Sorting through the contenders for the 2017 Men’s World Championships title

On Sunday, the 24th, the UCI Road World Championships will reach their epilogue in Bergen, Norway, when the men’s elite road race will be contested by a peloton of almost 200 athletes. The 267.5km race course includes an initial 39.5km through the nearby fjords before the cyclists reach the scenic Norwegian city, where they’ll tackle a challenging finishing loop of 19.1km a total of 12 times.

This Classics-like, urban circuit contains three ascents, which are bound to disentangle drivers and passengers inside the bunch as the fatigue sets in, and the last promises to feature prominently in the race’s decision. The climb up Mount Ulriken (Salmon Hill) averages 6.4% over just 1.5km, but it is expected to be furiously attacked, especially over the initial 500 metres at 7.8%, after which the slope sweetens a bit. However, from the top, it’s a twisting 1km descent and a flat 9km run in to the finish line, and that means there’s a 50%-50% chance that a peloton or a strong team effort chases down a small breakaway to set up a final bunch sprint, or, in alternative, a group of escapees makes it to the end.

The Bergen World Championships have been contested against a spectacular backdrop (Photo: Eivind Senneset / Bergen Kommune)

Moreover, thickening the plot, Bergen’s recognizably instable weather may show up to accentuate the drama, and insert further unpredictability on a bumpy race where the tactical nous will certainly come to the fore. As a consequence, the list of contenders for the rainbow jersey is long and diverse, and that’s precisely the aspect this article hopes to cast a light on.

Surveying the startlist for the event, a few names jump out right away, but we aimed to go deeper than just ordering a limited number of candidates to victory and, instead, opted to divide the contestants in five tiers. At the top of the pyramid, we’ll have our five and four “stars” candidates, the men that dominate the betting odds entering the competition, and we’ll slowly extend the scope until the unveil of the group of “one star” dark horses at the base. Or you can just consider the rest of the field as the bottom level, since we would be truly shocked if anyone not mentioned claims victory at the race’s end or rises to the podium.

✮✮✮✮ (5 stars)

Peter Sagan (Slovakia)

The two-time defending Champion is the odds-on favourite again and, as such, deserves a class of his own.

Nevertheless, if the Slovak wants to make history by becoming the first to collect three rainbow jerseys in a row, and join Alfredo Binda, Rik Van Steenbergen, Eddy Merckx and Oscar Freire on the selected group of three-time World Champions, he’ll have to be smart and don’t fall prey to the distractions rival nations will throw at him.

Slovakia’s Peter Sagan hopes to repeat the triumphs of 2015 (pictured above) and 2016 (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

While Slovakia will bring a six-men unit this time, it’s doubtful Sagan will have help when the final and potentially decisive climb arrives, so he might as well just go on the offense, like he did in Richmond 2015, or pick his poison careful when the group breaks apart. On good form over the last few weeks, responding to the ejection from the Tour de France with stage victories at the Tour of Poland and BinckBank Tour before a perfect last rehersal at the GP de Québec, Sagan’s preparation has been hampered by an illness yet he’s expected to be fully fit for battle.

✮✮✮ (4 stars)

Matteo Trentin (Italy), Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland), Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium), Michael Matthews (Australia)

The Olympic Champion Greg van Avermaet may have been pipped by Sagan in Québec just two weeks ago, but he’s had success in direct confrontations with the Slovak before and will certainly tap on those memories when time arrives. Outstanding last spring, when he bagged the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgen and the Paris-Roubaix, the Belgium has no wins to his name since June and has looked a few notches below his best, yet the backing of an impressive team and a stellar résumé in one-day races over the last two years ensure he’s a major candidate.

Greg van Avermaet will try to pair the World title with his Olympic gold medal from Rio 2016.

Michal Kwiatkowski, the 2014 World Champion following a surprising attack at the foot of the last climb in Ponferrada, is as versatile as they come and a legitimate danger in whatever scenario plays out for his ability to raid uphill, downhill or on flat terrain. Brilliant throughout the season, from the triumphs at the Strade Bianchi and Milan-San Remo in March, to the podiums at the Ardennes classics or his shifts leading the pack up the mountains of the Tour de France, the Pole is another opponent that owns real estate inside Sagan’s head due to their shared history (2016 Harelbeke; 2017 Milan-San Remo).

A runner-up two years ago, Michael Matthews’ candidacy receives a boost for no longer having to share leadership duties with Simon Gerrans, which proved problematic in years past. Furthermore, the Aussie made great strides this season after a move to Team Sunweb, conquering the green jersey at the Tour de France, a tremendous confidence builder, and placing fourth at the Liège-Bastogne-Liège to showcase just how much he’s improved in steep, short climbs. The 26-year-old may not in Sagan’s or Kwiatkowski’s level if asked  to react quickly to attacks uphill, but he should be able to hang around to capitalize on a chaotic finish.

After picking up silver in Richmond 2015, Michael Matthews shouldn’t settle for less than victory in Bergen (Fotoreporter Sirotti)

The central character on the World Tour over the last month, Matteo Trentin arrives in Norway on a roll after pilling up wins in several terrains. For long overshadowed at Quick-Step Floors and asked to labour for others to shine, this might be the opportunity of a lifetime for the 28-year-old. While Italy isn’t short on options, and hence unlikely to present a united front behind Trentin, he’s earned the right to not defer to others and, in a final sprint, few may be able to outpace him. Conspiring against the Italian’s chances, though, is the fact that he’s never had these many eyeballs pointed at him whilst facing such an illustrious field of rivals, and the lack of a previous impact victory, or even podium appearance, at a major one-day race resembling the mix of distance and hilly difficulties he’ll encounter in Bergen.

✮✮ (3 stars)

Fernando Gavíria (Colombia), Julian Alaphilippe (France), Alexander Kristoff (Norway), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway), Philippe Gilbert (Belgium)

Coming in fresher than any of his rivals after a three month convalescence from a knee injury, Julian Alaphilippe’s lean shoulders will be asked to sustain the hopes of a cycling nation who’s about to reach two decades without an elite men’s road title. Leaving the best French sprinters (Bouhanni, Démare, Coquard) at home was an irrefutable sign of confidence on the 25-year-old, but we can’t help to think it may be too early. Alaphilippe is hugely talented, can climb and sprint, and is a good bet to win this race in the future, yet his performance at the Vuelta doesn’t exactly instil the trust that he can beat the likes of Matthews, Sagan or Kwiatkowski in Bergen.

Colombia’s Fernando Gavíria is, arguably, the fastest man in the peloton that will line up Sunday morning and, therefore, the man to beat in a bunch finale, however we’re not sure he has what it will take to cling to the front if the race is seriously attacked late, no matter the strength of the Colombian roster around him. Truth be told, his teammates are mostly climbers, not often urged to power in frantic pursuit of a breakaway, thus someone would need to give a helping hand others would be foolish to offer. Additionally, Gavíria didn’t exactly light up the recent Tour of Britain, and hasn’t raced a lot since May, when he dominated the sprints at the Giro.

Fernando Gaviria is Colombia’s main threat to take victory in Bergen (Foto: Federación Colombiana de Ciclismo)

The 23-year-old’s physical condition is another question mark going in and, since there will be years to come when the route will suit him better, don’t deposit too many chips on his number. Still, we can’t rule him out either.

Much like his compatriot and rival Greg van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert’s peak condition was observed earlier in the season. Victorious at the Tour de Flanders and Amstel Gold Race in April, when he looked rejuvenated following his departure from BMC, the former World Champion (2012) faded as the season went on to pass incognito through the recent Tour of Britain. Nevertheless, Gilbert is savvy and experienced, perfectly aware of what’s necessary to navigate a race like this, and a four-time Monument winner. You simply can’t discount him, much less when he’ll enjoy the freedom to go on his own.

The 2012 World Champion, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, is still ranked among the favourites (Bettini Photo)

Crowned European Champion just a month ago, Alexander Kristoff would have been hailed as an all-out favourite on home soil if not for a 2017 season that has unfolded several rungs below his standards. Wins have been hard to come by for the 30-year-old, especially at the World Tour level (just two), and a plethora of podiums and top ten finishes don’t conceal the fact that he’s been on the losing end of many clashes with the main opponents he’ll face in Bergen. Heck, in his current form, we’re not even sure he would crack a 40-men leading group at the top of Salmon Hill on the last lap… Kristoff may transcend himself at the sight of a throng of Norwegian fans and flags, but we won’t count on it, not even if the race is decided on a mass sprint.

On the contrary, the other Norwegian hope, Edvald Boasson Hagen, should be monitored closely by the other favourites. The 30-year-old impressed at the Tour of Britain earlier this month, and the familiar surroundings may be exactly what he needs to finally get over the hump and secure a major triumph for his career. After all, this season, Boasson Hagen has already snatched victories on the overall classifications of the Tour de Fjords and Tour of Norway, and understanding how to thrive at home is always important, regardless of the disparity between those races and the Worlds. In addition, let’s hope taking part in last Wednesday’s individual time trial didn’t emptied his tank.

Edvald Boasson Hagen is the reigning Norwegian Champion and one of the hosts’ best riders (Foto: Fredrik Varfjell / NTB scanpix)

(2 stars)

Elia Viviani (Italy), Diego Ulissi (Italy), Sonny Colbrelli (Italy), Oliver Naesen (Belgium), Tim Wellens (Belgium), Tony Gallopin (France), Michael Albasini (Switzerland), Rui Costa (Portugal), Daniel Martin (Ireland)

This “two stars” echelon is a heterogeneous group that agglutinates backup options and leaders from smaller nations, with the Italian trio, in particular, sticking out as wildcards to keep an eye on.

Sprinter Elia Viviani racked up two important World Tour wins recently (Bretagne Classic and Hamburg Cyclassics) and held his own at the Milan-San Remo earlier this season, yet help may be hard to come by if he struggles on one of the ascents. Moreover, in a crowded finish, compatriot Sonny Colbrelli, who has toppled Viviani twice in the last weeks, could overrule his challenge, while Diego Ulissi is an adaptable option Italy will save in the back pocket to play judiciously. A two-time World Champion in the junior ranks, the 28-year-old, who won the GP de Montreal two weeks ago, is a respectable finisher in small groups, however you won’t find many relevant appearances in races with this mileage on his career to date.

Italy’s Elia Viviani (left) was narrowly beaten at the European Championships road race last month (Bettini Photo)

Belgium’s Tim Wellens is aggressive, fearless, unpredictable and a lock to emerge on a breakaway sometime during the race, but equally unlikely to be given much leeway by the peloton or conserve enough energy to follow the best when the race breaks loose. Moreover, he offers few guarantees in terms of final acceleration, which limits his upside. Oliver Naesen, the well-rounded Belgian Champion, is another rider capable of agitating the race, but he’ll probably be asked to save his energy for the benefit of others.

Meanwhile, Tony Gallopin is a decent backup option for France in case something happens to Alaphilippe, and he proved it by being right in the thick of action on the Canadian World Tour events, Tour of Wallonie and Clásica San Sebastian since the end of July. Flying under the radar can only improve his odds of a good result in Bergen.

Rui Costa, the surprising 2013 World Champion, has been snakebitten, falling on the wrong side of many close calls this season – including three second places at the Giro –, yet his luck shouldn’t turn in Bergen. A smart rider who relies on instinct to sniff the right break, he can finish but will have a hard time trying to discard or outsprint any of the main contenders. As for Ireland’s Daniel Martin, a proven hilly classics expert, it’s expected he will play a key role in blasting the race open on the final ascent, but that won’t make for the missing rolling skills to sustain, by himself, a small advantage in the final 9kms.

Portugal’s Rui Costa (right) sprints to victory at the 2013 World Championships.

Always a force to be reckoned with at the Ardennes Classics, especially the Flèche Wallone, 36-year-old Swiss Michael Albasini has never triumphed at a meaningful one-day race, become a National Champion or finished better than 17th (2012) at the Worlds. It’s implausible it will happen this time.

(1 star)

Ben Swift (Great Britain), Adam Blythe (Great Britan), José Joaquim Rojas (Spain), Nikias Arndt (Germany), Dylan Theuns (Belgium), Jasper Stuvyen (Belgium), Lars Boom (Netherlands), Danny van Poppel (Netherlands), Jean-Pierre Drucker (Luxembourg), Daryl Impey (South Africa), Sergio Henao (Colombia), Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), Magnus Cort Nielsen (Denmark), Petr Vakoc (Czech Republic)

It’s symptomatic that, in the absence of Alejandro Valverde, the first and only Spaniard barely slides into the last tier. And even that may be too kind for José Joaquim Rojas, a low-end sprinter with ten career victories and a single World Tour success recorded over the last five seasons.

Since Mark Cavendish was left at home for lack of form, Ben Swift and Adam Blythe carry Great Britain’s dim ambitions. The former claimed two podiums at the Milan-San Remo (2014, 2015), but has mostly been inconspicuous this season, while the latter outpaced Cavendish on the National Championships yet doesn’t have a lot of experience at this level of competition.

