thompson, for example, amassed 2G and 2 A at even strength, defeat proved inevitable.

Johnny Gaudreau was stifled by the Anaheim Ducks throughout the series (Photo by Robert Binder/NHLI via Getty Images)

Anaheim’s defensive depth holds the fort

With lynchpin Cam Fowler sidelined and Sami Vatanen missing in action after Game 1 (plus the long-time absences of Clayton Stoner and Simon Després), the Ducks had to rely on their flaunted defensive farm in key situations and the kids held their ground. Promising offensive-minded blueliner Shea Theodore was paired with veteran Kevin Bieksa 5 on 5 and the duo stood tall under pressure, spitting out a 51 CF% and surviving the negative (7 for – 10 against) scoring chances differential to post a positive +- rating (Theodore ended at +3, Bieksa +5). The 2013 first round pick, who played six playoff games last year, also collected five points on the series, including two goals at 5 on 5 and a couple of assists while anchoring the top PP unit ( 2.57 min PP TOI/GP).

In another pair, postseason greenhorn Brandon Mountour skated alongside Hampus Lindholm and they ended the series without surrendering a single tally at even strength  – and watching three pucks fly in on the other end – despite a CF% under 40. The duo still managed to balance out the scoring chances (7-7), but unsurprisingly will enter round two with a sky-high PDO of 113. Montour played a healthy 19:27 min per game, while Theodore soaked up over 20 mins, numbers that Anaheim would certainly like to temper a bit moving forward when Fowler and Vatanen return to top-four duty. Korbinian Holzer, the 29-year-old German defenseman, filled in for Vatanen on his first ever NHL postseason cameo, and also escaped with a neutral +-rating in 14.39 min of nightly action.

Best players in the series

Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)

The Ducks captain set the tone in the series with the early goal in Game 1, finished it off with an empty net tally in Game 4 and, in the meantime, was a workhorse for coach Randy Carlyle, leading all forwards with 22.18 min TOI/GP. The 31-year-old collected a total of 3 goals and 2 assists over the four games, one point less than teammates Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell, but more than enough to deserve the distinction on a series where his team wasn’t bothered too much.

Mikael Backlund and Ryan Getzlaf race for a puck during Game 1 (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mikael Backlund (Calgary Flames)

While Sean Monahan’s four goals and one assist sparkle, his dearth of production at even strength knocks him down in favour of Backlund. The impressive two-way pivot spearheads one of the NHL’s most underrated lines, and while they failed to reach the same heights in the postseason, the Swede never stop battling on his 19:48 min TOI/GP. He fired a team-high 14 shots on goal, picked up 3 points, and his excellent shorthanded goal in Game 2 brought the Flames back into contention until a fortuitous bounce gave Anaheim a two-game lead.

Will the Calgary Flames return to the playoffs next year? 

Yes, probably. Glen Gulutzan’s team charged up the standings late backed up by solid possession stats and the core group is locked long-term, with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Michael Frolik, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and TJ Brodie all under contract, at least, until 2020. The only exception is Mikael Backlund, a UFA in 2018 the team can’t afford to lose.

This summer, the Flames have decisions to make on defence with Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Michael Stone all up for new deals, while retaining UFA Kris Versteeg should be a priority, as the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion pieced together a nice season. Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett are RFA’s that won’t break the bank to re-sign, while Curtis Lazar and Alex Chiasson’s future needs clarification.

However, the time devoted to that will pale in comparison to the big resolution needed in goal. Both Brian Elliott and backup Chad Johnson are UFA’s, and if Johnson might return to reassume his role, Elliott’s playoff performance definitely sealed his fate in Calgary. The Flames will shop for a goalie and who they settle for will say a lot about their future.

Can they strike a deal with Ben Bishop, the biggest fish expected to be available on the market? Would they look to pry away Marc-Andre Fleury or Jaroslav Halak? Is one of the other free-agents to be (Ryan Miller, Jonathan Bernier, Scott Darling, Steve Mason) the answer they’re looking for? With a few more pieces added around the edges, this could be the difference between a true contender for the Cup in the coming seasons, or a team topping as a perennial challenger for a playoff spot.

The Calgary Flames say goodbye to their fans after the defeat in Game 4 (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Seven NHL Players who made “the leap” in 2016-17

Except for supernatural talents, every youngster that dips his feet on the NHL goes through a similar process of assimilation to a new reality. They crawl out of the gates, trying to adapt to an intense, unbeknown environment and hoping to minimize mistakes on the whirlwind of action around, and then ease into the rhythm, striving to find their niche on the ice and showcase the qualities that brought them there. Eventually, if they’re able to gain the thrust of the coaching staff, they excel, climbing the ladder to fulfil the expectations placed on their shoulders and the role best suited for their abilities.

The entire journey, depending on a myriad of factors, may take just a few months, a complete season or a few years, but once settled in, the wholesome package that separates the real deal from the bust eventually flourishes before the eyes of the hockey sphere. Discounting the natural ebbs and flows, slumps and hot streaks that take a hold of every player regardless of position or stature, when a player takes a decisive step towards complete assertion at the top-level, we can usually notice it. Whether it is the swagger displayed by a defenseman with the puck on his stick, the coolness of a goalie in net or a forward’s confidence to slow the game down and try a different move.

However, those are attributes difficult to pick up on if you don’t watch a player on a daily basis, hence our need to rely on statistics to point the way. The 2016-17 NHL regular season is ending this week, so we have a large sample of data to dive on in a quest to identify some of the players who have made the leap on their performance over the last year.