Belgium’s Dylan Theuns would be higher up the list had this race been held one month earlier, however the form that resulted in his breakthrough performances in July and early August seemed to vanish in Canada. Meanwhile, his teammate Jasper Stuyven is a decent sprinter sadly stuck on a team with too many (better) options.

Belgian Dylan Teuns has already won in Norway this season. He took the overall victory and two stages at the Arctic Tour of Norway (ASO)

The vigorous Lars Boom popped on the radar after winning the Tour of Britain, yet his only real chance would be an implausible solo break. Still, there other ways he could impact the race, especially if a thick group makes it past the final slope. Boom could then maintain the pace in the front of the pack or shield a guy like Danny van Poppel, the Netherlands’ late call up.

Nikias Arndt is, probably, Germany’s best option after John Degenkolb pulled out, but, unless truly exceptional circumstances arise, we’re simply talking about a potential top ten position. The same logic would apply to fellow fast man such as Magnus Cort Nielsen, Daryl Impey and Jean-Pierre Drucker.

Germany’s Nikias Arndt in action at Wednesday’s ITT. He’ll also take part on the men’s elite road race (teamsunweb.com)

Sergio Henao’s explosiveness and Rigoberto Urán’s rolling power could end up being essential for Colombia, especially if Gavíria falters and they need to hatch a plan B, while Petr Vakoc is a burgeoning puncher, boasts good finishing speed and is surrounded by an interesting Czech ensemble (Roman Kreuziger, Zdenek Stybar, Jan Bárta).

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Weekend Roundup (September, 17th): Slovenia wins the 2017 EuroBasket

Welcome to our new weekly report in Wheeling a round puck: the Weekend Roundup, where we’ll provide a rundown of the events that happened in the world of sport on the two busiest days of each seven-day spam.

While this concept is still a work in progress that is sure to see a few chances over the next months, the hope is that these pieces – mostly informative, but veering into commentary at times – will deliver a sensible summary of the most important incidents and results from a selected group of sports.

Therefore, football (mostly the five major European leagues), cycling (World Tour races) and tennis (ATP and WTA Tour) will be ever present – except in the offseason, of course – and it’s probable we’ll also venture regularly into the World Cup of the major winter sports (alpine skiing, ski jumping, cross country, biathlon) when time comes.

Moreover, we’ll tackle other sports as the calendar rolls around and major competitions from the likes of Athletics, Swimming or ice hockey take the spotlight. As you’ve already guessed, in this first post basketball makes an appearance due to the end of the 2017 EuroBasket, and that’s precisely the model to follow. So, let’s jump right into the hoop(s).

Basketball: Slovenian delight in Istanbul

After 18 days of competition across Europe, the European Basketball Championships ended this Sunday at the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul, Turkey, the location selected to host the knockout rounds of a competition whose group stage span four different countries (Finland, Israel, Romania, Turkey) for the second time.

Slovenia and Serbia, two nations that were once part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, made it out of the 24-team field to contest the decisive match and, following a thrilling spectacle, the Slovenians were crowned European Champions for the first time by virtue of a 93-85 win.

Built around an explosive backcourt that featured Miami Heat’s point guard Goran Dragić, and 18-year-old wunderkind Luka Dončić (Real Madrid), the Slovenian’s high-flying offense had earned rave reviews throughout their flawless campaign (8-0 in the final tournament, 6-0 in qualifying), yet the Serbian’s were able to establish control in the first ten minutes and close the first quarter up 22-20.

However, with the nerves of a maiden Final put on the rear view, Slovenia took charge in the second inspired by a sublime Dragić – who ended the game with 35 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals – and they crafted a nine point advantage (56-47) at the half.

After the break, Serbia’s hopes were hanging by a thread as Slovenia looked to pull out, yet disaster struck with 4.44 min to go in the third when the influential Dončić hurt his left ankle. A consternated green-and-white fan section looked frozen as his prodigy was helped off the court, and the situation offered a perfect rallying call for their opponent. Led by Bogdan Bogdanović, which served as Serbia’s primary facilitator in the absence (from the tournament) of the entrancing Miloš Teodosić, the deficit shrank and, by the middle of the fourth period, the lead was changing hands in every possession.

It was right around this time that Slovenia’s captain Goran Dragić was also forced to leave with an injury, and few believed his team would still be able to pull off victory without its two best players. But, stunningly, they did, with their backup guards Jaka Blažič and Aleksej Nikolić coming up big in crunch time, shooter Klemen Prepelič icing big three pointers all night, naturalized forward Anthony Randolph stepping up in the final minutes, or center Gašper Vidmar making a huge block on a Bogdanović reserve lay-up to stunt Serbia’s chances of a late comeback.

Slovenian players exult after the final buzzer (credits: fiba.eurobasket)

A truly epic team effort to seal a sensational run by Slovenia, which swept Group A (Helsinki, Finland), dispatched Ukraine in the round of 16, fended off a Kristaps Porzingis-led Latvia in the quarters, and vanquished the defending Champions Spain in the semi-finals to surpass their previous best result at the EuroBasket: a fourth place in 2009, when they fell to Serbia in overtime on the semis. Not bad for a country of just 2.1M people.

Moreover, to cap it off, Goran Dragić was elected the tournament MVP, and he was joined by Dončić, Russia’s Alexei Shved, Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanović and Spain’s Pau Gasol on the EuroBasket All-Tournament Team. In the third place game, Spain defeated Russia (93-85) to claim bronze and provide a fitting send off for retiring captain Juan Carlos Navarro, who collected a staggering tenth international medal with the national team.

Tennis: Belgium and France qualify for Davis Cup Final

Third consecutive week without ATP Tour events, as Grand Slam action in New York was immediately followed by the last batch of Davis Cup ties highlighted, naturally, by the semi-finals of the World Group.  France and Belgium hosted Serbia and Australia, respectively, and they took full advantage of home court to book a spot on the Final, scheduled for late November in France.

In Lille, the French faced a Serbian team missing Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki, but they couldn’t avoid an early scare when Lucas Pouille succumbed to Dušan Lajović in four sets at the opener. However, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made quick work of rookie Laslo Đere to level on Friday, and then two-time Grand Slam Champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicholas Mahut won in doubles to set France on the right path.

Tsonga completed the job by ousting Lajovic on Sunday, laying waste to the final rubber, and thus sending the team captained by Yannick Noah to a third final in seven years (2010, 2014). With no Novak Djokovic (2010), Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka (2014) standing on their way, France has no excuses this time. They should end their 16-year drought in a couple of months.

France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga jubilates after winning the Davis Cup semi final against Serbia (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Meanwhile, in Brussels, pundits expected a cracking matchup and it delivered. Belgium’s No.1, David Goffin, dropped the first set against John Millman but rebounded quickly to pull the hosts in front, while Nick Kyrgios rallied back from 2-1 down to brush past Steve Darcis in five sets and level at 1-1.

On Saturday, Australia’s pair (John Peers/Jordan Thompson) captured victory in commanding fashion, yet Belgium was able to respond with their backs to the wall 24 hours later. The resolute Goffin slowed down Kyrgios to triumph in four, and then Darcis snatched the vital third point in a straight sets victory over Jordan Thompson. Elation in Brussels. Belgium will make a short trip south of the border to contest a second Davis Cup Final in three years after capitulating at home to Andy Murray’s Great Britain back in 2015. Maybe they’re reserved better luck as huge underdogs on the road.

The plucky Belgians are back in the Davis Cup Final (Emmanuel Dunand /AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

In the World Group playoffs, Canada (without Milos Raonic), Croatia, Germany (missing  the Zverev brothers and Philipp Kohlschreiber) and Switzerland (no Wawrinka or Federer) were able to guarantee another year amongst the elite, while Russia was upset by Hungary and the 2012 and 2013 Champions Czech Republic fell to the Netherlands. Without Del Potro, Argentina lost at Kazakhstan to become just the third nation to be relegated the year after winning the title, while the Japan-Brazil (3-1) tie was only concluded on Monday after rain and an incoming typhoon cancelled play in Osaka on the weekend.

On the WTA Tour, the aftermath of the US Open brought a week imbued with two small, 125k international tournaments (Tokyo and Québec City) boasting rather unremarkable draws. Consequently, it wasn’t exactly a major surprise that the Japan Women’s Open Final pitted two qualifiers, World No. 171 Miyu Kato and Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas (No.100), nor that the slightly more experienced competitor eventually prevailed.

Diyas, a finalist on the same tournament back in 2014 (loss to Sam Stosur), conjured better memories this time and triumphed by 6-2, 7-5 to hold aloft her first WTA Tour trophy. Incidentally, despite a stronger field, similar scenes were observed in Canada, where Belgium’s Alison van Uytvanck defeated Hungary’s Tímea Babos in three sets (5-7, 6-4, 6-1) to conquer the 25th Tournoi de Québec and her first title at this level.

Zarina Diyas, of Kazakhstan, kisses the trophy of the Japan Women’s Open

Cycling: Irrepressible Matteo Trentin keeps rolling

With no World tour races on the calendar ahead of the World Championships, the highest ranked competition of the weekend was the Primus Classic (1.HC), also known as the GP Impanis-Van Petegem. A Belgium event won by the likes of Fernando Gavíria, Andre Greipel or Greg van Avermaet in recent seasons, this year’s edition reaffirmed the credentials of one of the most in-form riders on the tour.

Fresh off four stage wins in Spain, Quick-Step Floors’ Matteo Trentin flexed his muscles once again to triumph in Boortmeerbeek, Flanders, on Saturday. Part of a 15-men group sitting in front of the peloton late, the 28-year-old disregarded a highly-advantageous situation for his team – numbers in the break and sprinter Gaviria lined up to take victory – when he took off with 6.5 km to go carrying just BMC’s Jean-Pierre Drucker on his trail. A risky move bound to upset his directors had it gone wrong, but one the Italian would follow up perfectly when he eschewed his partner-in-crime with a couple of kilometres to go and rode solo to raise his arms at the finish line.

Victory for Matteo Trentin in Belgium

With the World Championships road race one week away, that was a mightily impressive display from the man that should lead a strong Italian contingent looking for a first title since 2008.

This weekend also concluded the 2017 Tour of Denmark with a fourth consecutive overall triumph for a local boy. About to complete his first World Tour season, 21-year-old Mads Pedersen (Trek Segafredo), the Danish National Champion, held off two-time winner (2014, 2016) Michael Valgren (Astana Pro Team) to secure his best career win to date in front of his compatriots. Pedersen had obtained the lead after winning stage 3, edging Valgren at the finish, and he administered his meagre advantage during Friday’s ITT and Saturday’s last stage, when he finished second to Max Walscheid (Team Sunweb) to clinch victory in the general classification.

On Sunday, the UCI World Championships kicked off in Bergen with the team time trial competition. Since the rebirth of the event, in 2012, only five teams (BMC, Quick Step, Orica-Scott, Sky and Movistar) had managed to medal, yet the day would belong to Team Sunweb, still regarded as an outsider despite boasting, probably, the best time trail specialist in the World.

Team Sunweb won the team time trial title at the start of the World Championships in Bergen (NTB Scanpix/Cornelius Poppe via REUTERS)

With Tom Dumoulin and fellow Dutch Wilco Kelderman powering the six-men unit, the German outfit upended pre-race favourites BMC, who repeated the second place of 2016, and the star-studded Team Sky, whose lineup contained Chris Froome and former World Champions Vasil Kyrienka (ITT, 2015) and Michal Kwiatkowski (road race, 2014). Quick-Step Floors, who has won a record three times, including in 2016, finished fourth, 35 seconds off Team Sunweb’s pace.

Football: Shorthanded Real Madrid pulls through at San Sebastián

La Liga

Traditionally, Real Sociedad’s Anoeta is one of the toughest grounds in Spain, and Real Madrid didn’t make their task any easier by dropping points unexpectedly in the previous two matchdays and lining up without Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema (all injured) and Cristiano Ronaldo (suspended). Zidane’s team couldn’t afford to give Barça more leeway at the top of the table, and they didn’t, scrapping a 3-1 victory against a team that was three of three up to this game.

One day earlier, at Getafe, FC Barcelona suffered to keep their 100% win record intact and the four-point gap on the rivals. The hosts scored first, on a screamer from Shibasaki – the first goal allowed by the Catalans on the league – but substitutes Denis Suárez and the much-scorned Paulinho turned the game around. The bad news would came later, when it was announced their 105M addiction Ousmane Dembélé had been ruled out for a few months with a thigh injury.

Paulinho’s first goal with FC Barcelona allowed the Catalans to grab the three points at Getafe (Denis Doyle/GettyImages)

Elsewhere, Atlético Madrid opened their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, with a narrow 1-0 victory over last place Málaga. Antoine Griezmann scored the game’s lone goal and the “Colchoneros” moved up the table to fourth, tied with their city rivals, while Sevilla passed at Girona with a goal from Colombian forward Luis Muriel and rose to second, with 10 pts. At the bottom, Málaga is still stuck on neutral, as is Alavés, still goalless on the season and comprehensively beaten at home by Villareal (0-3) this week.

English Premier League

Heading into round 5, Manchester United and Manchester City shared the Premier League lead with 10 pts, and things didn’t change in the weekend after both sides picked up easy wins and watched as their competitors left points on the board.

On Saturday, Manchester City cruised to another rout, pumping 6 goals at Watford, who had entered the round undefeated (2W, 2D). Kun Agüero tallied three times on the afternoon to  push the Citizens goal scoring record over the last seven days to a staggering 15-0, while their rivals responded by dispatching the struggling Everton (1 win in five matches) by 4-0. It wasn’t as easy as it looks though, since Old Trafford was only allowed a sigh of relief when Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored the second goal in the 83th minute.

Argentine striker Sergio Agüero was on top form in Man City’s visit to Watford (AFP Photo/Ben STANSALL)

Chelsea continues in pursue of the front duo, but they lost ground after drawing 0-0 against Arsenal. Liverpool dropped points at home once again, this time to Burnley (1-1), while Tottenham couldn’t break past Swansea’s wall and have yet to win at Wembley for the Premier League. It stands to reason their mid-week triumph over Dortmund didn’t broke the curse, and that’s good news for a team like Newcastle, who won for a third consecutive week after dropping the first two matches of the campaign, and leaped to fourth.

At the bottom, Crystal Palace’s sacking of Frank de Boer and subsequent appointment of Roy Hodgson didn’t pay immediate dividends, as the former England manager oversaw a 0-1 defeat to Southampton that saw the South Londoners write some history…

And the nightmare may not end soon since their next three opponents are Man City (a), Man Utd (a), and Chelsea (h)…

Serie A

Inter, Juve and Napoli had collected three points in every game played and they kept the pace in round four. The Nerazzurri found two late goals at Crotone to snatch victory, Paulo Dybala bagged a hat trick to steer Juventus on their visit to Sassuolo and now counts eight goals in four matches, and Napoli schooled newly-promoted Benevento (0 pts, last place) at the San Paolo (6-0).

Ciro Immobile’s brace helped Lazio came out victorious at Genoa (2-3), keeping the capital side two points off the top, while AC Milan bounced back from last week’s loss with the Laziale to climb to fifth, with 9 pts, after overcoming Udinese (2-1)

Bundesliga

After being surprised on the Europa League mid-week, Hoffenheim couldn’t beat Hertha Berlin at home on Sunday, and were thus dumped out of the front carriage. Hannover and Dortmund, who routed Cologne (5-0) and have yet to concede a goal, are now the duo ahead, with ten points each, while Bayern Munich is right behind.

The Bavarians calmed their fans with a cool 4-0 home win over Mainz courtesy of their star forwards. Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski (2) were on target, and the five-time defending Champions now accumulate nine points, the same as Schalke 04, who triumphed at Werder Bremen.

Thomas Muller (#25) and Robert Lewandowski (#9) celebrate one of the goals scored against Mainz on Saturday (Andreas Gebert/dpa)

Last year’s runners-up RB Leipzig were stifled by Borussia Mönchengladbach (2-2), while Bayer Leverkusen finally picked up a win (4-0, Freiburg) to leave the relegation zone.

Ligue 1

Monaco hosted Strasbourg after the humbling 0-4 defeat in Nice last week, and they did what was asked, with Falcao notching twice in their 3-0 victory to keep them three points off PSG. The Colombian now has 9 goals in 6 games to top the Golden Shoe race, and distanced himself from Edison Cavani, who was held off the scoresheet as the Parisians eventually broke Lyon’s opposition late. It took own goals by defenders Marcelo and Jérémy Morel, but PSG is now a perfect six of six.

Saint-Etiénne, winners 1-0 at Dijon, are in third place with 13 pts, followed by Bordeux, Lyon and Marseille, while Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille lost in stoppage time at Guingamp, and haven’t taken three points since the opening fixture. They have 5 pts amassed in six matches, and are just one above the red line.

Moment of the weekend

A couple of outstanding football goals around the world this week, but we’ll grant the stage on this first Weekend Roundup to another debut.

After 50 years at the Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid revealed their new home and Antoine Griezmann was the man on duty, directing home the ball after an excellence play down the right flank by Angel Correa. A goal worth three points for Diego Simeone’s team, and just another reason to celebrate on a special night.

 

European Tour of Sports – Finland

The Basics

Population: 5.5 M

Area: 338 424 km2

Capital: Helsinki

Summer Olympic Medals: 303 (101 G – 85 S – 117 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 161 (42 G – 62 S – 57 B)

Popular Sports and History

Host of the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland is a nation with a proud and decorated sports history despite its scant population. Having gathered 464 Olympic medals – 16th best all-time –, this vast Northern European country sits at the very top of the rankings in terms of medals and gold medals won per capita, edging neighbours Sweden and Hungary.

For geographic reasons an innate world power in many winter activities, Suomi’s No.1 sport in terms of spectators is ice hockey, where the Finns usually punch well above their weight to regularly upset much bigger luminaries such as Canada, Russia and the USA. Hence, two World championship titles (1995, 2011) and six Olympic medals – including silver in 1988 and 2006 – are part of the men’s national team trophy cabinet in large part due to the efforts of some of the game’s all-time greats, including defensemen Kimmo Timonen and Teppo Numinen, five-time Stanley Cup Champion Jari Kurri, and the legendary Teemu Selänne, the Olympic record holder for most participations (6) and most points (43) in ice hockey. On the women’s side, Finland only lags behind the titanic American and Canadian teams, having finished third or fourth in every World Championships, and attained two Olympic bronze medals (1998, 2010).

Finland was crowned ice hockey World Champion for the second time in 2011

Furthermore, Finland’s top flight, the SM-liiga, is one of the strongest hockey leagues in Europe, with Tappara Tampere and TPS (Turun Palloseura) Turku collecting 10 titles each since 1975, when professionalism arrived. In total, Tappara has conquered a record 17 National Championships, usurping city rivals Ilves, who count 16 (the last in 1985), by capturing the last two titles (2016, 2017). Seven-time Champions Kärpät Oulu and Jokerit Helsinki, who celebrated six times before opting to join the pan-European Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in 2014, are also historical clubs of note.

Besting ice hockey in registered players and as a popular pastime, football enjoys significant popularity in Finland even if the country is far from a major international player. For instance, the men’s national team has never qualified for a finals tournament of the World Cup or European Championships, although it took part in four Olympic tournaments, whilst the women’s squad peaked by reaching the semi-finals of the 2005 European Championships exactly four years before hosting the competition. Nevertheless, names like former Liverpool FC captain Sami Hyypiä (105 caps) and Jari Litmanen, a UEFA Champions League winner with Ajax in 1994-95 who amassed a record  137 caps and 32 goals for the national team, achieved international recognition.

Jari Litmanen, the greatest Finnish footballer of all-time

At the club level, Finland’s football royalty is Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi, or HJK Helsinki, which counts 27 men’s national championships and 22 women’s titles, both records, and holds the distinction as the only Finnish club to ever qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage, in 1998.

Not as ubiquitous, yet perhaps more relevant are Finland’s exceptional credentials in Athletics, corroborated on the two World Championships they organized in 1983 and 2005 and a stack of honours. In this sense, many of the 48 golds and 114 total medals hoarded by the sport at the Olympics date back to the beginning of the XX century, when Hannes Kolehmainen conquered three titles in 1912 to emerge as the original “Flying Finn” and dawn a period of excellence for Finnish athletics, especially in medium and long-distance running, that extended until World War II.

The likes of Paavo Nurmi, a nine-time Olympic gold medallist between 1920 and 1928 who set 22 world records on his career, Ville Ritola, who amassed six medals in Paris 1924, and Lasse Virén, who stormed to victory in the 5000m and 10.000m races of the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, left an indelible mark in history to transform into icons for the Finnish people. A similar fate destined to the nation’s finest in javelin throw, a wildly popular event where Finland has enjoyed steady success for more than 100 years, from the eight Olympic gold medals and five world championships to the dozens of world records set by their men and women.

Lasse Virén, the last of the “Flying Finns”, captured moments after winning the 5000m at the 1976 Olympic Games

Trending up, but still a ways to go to reach similar notoriety, Finnish basketball’s profile has increased significantly over the last decade, highlighted by an unexpected debut appearance at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, and four consecutive EuroBasket participations since 2011. Finland ranked sixth on home soil in 1967, and that mark may soon be surpassed as more youngsters take on the sport and follow the footsteps of Hanno Möttölä, the first and most notable Finnish man to play in the NBA (2000-2002). Meanwhile, in volleyball, the Finnish national team is also enjoying a renaissance of sorts, returning to the World Championships in 2014 – after a 32-year absence – to place ninth, their best result ever.

Nevertheless, the country’s third team sport in terms of registered players is still floorball. A powerhouse only rivalled by Sweden, Finland’s national team has won the World Championships three times (2008, 2010 and 2016) and placed on the podium in every occasion.

The Finnish floorball team is one of the best in the world

Incidentally, this is a situation resembling what happens in another offshoot of hockey, bandy, where the Finns snatched the World title in 2004 and perennially butt heads with Russia and Sweden for the top-three positions.

Known as the “land of the thousand lakes”, no sport makes better use of Finland’s breath-taking scenery than rally driving. Rally Finland is one of the most cherished events in the World Rally Championship calendar, and Finnish drivers have dominated the overall competition for large stretches over the last decades. Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen, both four-time winners of the World Rally Championship, are the main reason Finland has celebrated a total of 14 times, tied with France for the most titles, while Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen, the three Finnish Formula One World Driver’s champions, have also elevated the white and blue, Nordic-crossed flag in another of motorsports queen disciplines.

Mika Häkkinen, Formula 1 World Champion in 1998 and 1999

Since 1908, when Finland first sent a delegation to the Summer Olympic Games, the country has never failed to medal and, consequently, many sports have scored a healthy dose of silverware.

Wrestling, with 83 OIympic medals (26 golds), has picked up, by far, the 2nd largest share (Athletics), but a few others have cracked the two digits, including canoeing, shooting, sailing, boxing – which accounted for the only medal at Rio de Janeiro (Mira Potkonen) – and gymnastics, whose tally of 25 owes much to Hall of Famer Heikki Savoilainen. Medalling, at least, once in five consecutive Olympics (1928 to 1952), Savoilainen bagged the last of his nine awards on the team all-around event at Helsinki 1952 to become the oldest gymnastics medallist at the age of 44.

Lacking any international recognition whatsoever, but with a firm spot in the heart of many Finns, Pesäpallo, a bat-and-ball activity with obvious similarities to baseball, is often referred as the national sport of Finland. Also played in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Japan and Canada, Pesäpallo was a demonstration sport at the 1952 Olympic Games.

In the Winter Olympics, Finland’s debut was in 1924 and they’ve also never returned home empty-handed. As the most successful nation in ski jumping history, Finland’s row of legends is headlined by Janne Ahonen, who never captured Olympic gold despite winning five World Championship golds, two overall World Cups (2004, 2005), and a record five Four Hills Tournaments, and Matti Nykänen, the only ski jumper in history to emerge victorious at all five of the sport’s major events. Besides three gold medals at the Winter Olympics, he secured the Ski Jumping World Championships, the Ski Flying World Championships, four World Cup titles and two Four Hills Tournaments.

Matti Nykänen, probably the greatest ski jumper ever, competing at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary

Moreover, in cross-country skiing, Finland’s 76 Olympic medals only trail Norway’s total, and they can thank the brilliance of multiple Olympic, World Championships or World Cup Champions such as Veli Saarinen (1926-1934), Veikko Hakulinen (1952-60), Marjo Matikainen-Kallström (1984-89) and Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi (1982-1993) for that. As a combination of cross-country skiing and ski jumping, Finland has also produced world class athletes in nordic combined, with Olympic Champions Heikki Hasu, Eero Mäntyranta and Samppa Lajunen preceding Hannu Manninen, World Cup winner four consecutive times from 2003 to 2007.

In alpine skiing and biathlon, the country’s accomplishments straggle way behind their neighbours, yet it’s still worth mentioning that alpine skiers Kalle Palander and Tanja Poutiainen combined to take four discipline World Cup titles in the first decade of this century, while biathlon’s Heikki Ikola and Juhani Suutarinen claimed a total of seven World Championships titles in the 1970s. Furthermore, Finland has also amassed many international honours in figure skating and speed skating, even if they haven’t secured an Olympic medal in the latter since 1968.

Star Athletes

Tero Pitkämäki (Athletics)

The 34-year-old Pitkämäki has been Finland’s leading javelin thrower over the last decade and a half, collecting several medals in international meetings in the process. A World Champion in 2007, the native of Ilmajoki enjoyed his best seasons from 2005 to 2007, the three years in which he tossed the spear over 90m, however he’s maintained a high level of performance since then. For instance, Pitkämäki threw a world-leading mark of 89.03m in 2013, which is just 2.5m short of his career-best (91.53m) set in 2005 and still the tenth best mark of all-time.

Finnish javelin thrower Tero Pitkämäki prepares for another attempt at the 2011 World Athletics Championships

Bronze medallist at the 2008 Olympic Games, Tero Pitkämäki also ascended to the podium in three European Championships (2006, 2010, 2014) and, most recently, at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships, results that merited his last two selections as the Finnish Sports Personality of the Year (he first received the award in 2007). Closing in on the end of his illustrious career, Pitkämäki probably won’t realize the dream of becoming an Olympic Champion, but he’s done more than enough to guarantee a spot on the pantheon of Finland’s greatest javelin throwers.