Taking into account that rookies are naturally excluded from this analysis, and so are players whose natural progression made their statistical explosion a certainty (looking at you, Connor McDavid), I selected seven names to highlight in this article, ranging from former top picks who finally panned out to blue-chip prospects who broke through or under-the-radar players who made the best of golden opportunities.

Be aware that the following analysis is punctuated by references to hockey and “advanced” statistics terminology. Therefore, I’ll leave below a small recap of the nomenclature and abbreviations used. For an explanation of the most complex terminology, you can use Corsica’s glossary.

Basics

SOG: shots on goal; TOI/GP: time on ice per game played; PP: powerplay; PPP: powerplay points; PK: penalty kill; SH: shorthanded (time on ice); SHG: shorthanded goals; RFA: restricted free agent; GAA: goals against average; Sv%: save %; SO: shutouts; Sh%: shooting %

Advanced

(adj)(rel)CF%: (adjusted)(relative) Corsi For %

PDO: not an acronym, just a proxy for luck; stands for the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage (Sh% + Sv%)

GF%: Goals For %

SCF%: Scoring Chances For %

DZS%: Defensive zone starts %

OZS%: Offensive zone starts %

Points/60: points for 60 minutes

 

David Pastrňák (Boston Bruins, RW)

Drafted in the tail end of the 2014 first round (25th overall), Pastrňák took advantage of a Bruins roster short on offensive game-changers to guarantee a surprising 49-game stint (26 points) on his age-18 season, which, in retrospect, accelerated his learning curve. As a sophomore, his production flatlined (27 points), but he still tallied 15 goals in 51 matches, setting the stage for the outburst of 2016-17.

Boston Bruins David Pastrňák celebrating one of his 32 goals this season

The Czech winger came out of the gates on fire, netting 13 times in the first 17 games, and steadied the inevitable regression to maintain a scoring clip befitting with a near point-per-game pace. With 68 points in 72 games, his 0.94 ppg regime is the 12th highest in the league (over 50 games played), trailing only Brad Marchand on his own team, while a robust bump in shot generation – he’s firing  1.3 extra SOG/GP – has resulted in a 32-goal barrage on a sustainable 12.7 Sh%, in line with his career average.

The 20-year-old has enjoyed riding shotgun on Boston’s top line with Patrice Bergeron and Marchand for most of the season, forming the league’s most dominant group possession-wise, with a sterling adj. CF% of 62.6 and a 56.7 GF% despite awful luck (98.2 PDO), but even when he was shifted down to try to juice up the second unit, Pastrňák has made good use of the 4 min uptick in TOI/GP from last season.

With his ELC expiring at the end of the season, Pastrňák’s success puts Boston in a bind, since  they’ll need to ante up significantly to retain the services of their young star long-term while managing a forward group that already comprises four players raking in over 6M per year until 2021 (Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci and Backes).

Justin Schultz (Pittsburgh Penguins, D)

After signing in Edmonton as a highly-sought after college FA, Justin Schultz was successively scapegoated for the Oilers’ mediocrity and failure to ice competitive rosters. At the 2016 trade deadline, the Penguins took a flyer on Schultz and they’ve reaped tremendous dividends from it this season, since what once seemed like a perennial double-digit minus player is now an in-vogue offensive force. However, more than new career highs in goals (12) and points (48), which place Schultz inside the top ten amongst defensemen, what truly opened some eyes was the 26-year-old’s ability to step up when his team needed him to.

Schultz started the year besides Ian Cole on Pittsburgh’s third pairing, driving play, piling the positive ratings (+25) and heaping goals (63.6 GF%) and chances (60.5 SCF%) on the opposition while taking advantage of favourable deployments (just 27.4 DZS%), yet the duo quickly ascended through the lineup, first conquering top four status and later assuming top-pairing duties to help supress Kris Letang’s absence.

Defenseman Justin Schultz has been an integral part of the Penguins’ success in 2016-17

In special, Schultz usual 20min TOI/GP escalated by more than 3 minutes during Letang’s multiple injuries, and he was also asked to shore up the top powerplay (22 PPP), which improved from erratic first half form towards top-five status in large part due to his composure in 3.40 min of PP TOI/GP. Most of Schultz’s offensive contributions date back to December and January, when he accumulated 29 pts in just 26 games, but even when the puck stopped going in Mike Sullivan’s confidence didn’t waver.

The former 2nd round pick is scheduled to be a RFA with arbitration rights in July 1st, and is due a healthy raise from his current 1.4M cap hit, however there are more than just salary cap considerations swirling around as the Penguins mull over an extension offer. Schultz’s steady play may force an unexpected change on their expansion draft plans, with ramifications felt elsewhere on the roster.

Viktor Arvidsson (Nashville Predators, RW)

An overaged selection on the 4th round in 2014, Arvidsson was seen by the Predators staff as a diamond-in-a-rough that escaped the scouting net, and those expectations were certainly vindicated when he put up 55 points on his debut AHL season in 2014-15. He followed that up with 16 in 56 games at the NHL level last year, playing as an energetic, fearless bottom six forward before stepping it up another notch in 2016-17, carving a leading role on a team with championship ambitions.

Peter Laviolette tested Arvidsson alongside star forwards Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen and the undersized Swede run with the opportunity, smashing his career highs by amassing 29 goals, just two off Forsberg’s team-best, and 57 points, four less than Johansen’s 61.

5’9” forward Viktor Arvidsson has found a way to come up big for the Nashville Predators

The 23-year-old’s 2.36 Points/60 top the team as do the 240 SOG and 5 SHG, a figure unequalled around the NHL this season. Moreover, Arvidsson’s prowess on the PK, hoarded in just over 1 min of work per game, contributes greatly to his +15 rating, best among Nashville’s forwards, while he is just the tenth-ranked Predator in terms of PP TOI/GP, meriting less than 2 min on the man advantage.

With a cap hit of just 631k, Arvidsson leads the league in cost (cap hit including potential bonuses) per point obtained in 2016-17, but Nashville’s bargain is about to be rewarded, as the Swedish winger is an RFA this summer. After his break out season, a multi-year-deal commensurate of a top-six forward is certainly on the table.

Cam Talbot (Edmonton Oilers, G)

An undrafted free agent signed by the NY Rangers in 2013, Talbot’s NHL numbers have been consistently excellent at this level, as attested by his career 0.923 Sv%, yet he gets a nod for a fantastic showing in the role of a first-time workhorse goaltender.

Functioning as the backbone of a fledging team where all key players are yet to reach 25, Talbot’s performance falls under the large cast of Connor McDavid’s MVP-calibre brilliance, hence it’s probably bound to go down as exceptionally unappreciated. The 29-year-old is third in the NHL in wins, with his 40 triumphs just one short of Bobrovsky and Dubnyk’s total, first in games started with 70, seven more than the next man, first in saves made and tied for second in SO (7).

Edmonton Oilers’ goalie Cam Talbot is usually in control of the situation when the puck is around

Furthermore, on a team with a problematic history in the crease over the last fifteen years, Talbot’s 2016-17 performance isn’t just the best in terms of GAA (2.36) and Sv% (0.921) since 2001-2002 (min. 40 apps), but also compares quite favourably against his league peers, ranking 7th in 5 on 5 Sv% (0.929), 8th in overall Sv%, and first in medium-danger Sv% (0.954), despite a workload well above anything he’s experienced before. For instance, Talbot has faced 469 high-danger shots this season, while no other goalie has even surpassed 400.

The 29-year-old is signed for two more seasons at a 4.16M cap hit, and that deal looks like a steal by GM Peter Chiarelli, who dished out three picks in 2015 to gamble on a guy that might shepherd Connor McDavid’s era and seemingly hit the jackpot.

Alexander Wennberg (Columbus Blue Jackets, C)

Jarmo Kekalainen’s desire to build the Columbus Blue Jackets from the backend out led to Seth Jones’s acquisition last season, but also left a major void at the top of the team’s forward depth chart. Top-line centres don’t grow in threes, and the best way to find them is through the top of the draft – as Columbus learned with Ryan Johansen – consequently they should be thrilled that the solution was in-house all along.

Center Alexander Wennberg has step up for John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets this season

Wennberg, the 14th overall pick in 2013, saw less than 16 min of TOI/GP during his first two NHL seasons, but was still able to double his point production as a sophomore (20 to 40) and another 20-point jump is in reach in 2016-17. Feasting on a scorching PP top unit, the Stockholm-native notched 33 pts in 35 games to start the season before cooling off down the stretch, yet he’s still seeing 18.21min of TOI/GP, just eight seconds less than captain Nick Foligno, who leads among Jackets’ forwards.

Gaining the thrust of John Tortorella as a 22-year-old center is a tough task, but Wennberg is justifying the gamble by putting points on the board, to the tune of 57 in 77 games, four behind Cam Atkinson’s tally. With 13 goals on the season in just 100 shots, the young pivot would greatly benefit from a more resolute approach to the net, yet his line with Foligno and Brandon Saad is still generating offense aplenty, with a 59.1 GF% propped up by a bit of luck (101.4 PDO).

A RFA coming off his ELC at the end of the season, Wennberg probably won’t net a protracted extension with first-line money attached just yet, however the Jackets would be wise to treat him better than they did to his predecessor.

Jaccob Slavin (Carolina Hurricanes, D)

The Carolina Hurricanes feature the NHL’s youngest defensive core and headlining the group is not Olympian Justin Faulk, as many believe, but Jaccob Slavin, the 22-year-old Denver-native completing his second NHL season.

After an unassuming rookie year where he compiled 20 pts in 63 games, Slavin and fellow sophomore Brett Pesce have taken the reigns of Carolina’s blueline and blended into one of the NHL’s best shutdown pairs, amassing more defensive zone starts than any other Canes unit (32.3 DZS%) and still delivering possession and chance-generation metrics (54.39 CF%, 57.3 GF% and 58.4 SCF%) ranked on the top 10 amongst pairs with over 700min played. Their success together is further expressed on Slavin’s (+23) and Pesce’s (+20) +/- rating, or their combined +5.5 relCF%, while, at the same time, the rest of the roster is barely above, or below, water.

22-year-old rearguard Jaccob Slavin has shined brightly in Carolina

The 120th pick in 2012 fends off from his regular partner due to a more refined all-around acumen, substantiated in 23.27min of TOI/GP, tops on the Canes roster, and high usage on the PK (3:04min SH TOI/GP), while soaking up just 57 seconds of PP TOI/GP, which is typically reserved for the likes of Faulk or 20-year-old Noah Hanifin. Still, in 2016-17, Slavin started to tap more into his offensive skill, amassing 5 goals and 33 points despite wiring just 96 pucks on goal, a good omen for increased production in the future.