Kaisa Mäkäräinen (Biathlon)

A cross country skier growing up, Mäkäräinen picked up the rifle for the first time at age twenty and it wouldn’t be long before she cracked the Finnish biathlon national team. Progressing steadily up the ranks from 2004 to 2010, she finally broke out in the 2010-11 season, taking gold in the 10km pursuit and silver in the 7.5km sprint of the 2011 World Championships, and, a few weeks later, securing the triumphs in the overall classification and pursuit discipline of the World Cup circuit.

Those achievements warranted the 2011 Finnish Sports Personality of the Year award, and Mäkäräinen has since grown into one of the biathlon’s most reliable competitors, collecting four more discipline titles, divided by the individual (2015), sprint (2014) and pursuit (2014, 2015) classifications, and locking down a second overall title in 2014.

Finland’s biathlon star Kaisa Mäkäräinen in action during a World Cup race

With 6 medals obtained at World Championships, 21 individual victories in World Cup races and 70 podiums, what’s missing from her résumé is Olympic success. In two previous participations (2010, 2014), the 34-year-old’s best result is the sixth place on the Mass start in 2014, therefore she will arrive in Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Olympics hungry to take advantage of what promises to be her swan song.

Kimi Räikkönen (Formula One Racing)

Showing signs of prodigious driving talent from early on, Kimi Räikkönen entered the Formula One in 2001, at age 22, through the door of the modest Sauber-Petronas scuderia. A single season would be enough to convince the higher-profile McLaren Mercedes to take a chance on him, and Räikkönen soon began fighting for victories, winning his first race in Malaysia in 2003, and finishing as the runner up in the overall classification in 2003 and 2005.

Kimi Raikkonen holds aloft the trophy destined to the Formula One Driver’s World Champion in 2007

Nonetheless, annoyed by the Mclaren cars’ unreliability, the Finn accepted the invitation from the emblematic Ferrari before the 2007 season, and he promptly secured his first Formula One World Drivers’ Championship after a nail-biting season finale in Brazil.

Many though that would be the first of a few to come for the “Ice Man”, but the Espoo-native never reached the same highs again, concluding third in the overall classification in 2008 and 2012. In fact, the latter performance came at the wheel of a Lotus on the year of his return to the Formula One after an unremarkable two-year stint in the World Rally Championship (2010 and 2011) and a short detour into NASCAR racing.

Back at Ferrari since 2014, the 37-year-old has amassed, to date, 20 race victories, 88 podiums and 17 pole positions on the Formula One. A solid career indeed, but short of what his talent demanded.

Other Athletes: Petteri Koponen (Basketball), Antti Ruuskanen (Athletics), Valtteri Bottas (Formula One Racing), Mira Potkonen (Boxing), Enni Rukajärvi (Snowboard), Iivo Niskanen, Matti Heikkinen, Kerttu Niskanen, Krista Pärmäkoski, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (Cross-country skiing), Mikko Koivu, Tuukka Rask, Noora Räty (ice hockey), Tuuli Petäjä-Sirén (Sailing), Satu Mäkelä-Nummela (Shooting), Minna Kauppi (Orienteering), Roman Eremenko (Football)

Venues

The most iconic sports location in Finland is, undoubtedly, the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, the central venue for the 1952 Summer Olympics and many other international events hosted by the country, including the 1957 Bandy World Championships, the 1983 and 2005 Athletics World Championships, three European Athletics Championships (1971, 1994, 2012), the 2009 UEFA Women’s European Championships Final, and plenty of concerts.

Opened in 1938 with his distinctive contiguous tower, the stadium welcomed 70 000 during the Olympic Games, but his capacity has significantly decreased with the successive renovations, the last one scheduled to end in 2019, when the currently closed stadium will reopen with 36 000 seats, covered stands, a new track and fresh grass field.

A panorama of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, currently closed for renovation.

In the meantime, the Finnish men’s football team, the main tenant, sometimes utilizes the adjacent Telia 5G –areena, or Sonera Stadium, inaugurated in 2000 with a capacity for 10 770 spectators. Host of the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Championship Final, the Sonera Stadium’s artificial turf is usually operated by Helsinki’s football clubs HJK and HIFK. Also welcoming the national team in occasion, the Ratina Stadion is Tampere’s main stadium since 1965, a multi-purpose facility that seats 16 800 in sports events, including regular motorcycle speedway competitions.

Conversely, the Paavo Nurmi Stadium, named after the athletics’ legend, is, essentially, a track and field venue, bringing some of the sports’ best to the city of Turku for the Paavo Nurmi Games, a renowned annual meet where many world records have been set. Consequently, Turku’s clubs, FC Inter and Turun Palloseura (TPS), play in the Veritas Stadium, with capacity for 9 372 fans.

Meanwhile, the Lahti Stadium, which holds 14 500, is not only a football venue for FC Lahti, but also doubles, in the winter, as the setting for many international cross-country and biathlon competitions. The diverse FIS World Cups make regular stops in Lahti, and three FIS Biathlon World Championships (1981, 1991 and 2000) were held here, as well as three FIS Nordic Ski World Championships (1989, 2001 and 2017). In this case, the stadium is complemented with the nearby Salpausselkä ski jumping venue, which accommodates up to 60 000.

Lahti’s winter sports structure, including the Lahti stadium, in the background, as viewed from the ski jumping complex.

Moreover, Levi, in Finnish Lapland – deep into the Arctic circle -, hosts slalom competitions of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup, while Ruka, in Kuusamo (Northern Ostrobothnia), is a popular resort for cross country skiing, Nordic combined and ski jumping competitions on his Rukatunturi ski jumping hill, the largest in Finland.

Regarding indoor venues, Finland’s main amphitheatre is the Hartwall Arena, in Helsinki, built in 1997 for the Ice Hockey World Championships. Located next to a busy railway station, this functional, elliptical structure sits 13 349 for hockey, usually fans from local team Jokerit, and can be easily converted for basketball or entertainment shows. The Hartwall Arena was, once again, a venue for the Ice Hockey World Championships in 2012 and 2013, and also hosted games of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, the World Figure Skating Championships (1999 and 2017), the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest and group stage matches of the 2017 EuroBasket.

Inside Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena during an ice hockey match

Located in Turku, on the Southwest coast, Turkuhalli, currently Gatorade Center due to sponsorship reasons, is Finland’s second biggest indoor arena. Opened in 1990 to function as the main building for the 1991 men’s Ice Hockey World Championships, it also played a part in the 1997 and 2003 editions of the tournament. With 11 820 seats, it is the home of HC TPS (hockey), TPS (floorball) and Turun NMKY (Basketball).

Tampereen jäähalli, or Tampere Ice Stadium, is the main venue in the country’s second city, welcoming up to 7300 spectators for the games of Ilves and Tappara, of the Finnish Liiga. The first and oldest ice hockey arena in the country, this hall was erected for the 1965 Ice Hockey World Championships, and has received the competition a few more times since then, as well as European and World Championships of boxing, wrestling, judo, and karate. As for the fledging national basketball team, it calls home the Energia Areena, in Vantaa, with capacity for 3500 fans.

Finally, any inventory like this wouldn’t be complete without a mention to the gravel roads over which the cars of the World Rally Championship fly during Rally Finland. Full of jumps and blind crests, the paths around Jyväskylä, in Finnish Lakeland, make for a thrilling motorsport spectacle in spectacular scenery.

A car soars through the air during a stage of the Rally Finland

Yearly Events

If you find yourself in Finland, don’t miss the chance to catch some live sports action, especially if you’re not accustomed to low temperatures and the complementary sports disciplines.

The exciting ice hockey season runs from September to March, with playoffs until late April, and develops concurrently with floorball’s Salibandyliiga, whose final is contested at the Hartwall Arena. The bandy national championship (Bandyliiga) is scheduled from November to February, while football matches dot the calendar from April to the end of October. For motorsport fans and outdoors lovers, attending the competitive Finnish Rally Championship is a great option. It starts in late January, with the Artic Lapland Rally, and ends in late September.

For other yearly sporting events, including an abundance of various winter sports World Cup stages, peruse the list below:

Lahti FIS World Cup event, Nordic Combined

Lahti, December/January/February

Artic Lapland Rally, Rally Racing

Rovaniemi, January

Lahti FIS World Cup event, Cross country Skiing

Lahti, February

Kontiolahti FIS World Cup event, Biathlon

Kontiolahti, March

The FIS Biathlon World Cup makes a stop in Kontiolahti every March

Paavo Nurmi Games, Athletics

Turku, June

Rally Finland (WRC event), Rally Racing

Jyväskylä, Late July/early August

Helsinki City Marathon, Athletics

Helsinki, August

Helsinki Tallinna Race, Sailing

Helsinki – Tallinn (Estonia), August

Helsinki International Horse Show (FEI World Cup), Horse Jumping

Helsinki, October

Karjala Cup, Ice hockey

Helsinki, November

Levi FIS World Cup event, Alpine Skiing

Levi Ski Resort (Kittilä), November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Ski jumping

Kuusamo, November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Nordic Combined

Kuusamo, November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Cross country Skiing

Kuusamo, November

NHL playoff series digested: Pittsburgh Penguins – Nashville Predators (4-2)

And then there were two. The sixth appearance on the decisive round for the Pittsburgh Penguins, wrapping up their 50th year of existence; the maiden Stanley Cup Final for the Nashville Predators, culminating the franchise’s 18th season on a bustling explosion of sound and energy as an NHL Championship game was contested in the state of Tennessee for the first time.

Almost two months of blood, sweat and tears winding up into five consecutive affairs dominated by the home side and then, at the sixth assault, the Penguins making the best of their first match point to daze the boisterous Bridgestone Arena and lift the emblematic silver chalice on the road, as they always seem to do.

Nineteen years later, the NHL had a back-to-back Champion again: the Pittsburgh Penguins, who collected their fifth title (91’, 92’, 09’, 16’, 17’) to tie the Edmonton Oilers as the non-Original Six organization with the most Championship banners.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 2: Nashville Predators 1 @ 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 5 Nashville Predators

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 4 Nashville Predators

Game 5: Nashville Predators 0 @ 6 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 6: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Nashville Predators

 

Pittsburgh’s arena turns into Pekka Rinne’s house of horrors

The Penguins and the confines of their arena had never been kind to Pekka Rinne, who was winless in 7 career starts versus the defending Champions – including three in Pittsburgh – and accumulated pedestrian numbers (0.880 Sv%, 3.57 GAA) in the process, however few man glimpsing at those stats before the Final began would have anticipated the debacle to come. After all, the regular season and the playoffs are different animals, and the 34-year-old was in the midst of an MVP-calibre postseason punctuated by stellar statistics (0.945 Sv%, 1.70 GAA, 2 SO), which drove Nashville just four wins away from the Cup.

The bottom line, though, was that to achieve their ultimate goal, Nashville needed to steal one win in Pittsburgh and that proved impracticable with the kind of performance Rinne delivered in front of an unfamiliar, unwelcoming mass of yellow.

Jake Guentzel skates past Predators’ goaltender Pekka Rinne after scoring the game-winning-goal in Game 1 (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In three road starts, the Finnish goaltender allowed a perplexing 11 goals in just 45 shots to amass a 0.755 Sv% and a baloney 5.40 GAA, getting the hook in Games 1 and 6 and looking devoid of answers to halt the Penguins’ momentum as they pumped 3 goals in a 4:11 min span at the end of the first in Game 1, and, again, when they blitzed 3 more in a 3:28 min stretch to start the final period of Game 2.

Whilst Rinne can be absolved for plays that involved quick passing sequences or off the rush, top-shelf finishes, that still leaves us with a handful of situations he should have dealt with much better. The pucks that deflected off Mattias Ekholm’s knee (Game 1) and Vernon Fiddler’s stick (Game 2) shouldn’t have gone in, and the same applies to the opening markers for the Penguins in each Game: Evgeni Malkin’s long-distance slapshot in Game 1, Jake Guentzel’s sneaky shot in tight in Game 2, and Justin Schultz’s unscreened blueline screamer in Game 6.

Scott Wilson’s (#23) shot gets deflected by Nashville’s Vernon Fiddler (#83) before finding the back of Rinne’s net in Game 2 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

Nashville’s netminder performed much better at home and watched as his direct foil, Matt Murray, struggled similarly in adverse surroundings in Games 3 and 4 yet, contrastingly, the Penguins’ goaltender rebounded to steal the show on the return to Nashville in Game 6, closing the series with 51 saves in 51 shots faced over the last two games.

Pittsburgh’s superior offensive potency adds up

Nashville was able to muster enough offense to duck out Anaheim in the Western Conference Final despite losing Ryan Johansen mid-series however, without their top-line centre and skilled winger Kevin Fiala, they looked severely overmatched by a Penguins’ team brimming with elite scoring weapons up front.

In a series where Pittsburgh’s top six forwards (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Guentzel, Kunitz and Sheary) combined for 11 goals and 29 pts, Nashville’s remaining stars couldn’t step up, with Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and James Neal limited to one goal each, and taking a backseat to the Predators’ only multi goal scorer in the series, rookie Frederick Gaudreau (3 goals).

Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel (#81, right) and Evgeni Malkin (#71, left) react after the Penguins’ fourth goal in Game 2 (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Additionally, Nashville’s deficit of top-end finishers was further amplified on the road, where they scored just four goals in three matches, and it eventually spilled late in the series, with the Predators unable to solve Matt Murray in Games 5 and 6 to close the Final with a 13-19 goals-for deficit (8-14 at 5-on-5). In these circumstances, it wouldn’t matter that Nashville’s powerplay, their Achilles heel during the playoffs, bounced back to tally 4 times in 18 chances (22.2%) during the Final, outperforming Pittsburgh’s vaunted man-advantage (2 in 22; 9.1%).

A disheartening tale of bad breaks

No team clutches the Stanley Cup without benefitting from a dose of fortune along the way and, in this case, a litany of factors cooperated to side-track Nashville’s challenge and facilitate Pittsburgh’s job in the Final.

Take the case of the controversial disallowed goals that would have given Nashville the lead in two of their losses. PK Subban’s ice breaker in Game 1 was taken back for offside because Filip Forsberg’s skate was floating millimetres off the ice at the blue line several seconds before the puck ultimately kissed the net, while Colton Sissons’ tap-in in the second period of the crucial Game 6 was called back after the referee blew the whistle too early. Those were potential series-defining moments, and really tough breaks for a team that also saw two pucks carom into his net after ricocheting on unsuspecting defenseman.

A falling Colton Sissons (#10) pokes the puck in during the second period of Game 6, but the referee is already blowing the whistle. No Goal for Nashville. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Moreover, Nashville edged Pittsburgh by a healthy margin in most possession (174-144 SOG, 269-218 CF, 54.54 adj. CF%) and scoring chances metrics (SCF 117-103; 53.18%) but couldn’t make it count on the scoreline, especially on the road. In Game 1, the Predators controlled the play extensively (SOG 26-12 SCF 19-13, HD CF 6-2) and held the opponent to a extraordinary 37-min shot-less streak, only to see it end on a Jake Guentzel snipe that shattered their 3-goal rally, while, in Game 2, they pressed to regain the lead in the second period (16-7 CF, 7-0 SOG, 8-2 SCF) to no avail, and the Pens exploded after the intermission to snatch victory.

A blend of bad luck and ineptitude that climaxed on the perfect storm that hit Nashville in Game 6, with the aforementioned refereeing decision, a fantastic exhibition by Matt Murray, a 32-second 5-on-3 man-advantage wasted late in the third period and, then, the fortuitous bounce off the boards and the back of the net which resulted on Patric Hornqvist’s Cup clinching-goal with just 1:35 minutes to go in regulation.

Patric Hornqvist (#72, white) banks the puck off goaltender Pekka Rinne to score the Stanley Cup winning goal in the dying seconds of Game 6 (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Best players in the series

Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins)

A close call between Crosby and linemate Jake Guentzel (4G, 1A, +4, 5 EVP, 2 GWG) – who bounced back impressively from a terrible Eastern Final – but we’ll give the honour to the Penguins’ captain and eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

After amassing an ordinary 13 pts in 19 previous Stanley Cup Final appearances (2008, 2009, 2016), the native of Cole Harbour, NS, finally cleared the point per game threshold in the definitive playoff series, collecting 1 goal (in Game 4), 6 assists and a series-best +5 rating (6-1 GF) in 19:43 min of action, third highest total on the team and three minutes more than any other Penguins forward.

Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (#87) tries to fend off three Nashville players in Game 5 (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images)

Facing off the Roman Josi/Ryan Ellis defensive pair, Crosby displayed his tremendous all-around skills to stand out as one of Pittsburgh’s best players with a 47.38 adj. CF% and 50.0 SCF%, excelling close to the goal (18-8 HD CF) and raising his level of play in the last few games, topping in a Game 5 where he picked up 3 assists.

Frederick Gaudreau (Nashville Predators)

The 24-year-old rookie entered the history books as just the 2nd player to score his first 3 NHL goals in a Cup Final, and, in addiction, two of those went down as the game-winning-goals, earning Nashville their first ever victories at this prominent stage.

Mostly deployed as the fourth-line center, Gaudreau performed solidly (52.57 adj. CF%, 57.45 SCF%, 11-9 HD CF) but only enjoyed 11:16 min of TOI per game in a highly sheltered role, therefore we’ll also use the opportunity to sing praises to PK Subban and not because of his off-ice antics (*bad breath*).

Nashville center Frederick Gaudreau (#32) slides the puck into the net in Game 4 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Relishing the big lights, the magnanimous defenseman was sensational driving play (64.05 adj. CF%, 63.10 SCF%) throughout the Final, and subjugated Evgeni Malkin (37.33 adj.CF%, 28.30 SCF%) even if he failed to ignite the scoresheet (0 goals, 2 assists).

Will the Nashville Predators return to the playoffs next year?

Definitely, even if the Central congregates a bunch of teams (Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota) aspiring to win the Division and someone may be squeezed out. Not Nashville, though, and I wouldn’t wager against them reaching a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final with a roster that GM David Poile meticulously assembled through impact trades over the last couple of years.

At the off season’s onset, days after succumbing in the Final, Nashville lost a key forward in winger James Neal, whose goal scoring ability and 5M cap hit proved too enticing for the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, yet the Predators are still in excellent shape going forward with the core group guaranteed to be together for the next two seasons following the new contracts handed out to Ryan Johansen (8 years x 8 M) and Viktor Arvidsson (7 year at a 4.25M cap hit).

Viktor Arvidsson, here celebrating with Predators’ fans in Game 4, will remain in Nashville for the next seven years (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

The two forwards have their prime seasons ahead, and Poile did a good job locking them down at manageable rates, especially Arvidsson, who joins the likes of Roman Josi (UFA 2020), Mattias Ekholm (2022) and Ryan Ellis (2019) as players whose value is bound to far exceed their earnings.

As far as addictions, the Predators biggest splash in free agency was the acquisition of center Nick Bonino, who will carry a 4.1M cap hit for the next four seasons and fill, right away, the void of retired captain Mike Fisher. Moreover, 35-year-old Scott Hartnell inked a low risk, 1M deal to enjoy a second term in Nashville after being bought out by Columbus, while former 7th overall pick Colin Wilson was traded to Colorado for botching successive stints on the top-six.

The last transaction can also be seen as a serious wake-up call to 27-year-old Craig Smith – signed at 4.25M for three more seasons – who may find himself on the way out as soon as guys like Kevin Fiala (RFA 2019), Pontus Aberg (RFA 2018) and Colton Sissons (RFA 2019) need raises, or a promising prospect – probably 21-year-old Vladislav Kamenev – steps to the plate.

Colton Sissons (#10) beats Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray in Game 1 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

For now, though, Nashville is in solid ground cap-wise, with 6M to spare and boasting a stellar blueline that was further strengthened after they relieved 31-year-old Alexei Emelin off Vegas’ defensive logjam, pining a third round pick to ensure the Golden Knights also retained a 1.1M portion of his salary. In goal, Pekka Rinne has two years left at 7M, and that should be enough time to confirm young Juuse Saros (RFA 2018) is the right man to take over for a team that might just be entering its Championship window.

Will the Pittsburgh Penguins return to the playoffs next year?

A whole lot would have to go wrong for them to miss out, nonetheless the Penguins margin of error has shrank significantly since the dreaded post-Cup exodus finally landed in Pittsburgh.

After chasing a second consecutive title with a virtually intact roster, Pittsburgh waved goodbye to a host of veterans this summer, including forwards Chris Kunitz (signed with Tampa Bay), Nick Bonino (Nashville) and Matt Cullen (Minnesota), defenseman Trevor Daley (Detroit) and Ron Hainsey (Toronto), and beloved goaltender Marc-André Fleury, who left after 14 years to become the starter and face of Vegas’ new NHL franchise.

Jake Guentzel (#59), Bryan Rust (#17) and Sidney Crosby (#87), pictured celebrating Pittsburgh’s goal in Game 3, will be back in a Penguins’ sweater next season (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Few doubts exist that the Penguins will continue to be a contender with all major franchise pillars (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang) secured for the next half decade, 22-year-old Matt Murray beginning a favourable three-year extension, and some of their youth up front (Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson) still contributing at affordable rates, yet GM Jim Rutherford’s body of work this offseason has been rather uninspiring.

To plug the gaps left by the numerous exits, he picked up veteran Finnish goalie Antti Niemi (Dallas) and rearguard Matt Hunwick (Toronto) just days after, foolishly, dropping out of the first round at the draft to acquire enforcer Ryan Reaves from St. Louis, however Rutherford is still to pull the trigger on a trade for a competent third line center that can slot behind Crosby and Malkin, a vital move to keep the team hovering the competition as the last two seasons demonstrated. At this point in time, Carter Rowney, Guentzel and Wilson are the internal options thrown around the table, and those certainly won’t cut it, much less in the playoffs.

Can these Pittsburgh Penguins make it three in a row next year? (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Furthermore, the 68-year-old executive dished out extensions to Justin Schultz (27 years old, 3 years, 5.5M per season), Brian Dumoulin (25, 6 years, 4.1M) and Conor Sheary (24, 3 years, 3M), which left the Penguins in a familiar situation: bumping the cap ceiling (2.5M away) and with no other option but to keep the conveyor belt of young talent flowing.

Hence, expect the next graduates to be 20-year-old Daniel Sprong, a 2015 second round pick, and 23-year-old Zach Ashton-Reese, signed as a UFA coming out of Northeastern University, while former 8th overall pick Derrick Pouliot enters a make or break year considering his NHL appearances decreased in each professional season. He’s on a one-year deal, and Pittsburgh will welcome every bit of contribution on the quest for a three-peat unseen in the NHL since the 1980’s.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

NHL playoff series digested: Pittsburgh Penguins – Ottawa Senators (4-3)

Exactly a decade after their first and only Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Ottawa Senators were once again bestowed the title of “Canada’s Team” as the last remaining hope for a hockey-mad nation longing for the end of a 24-year drought. On their way to round three, the Sens had upset the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers however the next hurdle was the toughest of them all: the defending Champions Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh had coolly advanced on the last three postseason meetings (2008, 2010, 2013) between the two sides, and despite being pushed to the utmost limit this time, they would prevail again, moving one step closer to the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup.

Series Results:

Game 1: Ottawa Senators 2 @ 1 Pittsburgh Penguins (OT)

Game 2: Ottawa Senators 0 @ 1 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 5 Ottawa Senators

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

Game 5: Ottawa Senators 0 @ 7 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 6: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

Game 7: Ottawa Senators 2 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins (2 OT)

 

Special teams’ misery sinks Ottawa

After slipping past the NY Rangers in spite of a 5.5% conversion rate with the man-advantage, the Senators had to know much of their chances of advancing rested on the ability to take Pittsburgh’s top-three ranked powerplay out of the equation. Such an enterprise entailed keeping its opportunities to a minimum and finding ways to kill the ones they couldn’t avoid.

For much of the first three games, Ottawa was rather successful on its efforts, shutting down the Pens star-laden top unit in eight consecutive opportunities, including a 5 on 3 in Game 1, yet, as soon as Sidney Crosby tipped one below Craig Anderson for a consolation goal late in Game 3, the floodgates opened, with Pittsburgh’s man-advantage striking in 5 of 10 chances for the rest of the series.

Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby prepares to score a powerplay goal on Craig Anderson in Game 4 (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

In Game 4, the Penguins’ captain swiped in the 2-0 marker, critical to leave Ottawa with a 3-2 victory, and the same Crosby deflected the puck to double Pittsburgh’s lead in the first period of Game 5, which quickly got out of hand for the Sens. Moreover, Justin Schultz’s laser shot, just seconds into their only man advantage in Game 7, may have been quickly erased by Ottawa’s swift response, but it still left them reeling, knowing another penalty might signal the end of their season.

Conversely, the Sens came out empty on 29 straight power plays (a streak initiated in the previous series) until Bobby Ryan sneaked one past Murray on a 5 on 3 in Game 6. It was their only tally in 35 minutes of play with the man advantage, a total which includes two terrific opportunities to take the lead in Game 7.

Justin Schultz (#4), Evgeni Malkin (center) and Sidney Crosby (#87, back) react to the Penguins’ powerplay goal in Game 7 (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Since five of the seven games in the series were decided by one goal, and Ottawa marginally outscored (12-11) Pittsburgh at even strength, the Sens had to be left imagining what could have happened with a more evened up special teams’ record (6-1).

Pittsburgh takes control of the series after tottering start

Guy Boucher’s neutral-zone stuffing 1-3-1 system had already been integral to the Senators success in the previous rounds, and for the first three games of the Eastern Final, it did a great job neutralizing Pittsburgh’s speed through the centre of the ice. As a consequence, the Sens dictated play in many instances, frustrated the Penguins’ stars and looked dangerous preying on turnovers, taking the edge in the major underlying metrics (51.01 adj CF%, 51.43 SCF%, 56.67 HD CF).