With another season left on his rookie deal, Slavin is bound to upgrade his payday significantly in 2018, possibly fetching a deal more lucrative than Faulk’s 6 year, 29M contract signed in 2014.

Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild, RW)

We all saw the flashes of high end skill over the years, but it took Bruce Boudreau’s arrival in Minnesota to unlock the genius of Mikael Granlund. The former 9th overall pick never meshed with Mike Yeo, with whom he wandered between center and wing, and his counting stats ultimately stalled on the 40-point range, but, at age 25, the Finnish playmaker finally approached the wildest expectations bestowed upon him on the State of Hockey.

With 25 goals, more than on his last two seasons combined, and 68 points in 79 games, Granlund shattered previous career-highs as the offensive dynamo on Minnesota’s go-to two-way line. Sharing the ice with captain Mikko Koivu and Jason Zucker, the trio was especially effective between December and February, when the younger Finn tallied well over a point per game (45 points in 39 games), but they’ve been important throughout the campaign, controlling the scoring chance battle (63.0 SCF%) while shouldering many defensive assignments (just 23 OZS%) and drawing loads of penalties (+21 in Penalty differential).

Meanwhile, Finland’s duo is also leaving a mark on special teams, where Granlund picked up 20 PP points and 3 SHG in 1:30min of SH TOI/GP, a number that only lags behind Koivu’s among Wild forwards, and mirrors the distribution in every situation (18.54 min TOI/GP).

Mikael Granlund is finally carrying the Minnesota Wild’s offense

Granlund’s 0.86 ppg pace – inflated by a 14.4 Sh%, almost 5 points over his career average – is the highest by a Wild player since the 2010-11 season and comes at a perfect time. His current 2-year, 6M deal is about to expire, thus it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him double that cap hit going forward.

Honourable Mentions:

Cam Atkinson (Columbus Blue Jackets, RW): Ascended to All-Star status with 34 goals and 61 points after offering a glimpse of his ceiling with a 53-point campaign in 2015-16.

Conor Sheary (Pittsburgh Penguins, RW): Amassed 22 goals and 52 points in just 58 games riding alongside Sidney Crosby, a match of skill, speed, hockey sense and tenacity the Penguins had been looking for most of the last decade.

Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs, D): From so-called defensive liability to a 40-point season coupled with a stellar +26 rating and major responsibilities on the NHL’s second best powerplay unit (24.3% conversion rate).

Nazem Kadri (Toronto Maple Leafs, C): Shrouded by the Leafs’ rookie bonanza, Kadri stunningly evolved into Mike Babcock’s jack-off-all-trades middleman while compiling 60 pts and a maiden 30-goal season.

Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers, C/RW): 74 points in 78 games as Connor McDavid’s running mate to follow up a 51-point season centering Taylor Hall. Impossible to leave off the list had he posted similar numbers anchoring the second line, where the German ought to settle long-term (see Crosby/Malkin dynamic).

All stats referenced in this article courtesy of http://www.Corsica.hockey or nhl.com and updated until 3/4/2017. Unless stated otherwise, possession and scoring chances data refer to 5 on 5 play and are adjusted for score, zone and venue.

Review: German Football Museum

On Wednesday, March 8th, I attended the Borussia Dortmund-SL Benfica Champions League match contested at the Westfallenstadion in Dortmund. You can read about my experience here if you haven’t already. In this follow-up post, I aim to review my visit to the German Football Museum, which occurred in the following morning.

On Thursday, with a few hours to spare, the grey weather persisting and the harbinger of a few showers, I mulled over two options: take the metro to the Westfallenpark, check the scenery and visit the Borusseum, Borussia’s museum, or, in alternative, clamp down in the brand-new building located just a few steps away, which catches the eye as soon as you leave Dortmund’s Hbf. You can guess where this is going.

The facade of the German Football Museum

Since 2015, after beating thirteen other German cities for the honour, Dortmund has the privilege of being the home site of the Deutsches Fußballmuseum (German Football Museum), established by the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (German Football Federation, DFB) with the profits of the 2006 World Cup.

While I hold no close ties or special esteem for any German club or Die Mannschaft, I’m still an irredeemable football nerd, therefore I relished the chance to visit the museum of the world’s largest single-sport federation, comprising more than 25,000 clubs and 6.8 million members. Even so, I certainly flinched at the 17€ entrance toll. The museum had a lot to live up to in order to justify the price of admission, but I definitely didn’t exit dissatisfied some three hours later.

Visitors are welcomed to the venue by a rising illustration along the escalators of German football fans from all creeds and provenances, including an exulting Angela Merkel, and you quickly reach the first floor, entirely dedicated to the national teams and the Federation’s history.

The starting point is a section dedicated to the 1954 World Cup winning team, who authored the “Miracle of Bern” to defeat the mighty Hungarians, but you soon get acquainted with a timeline describing the 117 years of the German Federation.

I was looking forward to see how they would deal with the Nazi years and came pleasantly surprised. No bleach was used and you learn in detail, with documentation and news reports, how the societal and political developments affected the structure of the sport in Germany. You can read not only about the restrictions imposed by the Nazi regime, but also about the persecutions to Jewish players, from which Julius Hirsch, a German international who would perish in Auschwitz, is the banner name.