Derick Brassard taps the puck into Pittsburgh’s net for the Senators’ third goal in Game 3 (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

However, Pittsburgh’s success under Mike Sullivan has been based on their ability to adjust on the fly and jig the puzzle to respond positively to adversity, and slowly but steadily the tide turned. With a fresh goaltender in net (Matt Murray), brand-new forward lines and a tweaked offensive approach, Pittsburgh, who had scored just three goals in the first three games, raced to a 3-goal lead in Game 4 and then hang on to reclaim home ice advantage. The boat had finally settled, and then it was time to push the engine, as the Penguins’ speed overwhelmed the Senators in route to a 7-0 shellacking in Game 5.

With a gust of wind behind their sails, Pittsburgh thoroughly dominated (CF 54-31, SOG 46-30, SCF 30-13) Game 6, but they were denied an handshake line by a superlative exhibition of goalie Craig Anderson, a cracking Mike Hoffman slapper off the post, and two penalties picked up in succession, which allowed the opponent to tie the game when the Pens looked on the verge of running away with the series.

Pittsburgh’s forward Scott Wilson celebrates his goal in the first period of Game 5 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Hosting a nervy Game 7 for the second consecutive Eastern Conference Final, the Penguins took the lead twice, but allowed the Sens to battle back and set up the winner-takes-all overtime. It would fall their way after a handful of close calls in the vicinity of Craig Anderson’s net and justifiably so, since the stats over the last four games (58.03 adj CF%, 58.15 SCF% (107-77), 56.52 HD CF% (39-30)) back up the notion that the defending Champions rose up to the challenge and earned the reward.

Senators run out of heroic performances

When a team falls in the second overtime of Game 7, it’s moot pointing out the smallest of actions could have determined an opposite outcome. After all, the Sens were a single shot (or a weird bounce) away from advancing to the Stanley Cup, and if they did, the tone of this article would be entirely different.

Ottawa’s goaltender Craig Anderson looks skywards after allowing Phil Kessel’s game-winning-goal in Game 2 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, looking back at their postseason run, we can get a sense that, in the end, they simply run out of rabbits to pull out of the hat. For instance, Erik Karlsson played the entire playoffs with two hairline fractures in his left heel, yet he was still the postseason’s uncontested MVP for three rounds, compiling the most sensational series performance in a long time against Boston, and logging huge minutes afterwards in an effort that can be deemed inhumane. Moreover, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who scored 12 goals in 82 regular season games, unexpectedly bagged six markers in round two versus the Rangers, another performance that will linger in Sens’ playoff lore for years to come.

Against the Penguins, though, no Ottawa player could define the series in the same way, which is a far cry from saying they didn’t step up. Bobby Ryan’s overtime winner in Game 1 was sensational. Mike Hoffman’s game-winning goal in Game 6 was of enormous significance to extend the series. Craig Anderson stole Game 6 and was on his way to another epic exhibition in Game 7; Mark Stone scored in Game 7 and was outstanding on both sides of the puck over the last two matches; the mesmerizing Erik Karlsson, visibly exhausted from many weeks of suffering, picked up two primary assists in Game 7. Still, no one managed to grab the superhero cape and find the back of the net in overtime.

Ian Cole (#28), Sidney Crosby (#87, left) and goalscorer Chris Kunitz (#14) exult after the overtime winner in Game 7 (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Instead, that part was snagged by a Penguins player: 35-year-old Chris Kunitz, who decided Game 7 was a worthy occasion to tally his first two goals since February 16th – a span of 34 games – and emulated teammate Bryan Rust, who also netted a brace versus the Tampa Bay Lightning on a similar situation one year early. Championships are won or lost like this every year, and it didn’t go Ottawa’s way this time.

Best players in the series

Matt Murray (Pittsburgh Penguins)

The young goaltender patiently waited for an opportunity to reclaim the starting role following injury, and it would arrive after Fleury allowed 4 goals in the first period of Game 3. Mike Sullivan called Murray to action to jolt his team, the goalie used the rest of the match to shake off the cobwebs, and then backstopped the Pens to the series victory with a sparkling 0.946 Sv%, a 1.35 GAA and an exceptional 0.962 Sv% on the penalty kill, limiting the Sens man-advantage to a single goal in 26 shots.

Murray also pitched a shutout in Game 5, delivered a 0.941 even-strength Sv%, and looked calm and in control throughout a nerve-wracking Game 7, displaying maturity well beyond his 22 years of age to drive the series home.

Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray gets back into position in Game 4 (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Bobby Ryan (Ottawa Senators)

We could just as easily underline the gutsy effort of goaltender Craig Anderson (0.936 Sv%, 2.07 GAA, 0.947 EV Sv%) or another outstanding performance from Erik Karlsson (5 assists, +5, 23 SOG), but let’s instead grant the scene to the oft-criticized  Bobby Ryan.

The 30-year-old revitalized his reputation in the postseason following a lousy 25-pt regular season output, and he was, once more, one the best Senators in round three. The powerful winger picked up two points and the overtime winner on a great individual run in Game 1, netted a crucial powerplay goal to tie the score in an elimination Game 6, and finished the series with a team-high 6 points and 5 even-strength points collected in 18:44 min of TOI per game.

Bobby Ryan beats goaltender Marc-André Fleury in overtime to give Ottawa the win in Game 1 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

While Ryan’s possession stats were far from impressive (41.27 adj CF%, 40.70 SCF%), he was still able to came out with a +3 rating, which would probably look even better if Guy Boucher hadn’t decided to break up the B. Ryan – J.G. Pageau – M. Stone line that gave the Penguins fits in the first two games and, again, in Game 7.

Will the Ottawa Senators return to the playoffs next year?

It’s unusual for a team that reaches the Conference Final to miss the playoffs altogether the next season, but we wouldn’t rule that out in this case since Ottawa definitely overachieved this postseason.

Nonetheless, Guy Boucher’s team will return in 2017-18 with the same core, the lone exception being Marc Methot, who the Sens could have maintained if they hadn’t refused to pay Vegas to back off in the expansion draft. The 32-year-old eventually landed in Dallas for a 2nd round pick, and Erik Karlsson will have to get used to a new partner, who may well be 35-year-old Johnny Oduya, inked to a one-year deal.

The Ottawa Senators’ roster will have a familiar feel when they return to action in the fall (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

If they hold trials for a longer term solution, 24-year-old Fredrik Claesson, who performed well in the playoffs on a bottom-pairing role, could be an option to consider, even if everyone in Ottawa is already salivating at the prospect of uniting the Swedish star with highly-touted 20-year-old Thomas Chabot, the MVP of the 2017 World Junior Championships, who would obviously benefit from a more sensible introduction to the NHL.

In net, 36-year-old Craig Anderson is entering the last year of his contract and the Sens need to think carefully about his successor. Backup Mike Condon, acquired from the Penguins mid-season, re-upped for the next 3 seasons at a pricy 2.4M per year, but he’s probably not the answer they’re looking for. With 4.8M in cap space, the Sens should keep their ears perked up for any potential starter that hits the trade market, save the money for a future upgrade in attack or prepare for the extensions of Kyle Turris (UFA) and Mark Stone (RFA) in 2018.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (#44) and Mark Stone (#61), here celebrating a goal in Game 7, will be back in a Senators’ jersey in 2017-18 (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)

This offseason, GM Pierre Dorion added former Anaheim forward Nate Thompson (33 years old, 1 year, 1.65 M) and re-signed Jean-Gabriel Pageau (25, 3 years, 9.3 M total), Ryan Dzingel (25, 2 years, 3.6M) and Tom Pyatt (30, 2 years, 2.2M), but the Sens’ offensive unit is still missing the kind of difference maker that can push them to full-fledged contending status. They have skilled youngsters waiting in the wings, namely Colin White, the 21th overall pick in 2015, yet the clock keeps ticking. Erik Karlsson will be 29 years old when he reaches UFA status in 2019, and if he senses the Senators aren’t going in the right direction….

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Nashville Predators (2-4)

One year after battling it out in seven gruelling games in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, the paths of Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators crisscrossed again with a bigger reward on the line: a spot on the Stanley Cup Final.

For the eight straight season a team from the state of California contested the Western Conference Final, but not even Anaheim, who reached this stage for the second time in three years, could stop the fledging Nashville Predators. Overcoming crushing injuries along the way, the Predators closed out the series in six games to become just the third Conference lowest seed to advance to the Final round in the salary cap era.

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 3 @ 2 Anaheim Ducks (OT)

Game 2: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 2 Nashville Predators (OT)

Game 5: Nashville Predators 3 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 6 Nashville Predators

 

Ducks’ shutdown line wore down in the third round

Due to their inability to close out the Edmonton Oilers in Game 6, just 48 hours passed between the end of round two for the Anaheim Ducks and the beginning of the series against the Nashville Predators. Such short turnaround would stretch thin Anaheim’s roster and many key players exhibited signs of fatigue, including the in-form Ryan Getzlaf (0 goals, 4 assists, -2), however few struggled quite like the members of their rambunctious shutdown unit, Jakob Silfverberg, Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano.

Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler (#17) blocks a shot in front of goaltender John Gibson in Game 2 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Exhausted from having to chase Connor McDavid around the ice for seven games, the trio combined for just 4 pts in the series (3 from Silfverberg) and Kesler, in particular, was a diffuse shadow of his best. The two-way maven picked up just one assist (on the powerplay) in six matches, amassed an ugly -6 rating and got clobbered in the possession front (43.71 adj. CF%) as coach Randy Carlyle didn’t have the depth in personnel to scale back his usage (22:26 min TOI per game, 3:11 min SH TOI) or quality of competition.

Kesler and his linemates bandied mostly with the Predators top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen for the first four games, and barely absorbed the blow (GF 2-4) as the Ducks miraculously eked out a split, yet they also couldn’t make the difference later in the series (GF 1-2) when their defensive responsibilities loosened up with Johansen’s injury and the spotlight shifted from Nashville’s stars to their less heralded characters….

Nashville’s depth steps up following Johansen’s injury

The Ducks had just broken Nashville’s 10-game home playoff win streak to level the series at two and headed home for a pivotal Game 5 when the news storm was unleashed. Nashville’s top line center, Ryan Johansen, would miss the rest of playoffs with a thigh injury and captain Mike Fisher, another pivot, would sit alongside him in the stands to carve two massive holes in the middle of the Predators’ lineup.  Meanwhile, Anaheim would be without the services of Rickard Rakell, probably their best forward in the series until then, and goaltender John Gibson would soon join him in the infirmary after sustaining a lower-body injury in the first period of Game 5.

Consequently, both teams were left scrambling at a crucial juncture of their postseason run – the team that wins Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in a best-of-7 series was 198-54 in NHL history – and yearning for the emergence of the proverbial playoff heroes. For Anaheim’s undoing, those who seized the moment were Nashville’s grinders.

Nashville’s Pontus Aberg scores as he falls to the ice in Game 5 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

With nine minutes left on the clock and the score tied at one in Game 5, Ducks’ backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier stopped Filip Forsberg’s shot only to watch as rookie Pontus Aberg spectacularly dove in and swiped the rebound into the net for the game-winning goal. The Swedish winger had just been elevated to top-six status, and his newly-formed partnership with Forsberg and regular fourth-line center Colton Sissons had more shenanigans up its sleeve.

Bottom-six forward Austin Watson broke the ice just 81 seconds into Game 6, and then it was the Sissons’ show. The 23-year-old doubled the lead in the first period, whacked home the puck to reclaim the two-goal advantage in the second, and later completed his first career hat-trick with six minutes to go to bomb the Preds in front for good.

Colton Sissons (L), Pontus Aberg (R) and Filip Forsberg (C) celebrate Sissons’ second goal in Game 6 (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Watson would still add an empty netter and Pontus Aberg ended the night with two primary assists as Nashville’s depth sunk a Ducks squad that also received goals from overlooked parts like Ondrej Kase and Chris Wagner. However, they couldn’t make it count, going 0-7 on the powerplay in Games 5 and 6 and bobbling the puck on a late man-advantage that expired moments before Sissons scored the series-deciding marker.

Anaheim gets ransacked in third periods

The Ducks’ propensity to easily surrender momentum and cough away early leads had already emerged at various points during their previous series, and it would eventually prove fatal against the Nashville Predators.

For instance, on their first three defeats to the Predators, Anaheim scored first but couldn’t find a way to secure victory. They allowed the Predators to answer back with two goals in Game 1 before falling in overtime, played with fire in Game 3, when Nashville tied in the beginning of the third period and had two goals overruled before Roman Josi found the winner on a late powerplay, and slowly wilted in Game 5 up to the moment Pontus Aberg snatched another third period game-winning-goal.

Nashville’s Roman Josi (#59) pots his game-winning-goal in Game 3 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Furthermore, Anaheim choked away a precious two-goal lead in the third period of Game 4 only to be saved by Corey Perry’s deflected shot in overtime, and conceded the final three goals in Game Six’s  loss right after rallying to tie the game at 3-3. All of this added up to a 10-4 goal deficit in third period play, and 10-2 (7-2 without empty net goals) in the last four games of the series, when Nashville simply found another gear and left Anaheim in the dust.