The Tribute to the “Kaiser”

Moving on, the most memorable moments in Germany’s national team history take center stage. The 1974 World Cup title conquered on home soil against Johan Cruijff’s Netherlands. The clash with Maradona’s Argentina at Italy 90, where Franz Beckenbauer became the first man to win the World Cup both as a player and coach. The “Kaiser” merited his own tribute, shaped in the form of his iconic Number 5, but not only the greatest triumphs are celebrated in this space.

There’s an area dedicated to the “Game of the Century”, the 1970 semi-final clash in Mexico where Italy defeat West Germany by 4-3, and an amusing board remembering the polemic goal by Geoff Hurst which propelled England to victory at the 1966 World Cup Final. A forensic investigation was launched to comprehend whether the ball fell past the goal line or not, and visitors are invited to share their opinion. I voted YES, yet the NO’s advantage isn’t as big as you might think (something like 60 to 40). I suppose Dortmund gets more foreign visitors than I thought…

Investigating Geoff Hurst’s goal at Wembley in 1966

I was happy to notice women’s football gets a fair recognition in the museum, including an exhibit of the trophies won by the National team, some historical jerseys and remarks about the evolution of the female game and the success achieved by German clubs internationally.

The ladies have their due share of the spotlight

The history of East Germany’s football, its clubs and the confronts between the East and West representations, is also part of the museum and, as we move into the XXI century, the tremendous investment made by the DFB on youth academies and talent development in the early 2000’s jumps to the forefront, disembarking on an area dominated by the 2014 World Cup triumph (Remember Paul, the Octopus?).

The monumental 7-1 thumping of Brazil doesn’t get as much buzz as I would like, but I understand they have to prioritize the events on the Final against Argentina. You get a detailed breakdown of the action during the 120 minutes and Mario Götze’s tournament-winning volley, before guests are invited to a 3D video presentation.

Every aspect of the 2014 World Cup Final is dissected to the limit

This is where the heroes of 2014 run the show. The hologram of Bastian Schweinsteiger, draped in the German flag, is the first to appear, and he is soon joined by Captain Philip Lahm to reminisce on the journey in Brazil, from the first days in the seaside training camp resort in Salvador to the final at Maracanã Stadium. Mats Hümmels and Thomas Müller keep the ball rolling, with an exchange probably filmed before they became club buddies, and later Manuel Neuer, recapping his sensational sweeper performance against Algeria, and the inevitable Götze also make glossy cameos.

By this time, the former German World Cup teams have been immortalized, and the movie ends with the band chirping a cheery Christoph Kramer, who you may remember as the guy who lost his memory and had to be subbed out in the Final. I watched the German-speaking version (couldn’t wait for the English subtitles) but was still able to pick up on the banter thrown around, which resonated well with the locals.

The World Cup trophy up close

After the presentation, you’re ushered onto the ground floor to get introduced to the Jules Rimet Trophy and the Henri Delaunay Cup. Or, for the initiated, the World Cup and European Championships trophies won by the men’s national team. From then on, the focus shifts to all other facets of the beautiful game, duly enriched by tons of interactive panels and videos.

You can learn, for example, about the coaches that shaped German football and their tactical advancements, the legendary German broadcasters, the history of club football in the country, from the first competitions to the formation and emancipation of the Bundesliga, the football fans and its myriad traditions and idiosyncrasies, or the evolution of German stadiums. Before leaving, you’re allowed to explore and seat on a replica of the bus used by the reigning World Champions, and exercise on the small multiple purpose arena and adjoined play zone.

Memorabilia abounds at the museum

In short, the German Football museum is a comprehensive football experience that is sure to please travelling enthusiasts with a desire to explore, learn about or study the game. If you meet the requirements, take the plunge and I believe you’ll depart after a few hours well spent.

Field Report: A pilgrimage to Dortmund

The list of mythical football stadiums is a short one: Wembley, La Bombonera, the Santiago Bernabéu, Camp Nou, San Siro, Maracanã, Estadio Azteca, Old Trafford. These are the ones most fans would rattle off from the top of their head and, even if you can make a case for a few more, they all have something in common. The glittering location in some of the World’s biggest metropolis, where millions of visitors can appreciate their grandiosity, indulge in their splendorous history and, eventually, find a way inside to experience a match.

That definitely isn’t the case in Dortmund, a city of 600,000 people placated on the densely populated Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region, where 11M people live in an area of just over 7000 km2, smaller than Cyprus, the 162th biggest country in the world. For long, this part of Germany has been known for its heavy industry and therefore it’s a far cry from most touristic routes, with Dortmund further outshone by the likes of Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia’s state capital and a major business and financial centre, and Cologne (Köln), the fourth largest city in Germany and the main cultural hub in the province.

Nevertheless, despite lacking the charm and allure of other destinations, Dortmund is a place wholly familiar for football fans around the globe, and its Westfallenstadion an emblematic location for an outstanding, enduring sporting experience wrapped in black and yellow, the colours of the local deity, German football giants Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund or, simply, Borussia Dortmund.

With a sizeable season ticket waiting list and sell-out crowds in every match, securing an ingress by official channels to a Borussia Dortmund match is tremendously difficult for an outsider, so you might as well just pray your favourite team faces them off. As the whims of the 2016-17 Champions League draw pitted Borussia and my beloved SL Benfica in the last 16, I quickly set out to make the best of an exceptional opportunity to scratch an item off my bucket list.

This post relays my experience in the city of Dortmund and the all-around feeling of being inside one of football’s most renowned cathedrals.

Getting to Dortmund

Situated in the middle of Western Europe and not far from Germany’s borders with France, Belgium and the Netherlands, you can say that it’s more difficult to decide how to reach Dortmund than to get there. Departing from my native Lisbon, the closest options included flying directly to Düsseldorf International Airport, some 60km away, or Cologne-Bonn Airport (100km), whereas Dortmund Airport, a minor infrastructure situated 10km east of the city, is connected a few times per week with Porto. However, forecasting muddy prospects of guaranteeing a ticket in timely fashion and backed off by a relative shortage of travel options, I opted to plan for the worst and try a different approach.

Europe’s dense railway network is a major asset for travellers and that means Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are, daily, just a few hours away from Dortmund without the need for multiple stopovers. As I had some unfinished history in Amsterdam to take care off, the dilemma sorted itself out and on the 6th of March, after two months of anticipation, I finally hopped on a plane towards the Dutch capital. An untimely strike by France’s aerial controllers delayed my departure for a few hours but, taking into account that more than a handful of flights were cancelled in the next 48 hours derailing the plans of many of my fellow Benfiquistas, I can’t really complain. Tuesday, the 7th, was spent threading the streets of Amsterdam, but the big day would soon arrive and I had to decide how to commute to my destination.

Amsterdam is linked to Dortmund by a daily bus connection (taking around 4 hours) operated by German company Flixbus, yet you should book your place in advance, online, for a reasonably price (as low as 15€) or pay significantly more as a walk-in, provided seats are still available. For this exact route, it’s definitely the most cost effective option, but the flexibility and magnetism of train travel swooped in and I foolishly (in purely economic terms) decided to take the ICE (Inter-City Express) train at around 10:30am. The convoy departing from Amsterdam Centraal Station heads to Frankfurt with multiple sojourns before and after the border, and consequently I had to make a rapid switch for another ICE at Duisburg, finally arriving at Dortmund Hauptbahnhof just short of three and a half hours after taking off from North Holland.

Pre-match ambiance and Dortmund City Center

Welcoming me and fellow Benfica fans to Dortmund was a somber day, with light rain dropping almost incessantly for most of the next 24h, the time span of my presence in town. After dropping the baggage at the accommodation, situated just a few hundred meters from the central train station, we headed to the city center via Brückstrasse, a nightlife thoroughfare occupied primarily by fast food restaurants and bars, and soon reached the main cluster of places of interest, if we can call it that.

I don’t want to slam too hard on Dortmund, especially because my stay was short, but it looked entirely insipid and dull. You’ll find the odd, bland-looking church or classical building but downtown is mostly a slab of office buildings, galleries, large banks and shopping malls, with modern, uninspiring constructions taking over premium estate. This can be partially explained by the severe bombings suffered by Dortmund during World War II, specifically in 1945, when, reportedly, 98% of the buildings in the inner city got destroyed.

Dortmund

The Markt, the most lacklustre central plaza I’ve seen, contains an official Borussia Dortmund store to cater to the desires of football fans and is also the essential point around which are located most of the establishments that were invaded by the visiting fans. With beer flowing freely, a lively atmosphere was brimming around here as the afternoon advanced but, as soon as you strolled around, it quickly dissipated into the gloomy spectre that mirrored the weather. Truth be told, we didn’t stagger more than a few avenues in the inner city, and the eighth largest urban center in Germany certainly has much more to see, but, unless you’re looking for a shopping spree or have a lot of time in your hands, the city probably won’t justify the visit. I guess there’s a reason Dortmund is home to such football fandom: there’s not a lot else to focus on.

Anyway, when the cacophony of Portuguese increased as match time drew closer and civilians left their work, Dortmund fans joined in on the fun and I was pleased to notice the friendly coexistence amongst the sides, with no locus of tension as far as I could see. This wasn’t exactly a surprise though, since Dortmund is a town used to greet football fans, happy to showcase tremendous hospitality, and respectful of people keen to celebrate the game and their passion. Hooligans notwithstanding, obviously. It would be great if international football could be always like this.

Benfica and Dortmund fans mingling at the Markt

Taking in the city vibe on Champions League day was something I was looking forward to, but with some 2:30h to go until kick off, it was time to head to the Stadium. A crucial task was awaiting me there, so I took the metro at Stadgarten towards the Westafallenstadion, planted 3.5 km south of downtown Dortmund

On game day, you can ride the subway by free possessing a match ticket and in 10-15 min the U45 line takes you to the “Stadion” station. When that isn’t the case, an adult ticket costs 2.70€ and the closest stop is at the Westfallenpark.

The Westfallenstadion

If there’s something I wish I could change about the trip was the match’s starting time. I would have liked to be able to distinguish the surroundings of the stadium, particularly the neighbouring Westfallenpark, but it was already pitch dark when I arrived. Nevertheless, just as you leave the station, you immediately notice a Biergarten and the locals enjoying their pre-game drink before traversing the short walk to the glitzy venue in sight, where the letters forming “Signal Iduna Park” beam on the night. By the way, I’ll keep ignoring the official designation here, since I don’t get payed to make publicity and grew up with the traditional WestfallenStadion moniker.

The intimidating venue lit up on the night

The yellow is omnipresent on the way to the stadium as the passageways are riffed with stalls serving bratwursts, pretzels and beer or selling merchandising, but my mind was somewhere else by this time. After ditching my backpack in the proper cabin (0.5€), I glimpsed the entrance for visiting fans just in time to see Benfica’s bus arrive to the rousing applause of their mantle of supporters. Once again, without as much as a cringe from the locals.