Best players in the series

John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks)

The Ducks’ goaltender may have left the ice early in Game 5 to never be seen again, but he was still the team’s finest player in the series, keeping the scores close for the first four matches even as Nashville dominated the run of play to the tune of a 57.5 share of all shots on goal and a 58.8% of 5-on-5 scoring chances for.

Ducks’ goaltender John Gibson makes a save in Game 3 (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

John Gibson responded to the assault by amassing an excellent 0.939 Sv% and 2.16 GAA, besting his counterpart Pekka Rinne (0.911 Sv%) to force the 2-2 tie after four games. However, unfortunately for Anaheim, when the 23-year-old went down injured, backup Jonathan Bernier couldn’t pick up the slack, allowing 6 goals in 34 shots (0.824 Sv%), including 4 in 16 on an abysmal Game 6 performance that doomed the Ducks’ chances.

Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators)

With five goals and two assists, the Swedish winger was the main catalyst of Nashville’s offense throughout a series where he never failed to notch, at least, a point per game.

After tallying in Games 1 and 2, Forsberg tied the score in the third periods of Games 3 and 4, forced the rebound that Pontus Aberg nodded home for the game-winning-goal in Game 5, and banked the empty-net goal in Game 6, yet his contributions extended well beyond the scoresheet. A two-way force, Forsberg fired 25 shots on goal, picked up a series high +6 on the strength of his 7 even-strength points, and was a tremendous driver of possession (58.55 adj. CF%), scoring chances (65.88 SCF%) and high-danger scoring chances (21-13) in 20:44 min TOI per game.

Nashville’s Filip Forsberg scores on an outstretched John Gibson in Game 2 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Will the Anaheim Ducks return to the playoffs next year? 

The answer is, probably, yes, but another deep run may be too much to ask with the burgeoning Edmonton Oilers on the verge of breaking out.

Unless, of course, they can find a way to use their 4M salary cap cushion to upgrade the attack, especially with a skilled third line center to relieve some scoring burden from the top-six. The names of Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche) and Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens) have been floated around and the Ducks might have the assets and desire to complete a deal over the next few weeks, yet, for now, Anaheim is bound to enter 2017-18 with a roster very similar to the one they carried last year.

The Anaheim Ducks will bring the band back together next season (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

For Ducks’ fans, that isn’t exactly bad news, since they were able to dodge the expansion draft bullet Vegas had pointed at them. The price for retaining blueliners Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen was steep – the rights for 22-year-old defenseman Shea Theodore – but GM Bob Murray was also able to package Clayton Stoner and his 3.25M cap hit to Nevada, which facilitated the huge extension thrown Cam Fowler’s way (52M over 8 years, 6.5 M per). The Ducks will thus return the same defensive core to screen goaltenders John Gibson and Ryan Miller, the 37-year-old UFA who agreed to a reasonable 2-year, 4M contract to substitute Jonathan Bernier.

Up front, Anaheim is rooted to veterans Ryan Getzlaf (32-years-old), Corey Perry (32) and Ryan Kesler (33), who will drawing the big bucks for the foreseeable future, and therefore their Stanley Cup window inches ever closer to shutting down completely as their new waves of offensive talent fail to pan out outside of Rickard Rakell, who delivers great value at 3.78M until 2022, and Jakob Silfverberg, who may well break their bank if he keeps the same upward trajectory ahead of unrestricted free agency in 2019.

Anaheim Ducks’ winger Ondrej Kase scored in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final (Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

Patrick Eaves, a 33-year-old coming off a career year, agreed to return on a 3-year deal worth 3.15M per season, and Anaheim hopes he can hold a top-six role, which would ideally belong to former 10th overall pick Nick Ritchie or fellow 21-year-old winger Ondrej Kase. Moreover, Dennis Rasmussen was picked up from Chicago to replace Nate Thompson in the bottom six, a position a guy like Sam Steel, Anaheim’s promising 1st round pick in 2016, might not be ready to crack just yet. But he, and the like, better be soon enough, or Anaheim’s plunge into the deep waters of the Western Conference may not be more than a couple of years away.

*For an explanation of the “advanced statistics” terminology cited on this article, read Corsica’s glossary. Unless stated otherwise, all data refers to 5-on-5 play and was retrieved from Corsica.hockey (currently down), Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.

Women’s Euro 2017: Best player, Best Eleven and All-Star Team

After taking a look at the main incidences and trends from the three weeks of action, it’s time to call to the stage the women that made the spectacle possible. Or the best among them, the players that better eschewed the fatigue of a long season and performed at the highest level to help their teams succeed.

As the traditional heavyweights of the women’s game fell short of expectations, so did many of the world’s elite footballers, therefore our 23-women All-star roster features many players that greatly benefit from the exposure obtained in the tournament to enhance their career prospects.

As usual in these occasions, representatives from the last four teams dominate the squad, a reality amplified by the fact that stars from pre-tournament favourites really need to stand out to make the cut when eliminated precociously, and revelations from teams that are bounced out in the group stage rarely compile the body of work to outshine those in more successful outfits. Hence, prepare for a lot of Dutch, English, Austrian and Danish players, who paid their dues to deserve the spotlight.

Furthermore, after presenting the names that made the All-star roster, I nominated what I deem to be the ideal line-up of the competition and elected the best player in the tournament. You can check UEFA’s choices for these categories here and compare, if you so desire.  And off we go.

All-Star Team

Goalkeepers (2)

Manuela Zinsberger (Austria)

Fast and decisive getting out of the posts and composed under pressure, Austria’s goalkeeper wasn’t shy about taking command of the penalty area and rallying the troops, displaying signs of maturity well beyond her 21 years of age.

Austrian goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger holds the ball and looks on.

Four clean sheets in five games firmly validate the work she and her teammates put on, and a perfect record of 24 saves in 24 shots on goal was an intercepted corner away. Mostly a backup for Bayern Munich over the last three seasons, this was the type of performance that propels a career to another level.

Almuth Schult (Germany)

The last woman to shoulder responsibilities for the defending Champions’ downfall, Almuth Schult grabbed headlines for a couple of superb saves and regularly exhibited her impeccable positioning, outstanding reflexes and solid technical base, giving the team total ease to move up the pitch with numbers.

Comfortable with the ball at her feet, the 26-year-old was also an active member of Germany’s ball circulation, and can be excused for all three goals allowed during a tournament where she reaffirmed her status as one of the continents’ finest stoppers.

Defensemen (7)

Lucy Bronze (England)

A superb athlete that could gallop down the flank for days, Bronze is England’s flamboyant right back and most unique player. Capable of dismantling defensive organizations with her speed in transition, superb offensive instincts and smart movement off the ball, she somehow manages to rarely get caught out of position in defence, where her aggressiveness, elite anticipation and ball-winning skills set up more bold runs forward.

England’s right back Lucie Bronze prepares to deliver a throw-in

That much was evident on England’s match-winner in the quarter-finals, a game that further confirmed what any women’s football fan already knows: the 25-year-old is the world’s best full back by a wide margin.

Theresa Nielsen (Denmark)

On the field for each one of Denmark’s 570 minutes, Nielsen revealed incredible stamina along the right lane, efficiently completing the Danish back four and recurrently rushing forward to support the attack with purpose. That would be enough to merit a spot, but it only helped her case that, in one of those offensive incursions, the 31-year-old notched the tournament’s most iconic goal, the header that ended Germany’s 22-year reign.

Simone Boye Sørensen (Denmark)

Dependable, assured in possession and technically competent, Simone Boye Sørensen was the leader Denmark’s defence needed as injuries knocked down fellow center backs Janni Arnth Jensen and Mie Jans. Always expertly positioned, the 25-year-old proved insuperable in the air and solid at field level, shepherding the adapted Stine Larsen through the ups and down of a journey that would only end with a finalists medal hanging around her neck.

Denmark’s Simone Boye Sørensen heads the ball away from Belgium forward Tessa Wullaert

Anouk Dekker (Netherlands)

A defensive midfielder by trade, Anouk Dekker was deployed by the hosts as a central defender to exploit her imposing physical presence, and she responded by marshalling the Netherlands’ backline on a Championship campaign. Affected by physical ailments, Stefanie van der Gragt and captain Mandy van der Berg rotated by her side, but Dekker always stood firm, concealing her lack of speed and agility with positioning, and thriving in aerial battles.

Carina Wenninger (Austria)

Tapping on a decade worth of experience playing in Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga, Wenninger assumed a leading role guiding Austria’s stout defensive unit in the regular absence of captain (and club teammate) Viktoria Schnaderbeck. Patrolling the centre lanes and directing traffic, she inspired her less seasoned teammates by intercepting uncountable crosses and rebuffing many attempts at penetrating the Austrian wall.

Millie Bright (England)

The least experienced player in England’s preferred line-up rewarded Mark Sampson’s faith with a string of impressive showings where her strength and vigour proved a perfect complement to captain Steph Houghton. Used to play a few meters up the pitch for her club, the powerful Bright never looked out of place and quickly became England’s preferred target in lateral free kicks and corners, with the ball directed towards the far post to capitalize on her uncommon aerial prowess.

England’s Millie Bright wards off Portugal’s Carolina Mendes in a group stage match

Demi Stokes (England)

In a tournament where few left backs caught the eye, Stokes’ reliability was a welcomed sight, as the 25-year-old did an admirable job shutting down opposing wingers, helping inside and providing width and depth when England had the ball. Not as skilled or dynamic as her opposite full back, Stokes was a guarantee of balance every time Lucy Bronze rampaged forward.

Midfielders (8)

Sarah Puntigam (Austria)

Puntigam is another player with ample experience in the German League that flourished under brighter lights at the Euro 2017. Starting from a deep-lying midfield position, she displayed her tactical nous in numerous occasions, covering for her teammates, tackling resolutely, impelling the team forward with incisive passes off his left foot and swinging set pieces into the box.

Austria’s Sarah Puntigam watches as her penalty shot sails into the Spanish net

The 24-year-old tallied the decisive penalty against Spain, but then went from hero to villain after missing from the spot against Denmark, an opportunity that could have changed the complexity of the semi-final. An unfortunate circumstance that fails to overshadow her excellent tournament.

Amandine Henry (France)

Amid a French team that once again underperformed, Henry stood out for the unwillingness to bend until the last whistle, the determination to fight back against mounting challenges apparent on every tv plan of her face.

The 27-year-old drew a late penalty against Iceland, scored to snatch a point from Austria, ran more than anyone else, initiated plays and carried the ball forward time and time again, pressed high, shot from distance and attacked the box. At times, Henry got caught wanting to do too much, so much that her decision making suffered as a consequence. It was still inspiring to watch, even if her level of play was a few notches below previous competitions.

Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

Jackie Groenen, the beating heart of the Champions. A steadfast, unrelenting working bee that never stopped connecting the dots for the Netherlands, the ambidextrous 22-year-old was subtly brilliant in everything she did: tackles and interceptions, box to box transitions by breaking lines in possession or through direct, swift passes, invade open spaces, exchange positions with teammates to confound opposing defences, spring the wingers on the run and set up Vivianne Miedema on a tee in several occasions. Groenen crafted more scoring chances from open play that any other player in the tournament, collected two assists and left her fingerprints on a few others.

Jackie Groenen maneuvers against Denmark in the group stage

A monstrous performance for the Euro 2017’s best central midfielder, who probably wouldn’t even be a starter were it not for Tessel Middag’s injury weeks before the event.

Jordan Nobbs (England)

At age 24, Jordan Nobbs was finally thrusted into a leading role for England and her influence extended well beyond the right flank, where she forged a tremendous partnership with Lucy Bronze.

Poised and smart, masterminding her team’s best plays with penetrating passes and imaginative combinations, Nobbs scored on a wonderful volley against Scotland and also excelled defensively, unafraid to join the fray in the middle of the park. Her long-range passing and propensity for shooting from deep position were in sight when she was able to drift inside, consequently we’re not afraid to say England’s demise began when Mark Sampson declined to move Nobbs into the role of the suspended Jill Scott in their semi-final affair.

Laura Feiersinger (Austria)

The Austrian right winger may have failed to collect any goals or assists in the tournament, however she came second to none in work rate and importance, playing each second of her team’s 510 competitive minutes.

Austria’s Laura Feiersinger controls the ball against Iceland

A combative midfielder whose engine never stops, Feiersinger’s ability to lug the ball up the field, shield it with the body and draw contact granted her defence some much needed breathing room, allowed Austria a chance to ping the ball into the opposing penalty area, and opened space for others to operate. No surprise at all that coach Dominik Thalhammer was so reluctant to substitute her.

Shanice van de Sanden (Netherlands)

Van de Sanden’s tournament began on a high note when she scored the decisive goal in the opener contested in her hometown of Utrecht, and the 24-year-old never looked back, sprinting down the right flank at blistering speeds over the next five matches to provide two assists, generate many more scoring chances and haunt the dreams of left back after left back.

Tremendously explosive, van den Sanden’s handicap – execution and erratic decision-making – surfaced enough to knock her down a few pegs in the race for Best Player of the tournament.