Less than two hours were left until the opening whistle, so I proceeded to frantically pace up and down the street trying to luck out. A whisper. A fortunate encounter. Some back and forth. I was finally clutching my magical paper.  Time to approach the gates, get patted down, scan the ticket at the turnstiles. Three months of uncertainty ending right there. What a marvellous feeling to hike the stairs of the biggest stadium in Germany and one of the most iconic in World football.

Opened in 1974 right beside Dortmund’s former home, the Stadion Rote Erde (which still stands under the watchful eye of its successor), the Westfallenstadiom is far from worn down, having suffered renovations on multiple occasions over the last 30 years, yet doesn’t possess the same comforts of the stadiums purposely built for the 2006 World Cup. The cement of the stands isn’t disguised, there are no glossy details, the concourses, especially on the second level, are a bit cramped due to the supporting pillars, and the food lanes difficult circulation.

The concourses. Plus a famous Benfica fan on the background.

However, there’s no shortage of toilets or food stalls, with the latter dispatching customers fast because they don’t handle cash. That’s right. You’ll have to approach the ladies carrying a banner to obtain the stadium card, which will be loaded with the amount you want and swiped when you order something. At the end of the game, you can keep it as a souvenir and/or head to the corresponding huts, located outside of the stadium, looking to be reimbursed of the remaining funds. Simple and efficient.

Six euros lighter and carrying a drink and a pretzel (Bretzel in German), I meandered for a bit before searching for my seat in sector 54 of the Osttribüne (East Stand), on the far right, top-level section of one of the central stands. The view from the sector’s entrance looked promising but I still had to hurdle up the stairs… all the way to the last row of the steep stand. From there, the design of the roof obstructs a panorama of the whole stadium, with the top of the farthest stands out of sight, yet I was still delighted. Just a dozen of seats separated my spot from the mesh enclosing more than 3,000 Benfica fans. I couldn’t have wished for better at the day’s beginning.

Benfica warms up

The stadium slowly filled up in the following minutes and the raucous visiting section dominated the noise battle until the eternal “You’ll Never Walk Alone” started blasting from the speakers and the throats of the locals. Scarfs stretched atop, teams on the ground, the spine-tingling Champions League anthem, a splendid tifo elevated from the vaunted  SüdTribüne remembering the outcome of the tie contested 53 years ago, and 65,849 fans – sold out but short of the 81,000 allowed for domestic matches – oozing the fervent enthusiasm before a decisive match in the most beautiful football competition ever. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The 90 minutes and the epic 12 in the middle

Guess I can’t just skip this part, right?

Benfica held a 1-0 advantage heading into the second leg, courtesy of Kostas Mitroglou goal in Lisbon, but the Portuguese Champions were severely outplayed at home and it wasn’t difficult to anticipate Dortmund would put the pedal down at the start to erase the deficit as quickly as possible.

To counter that, Benfica’s coach added muscle to his midfield in André Almeida, hoping that his three-man inverted midfield could close down on Dortmund’s build-up from the back three, while Thomas Tuchel opted for the aggressive 3-4-3 that controlled the proceedings in Portugal, with irreverent youngsters Ousmane Dembélé and Christian Pulišić roaming behind prolific striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

First Half

Surprise, surprise, the hosts came out roaring and it took a whole three minutes to get on the board. After Benfica’s captain, Luisão, panicked on Dortmund’s first approach and conceded a corner kick, Pulišić’s deflection on the first post encountered Aubameyang unmarked on the far side, with the Gabonese nodding the ball past the outstretched Ederson. It was a terrible start yet, as my mind wandered to a similar beginning at the QF of last year’s Champions League against Bayern Munich, Dortmund kept creating havoc in Benfica’s area, threatening a second and galvanizing the home fans.

Fortunately, the visitors didn’t fold and after the 20-minute mark finally settled down, with Nélson Semedo’s bold escapades up the right flank persuading his teammates forward. Benfica’s newfound ability to retain possession calmed down Dortmund’s electric pace and the game gradually fell into a standstill, despite a couple of openings that allowed the Portuguese to target Roman Bürki’s net and the omnipresent danger of Aubameyang and Dembélé’s darting runs on the other half.

The atmosphere and a sensational halftime

During the first 45 min, I kept glancing at the other stands to appreciate the spectacle and there’s no doubt the Yellow Wall at the SüdTribune is a sight to behold, even with the mass of people curtailed by UEFA’s stance against standing-only terraces. They may fall short of the usual 25,000 fanatical voices, but still made a whole lot of noise after ramping up efforts following kick-off. However, for all the vibrancy inside a venue whose architecture enhances sound retention, I couldn’t help to feel a tinge of disappointment regarding the support coming out from the rest of Dortmund’s faithful.

The Yellow Wall

It may not be discernible on television, but the vast majority was simply following the match as most football fans do everywhere: wheezing, gasping, heckling and, eventually, bursting when Dortmund scored. They followed the SüdTribüne’s lead on a couple of “BVB! BVB!” chants, and came to life for a few minutes after the third goal, when the home crowd exhaled, leaped from the seats and jumped in unison, shaking the building’s foundations, but not much more. Nonetheless, if you still believe in amphitheatres where 80,000 raging spectators impel their team forward over 90 minutes in a maniacal frenzy, you’re in for a letdown.

As for Benfica fans, modesty aside, we were more than up for the task, rebounding quickly from the early sucker-punch and the two quick knockout blows that would later follow, and keeping the faith until the very end. In normal circumstances, I would have already been proud of our top-notch performance during the 90 minutes of playing time (except for an unfortunate incident in the second half that was quickly dissipated), yet we far exceeded whatever expectations I could have had while the world of football looked away at the interval.

Words cannot describe what happened in those twelve minutes at halftime, with the players out of sight, television cameras shut down, few journalists on duty and many German fans away from their seats. It wasn’t a simple serenade, it wasn’t exhibitionism, it wasn’t a show of strength directed at the opposing ultras. It will go down as an utterly spontaneous, vocal love letter by 3500 devotees on a cold night in Dortmund.

I’ll forever be grateful for having been at that sacred temple in those minutes, able to assimilate every second of it. Able to experience whatever coursed through my body while I closed my eyes and belted out “Benfica, O Amor da Minha Vida” (Benfica, the love of my life) in loop until my voice started trailing off, undone by raw passion. Those twelve epic, magical minutes will live forever in the hearts of all of us, and, pardon the exaggeration, inhabit that place for a long time, attached to the cement and steel of the Westfallenstadion.

However, that riveting display couldn’t have been possible without the solemn deference by our opponents on the night and its fans. There wasn’t any intention to halt the show in those minutes where we took their house from them. No deafening tune drowning our chants. No booing. No recriminations of any sort. Just a bunch of smiling faces in awe, capturing the moment, admiring a truly special rendition and, finally, applauding the foreigners as their heroes came back into the pitch for the play to resume. Those thousands on the stands certainly headed home with vivid memoirs and increased appreciation for Sport Lisboa e Benfica.

Benfica fans put on a show during 90…105 minutes

Second half and post-match

At the break, the tie was up for grabs and the Portuguese appeared to come back from the room more determined to collect a crucial away goal that would alter the complexion of the matchup. On the 48th minute, a failed clear off a cross awarded Franco Cervi a golden chance to do just that, but his shot couldn’t puncture the yellow wall of Dortmund players that dived in desperation for a goal-saving block. Up in the stands, with a scream still stuck in my larynx, I wondered whether our ticket to the quarter-finals had just flown out of the stadium and, regrettably, time would prove I was right.

A series of corners and free kicks kept the ball around Dortmund’s box for the next five minutes as our confidence was soaring, yet it all vanished in a hurry. The hosts regained composure, encircled Benfica’s area, forged two point-blank chances where Aubameyang (in offside position) was brilliantly rebuffed by Ederson, and then dropped the hammer just before the hour mark. With the defence still reeling from another period of incessant pressure, Łukasz Piszczek solicited Christian Pulišić with a superb through ball that caught centre-back Victor Lindelöf napping, and the American teenager niftily chipped the ball over the onrushing Brazilian goalkeeper.

The visitors now needed to score to keep their hopes alive, yet Dortmund fans were barely back on their seats when the hill got even steeper. A brilliant diagonal ball by Julian Weigl met left back Marcel Schmelzer on the edge of the box, and he drilled it perfectly towards Aubameyang, who only had to tuck the ball in to secure a brace on the night.

Aubameyang was at his best on the night of Dortmund ((Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Just like that, in a couple of minutes, the sky had come crashing down on us, but 30 minutes were left on the clock and we could only escalate the vocal support to try to inspire an improbable revival. However, Dortmund soon smothered any semblance of response from the visitors, who proved incapable of knifing past the suffocating German pressure and engineer a clear-cut chance for the rest of the match.

When Aubameyang completed his hat trick five minutes from time, after a Benfica turnover in the midfield turned into a textbook counter-attack, the gap in play between the teams over the two games was expressed in the final 4-1 scoreline. The best team over the majority of the 180 minutes was, undoubtedly, Borussia Dortmund and when that happens you accept the outcome, congratulate the other side and pick up the pieces wishing to return stronger the next time around.

In the end, after the German players executed a customary routine of celebration with the Yellow Wall, both sets of fans cheered their own and applauded the performance of their opponents, both on the field and in the stands, with the utmost respect that ruled the encounter extending until the very end.

I delayed my exit from the stadium for a few minutes to avoid the masses, take it all in a bit more, check the highlights of the mindboggling happenings in the Barcelona-PSG match, and wait for the release of the rest of the Benfica faithful. Due to the swift and competent work by the German police, that didn’t take long – contrary to what happens so many times in other countries – and soon the away fans were allowed to leave the premises, free to chase a way to drown their sorrows.

With a heavy heart, I said goodbye to the Westfallenstadion and strutted, alongside my people, in the direction of the metro station and, eventually, the city centre. A change of scenery loomed the following day as my journey continued, but I still wanted to take advantage of the morning in Dortmund, so I bunked up in short order with a bittersweet pot of memories flashing ceaselessly.

This post is already way…way…way too long, but if you wish to read about my whereabouts in Dortmund the following morning, click here.

If not, I can tell you that soon after exiting the museum (spoiler alert!), I left Dortmund towards Cologne, which ended up as an inspired decision, and would later return to Amsterdam – after a 24 hour detour in Utrecht – to fly home. Unfortunately, no further sport adventures were on the cards as scheduling issues derailed my prospects of attending an ice hockey match at Cologne’s Lanxess Arena, and the Amsterdam Arena sold out for Ajax’s weekend appointment.

And that’s it for this field report. Cross your fingers for another one, hopefully sooner rather than later. Thanks for reading and making it this far!