Shanice van de Sanden ponders her options after leaving behind the Norwegian defenders

Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

A penchant for cutting inside and fire on goal with her strongest foot reminiscent of Arjen Robben, the vision of Wesley Sneijder on those swinging, cross field passes to change the point of attack, even the insolence to emulate the “Cruyff turn” on a couple of occasions.

Ok, we may be overstating things here, but the electric Martens was definitely another disarming offensive talent lighting up a major footballing stage with the orange jersey, seducing with exquisite technique, pace, creativity and an eye for staring in the big moments: the fluctuating cross that dip right into Van de Sanden’s head in the tournament opener; the free kick lashed into the bottom corner to break the deadlock in the quarter-finals; the long-range rocket with her weak foot in the Final. Highlights to inspire a new generation of girls aspiring to be li(e)ke Martens.

Katrine Veje (Denmark)

Fast, clear on her intents and superb shifting gears to leave the opponent trailing behind, Katrine Veje fits the description of the wingers of old. Left footed, the slippery 26-year-old is always eager to charge up the flank, yet she also relishes the defensive work, retreating quickly to help the full back.

Denmark’s Katrine Veje in action against Norway

Characteristics that were in full display during Denmark’s runner up campaign, but are regularly coupled with inconsistencies in front of the goal. After tallying the lone marker versus Norway, Veje missed some glorious chances against Germany, and she can thank her teammates that didn’t turn out to be more than a mere footnote.

Forwards (6)

Pernille Harder (Denmark)

If doubts remained, the Dutch tournament put them to bed: the Danish skipper is one of the best and most complete players in women’s football.

Pernille Harder’s performance in the Netherlands was simply mesmerizing. Supremely gifted with the ball at her feet, the 24-year-old exuded class in every touch, in every turn, in every sprint, skipping past defenders, eyes surveying her options and mind set on the best path towards the goal. Quick and agile, she audaciously took into fully organized opposing backlines, but always opted for the best course of action, no matter how much she yearned to take full responsibility.

With the goals eluding her and two assists picked up along the way, Harder was finally rewarded in the Final when her thumping individual effort found the back of the net. Had Denmark lifted the trophy, an additional piece of silverware would have flown back home with her.

Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland)

The only player from a team eliminated in the group stage to break into this all-star roster and for good reason.

Similarly to Lieke Martens, the stocky Swiss forward was named player of the match in two occasions, her disconcerting dribbles and passion rallying the team after the setback in the opener, and her performance against Iceland standing out as one of the greatest in the tournament. In that game, Bachmann devised the play that landed the tying goal, nodded home the game winner and authored a fantastic slalom that was finished with a cracker right off the cross bar. Pity she had to leave so early.

Swiss forward Ramona Bachmann evades two French defenders

Jodie Taylor (England)

The tournament’s best goal scorer kicked off the competition in style by notching the first European Championship finals hat trick in 20 years, and then went on to bag a couple more beauties against Spain and France, powering the Lionesses’ dreams with her finishing acumen and abrasive style, which tired defences and cleared space for others to explore.

In the semi-finals, Taylor created, and then squandered a golden chance to cut the Dutch lead and set up a different outcome, yet this was still an inspired tournament for the 31-year-old striker.

England’s Jodie Taylor celebrates her marker against Spain

Nina Burger (Austria)

Burger’s game winner against Switzerland was the foundation upon which Austria’s historical campaign was built, and the talismanic striker did her best to repeat throughout the tournament despite further opportunities proving tough to come.

Working hard to hold the ball up the field, press the opponent’s build up and encourage her teammates, she always lurked behind the defence looking for ways to satisfy her predatory instinct.

Nadia Nadim (Denmark)

The Afghan-born forward looked off in the group stage, lavishly missing the mark and amassing offside calls, yet as soon as the knockout rounds rolled on, she was back to her bruising best, proving a tremendous nuisance for defenders with her blend of strength, mobility, ability to explode off the dribble and proficiency in the air. Nadim’s powerful header started Denmark’s rally against Germany, and she also tallied confidently from the penalty spot to give Denmark an early lead in the Final.

Denmark’s Nadia Nadim reacts after scoring in the Final

Vivianne Miedema (Netherlands)

An exasperating round robin for the usually mild-mannered Miedema, followed by a blazingly hot elimination round punctuated by four goals in three games to threaten Jodie Taylor’s Golden boot. It all started with a tap-in against Sweden, and through graceful off-the-ball runs, deft receptions, mellifluous feints, myriad tunnels under opponent’s leg and decisive finishes, culminated with a liberating blast to seal the Netherlands’ European title.

Players by Nation: Netherlands (5), Denmark (5), England (5), Austria (5), Germany (1), France (1), Switzerland (1)

Missed the cut: Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands), Verena Aschauer (Austria), Sherida Spitse and Daniëlle van de Donk (Netherlands), Caroline Weir (Scotland), Dzsenifer Marozsán (Germany), Amanda Sampedro (Spain), Sanne Troelsgaard (Denmark), Barbara Bonansea (Italy), Fanndís Friðriksdóttir (Iceland), Lotta Schelin (Sweden)

Best Eleven of the tournament (4x2x3x1)

M. Zinsberger (AUT);

L. Bronze (ENG) – S. Boye Sørensen (DEN) – M. Bright (ENG) – D. Stokes (ENG)

S. Puntigam (AUT) – J. Groenen (NED)

S. van de Sanden (NED) – P. Harder (DEN) – L. Martens (NED)

J. Taylor (ENG) 

I confess to have wrestled way more with the all-star roster than with this starting eleven. The front four and Jackie Groenen were pretty automatic choices, and both Lucy Bronze and Manuela Zinsberger emerged as locks early on.

Denmark’s Pernille Harder, here seen battling past two Austrian players, is part of the best lineup of the Euro 2017. But is she the best player of the tournament?

In my opinion, Simone Boye Sørensen and Millie Bright edged Anouk Dekker for the center back roles, while Demi Stokes was my default option at the left back position since none of her counterparts impressed me enough to even make the roster. As the midfield anchor, I pondered Amandine Henry’s name, but ultimately couldn’t stomach rewarding a French player for another failed campaign, whereas selecting the versatile Jordan Nobbs feels like a little swindle. Sarah Puntigam was a lynchpin for Austria, and the debutants deserve more credit than a lone nomination in goal.

In comparison with UEFA’s selection, and based on what I expressed before, I can see where they’re coming from with Verena Aschauer and Sherida Spitse, but definitely can’t grasp how Steph Houghton is favoured over Millie Bright, or Sari van Veenendaal is tipped as the competition’s best goalkeeper. Defining Theresa Nielsen as a right midfielder isn’t absurd for her key role on Denmark’s mutating formation, however believing she deserves the spot over Shanice van de Sanden is bonkers.

Best Player of the tournament

Winner: Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

The Best Player of the Euro 2017? Lieke Martens, Netherlands slick No. 11

2nd place: Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

3rd place: Pernille Harder (Denmark)

These three women elevated themselves head and shoulders above anyone else, but sorting out the order is a more complicated endeavour since I could offer strong arguments supporting each candidate. For instance, no player was more valuable to her own team than Pernille Harder, but this isn’t an MVP contest, it’s a “Best player of the tournament” election, and by failing to pick up the title she was at a disadvantage. Moreover, I would have liked to see more from a finishing standpoint (I know, she saved it for the end) to go along with her superb playmaking performance.

Regarding the two Dutch ladies, my heart clamoured for the ubiquitous Jackie Groenen since she was the player I most enjoyed watching, but reason prevailed. Lieke Martens’ gaudy offensive totals (3 goals + 2 assists + 2 “hockey” assists), dazzling skill and timely contributions, including the stunning goal in the Final, ultimately push her just a smidge higher.

Unpacking the Women’s Euro 2017 (I)

Twenty-two days and thirty-one games later, Women’s football continental festivities came to its rousing end with hosts Netherlands lifting the trophy in front of 28,000 exultant fans in Enschede.

Few expected the 12th and 15th ranked teams in the World to square off in the decisive encounter, but that was only the final chapter of a tournament where not a lot went according to plan or historical trends. Truly great news for the future of the women’s game and its quest to attract even more eyeballs amongst football fans after a competition that established new records in attendance, television spectators, media interest and social media engagement.

As the cloth descended on a thrilling sporting event, it’s time to recap the action that took place in the Netherlands and we’ll do this in two instalments: an initial post focused on tournament storylines, teams, tactics and memorable moments, and a second part entirely dedicated to the individuals that shined on the pitch, as we’ll name the best player in the competition, present the tournament’s All-star roster and chose the ideal lineup.

Top three storylines:

A levelled competitive field

With five nations making their first appearance in a competition extended to accommodate 16 teams, natural concerns existed regarding the balance of forces. The fears proved disproportionate, as outside of England’s six-goal thrashing of neighbours Scotland, one-sided games were few and far between and, more impressively, we saw the traditional powerhouses struggle to get any kind of momentum and, in some cases, bow out rather meekly.

Belgium’s astonishing win over Norway is a great example of the parity between the sides at the Euro 2017

The main example is, obviously, Norway’s catastrophic showing, as the former European, World and Olympic Champions took the plane back home without a goal to show for the trip, yet their traditional rivals wouldn’t perform considerably better. Sweden, for instance, stumbled to get out of the group phase before kneeling to the hosts in the quarter-finals, while France had to cling to a life buoy incidentally thrown their way by Switzerland’s goaltender just to qualify out of what many considered the easiest grouping. Moreover, six-time defending Champions Germany failed to impress in their first three games before falling flat in the last eight.

Conversely, all debutants had the opportunity to celebrate historic victories and went on to entertain thoughts of progressing until the dying minutes of the group stage. Only Austria advanced, but Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Scotland left behind indelible evidence of their quality and the growth observed around the continent.

Misfiring star strikers

For all the competitive parity and intensity, the tournament held in Dutch soil wasn’t exactly fertile ground for barn burners, delivering the lowest amount of goals per game (2.19) since 1993, and no players felt it the most than the individuals tasked with swaying the nets.

Many of Europe’s renowned goal scorers were kept in check throughout the event and their teams naturally suffered the consequences. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, the reigning European player of the year, unintentionally became the poster girl for this dry spell, but others also stood out for their absence from the scoresheet. Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso, fresh off a 35-goal League campaign with FC Barcelona, was unable to assist her country out of a startling 350-minutes scoring drought, while Germany’s usually prolific duo of Anja Mittag and Mandy Islacker wasted several chances to tally in each of their four appearances.

Germany’s striker Anja Mittag lies down dejected after her team crashed out of the Euro 2017

France’s Eugénie Le Sommer and Marie-Laure Delie, who have combined for 125 (!) international goals, couldn’t muster more than the former’s converted penalty shot versus Iceland, while Netherlands’ superstar Vivianne Miedema only got off the schneid in the quarter-finals after growing visibly frustrated by her misses.

Notably able to escape this misery were just two sides: England, whose great start helped bring to life all their forwards’ dreams during the group stage, with Jodie Taylor leading the way, and Italy, which headed home earlier than anyone else but not without distributing five goals for their three strikers (Cristiana Girelli (1), Ilaria Mauro and Daniela Sabatini (both 2)).

The bizarre sum of goalkeeping blunders

In a tournament that hit high notes for the level of play, there was one aspect that drew unnecessary attention to prod the grumbles of the detractors: many of the goaltenders present in the competition failed to uphold the levels of technical expertise displayed by their teammates and egregious mishaps abounded, an indictment that the standards of training and mental preparation for this specific position still sit a notch below other parameters of the women’s game.

More than a handful of goals, scoring chances and, even, eliminations can be chalked up to appalling errors by goalies, be it failed zone clears, botched interceptions, fumbled catches or erroneous stops, and while no good comes from nominating them, it’s still telling that they touched the entire spectrum in hand.

Italy’s Laura Giuliani reacts after letting the ball slip through her fingers against Germany

From 19-year-old Tatyana Shcherbak (Russia) to 35-year-old Gemma Fay (Scotland), and catching up to the rookies getting their feet wet at the highest level of competition, such as Portugal’s Patrícia Morais and Italy’s Laura Giuliani, or veterans with significant experience in international competitions, as are the cases of Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark), Guðbjörg Gunnarsdóttir (Iceland), Gaëlle Thalmann (Switzerland) and Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands). A disparate group that suggests this issue should be a priority for all stakeholders of the women’s game over the next few years.

 

Best Game: Germany 1-2 Denmark

Postponed to a Sunday morning due to the tremendous downpour that stroke Rotterdam, this historic quarter-final matchup will go down as a paradigm shifting moment, since Germany’s sovereignty over the European game ended after 8162 days (!).

A takedown that came unannounced, especially since disaster struck Denmark just three minutes in when goalie Stine Lykke Petersen, perhaps still numb from the early kickoff, failed to stop a trivial Isabel Kerschowski’s shot and the ball trudged into the net to give Germany a premature lead. The defending Champions’ tricky passing game and fluid positional exchanges then came to the fore as they threatened but rarely overwhelmed throughout the first half and, bit by bit, Denmark started to encounter the pockets of space the Germans had been guilty of exposing all tournament.

The Danish players celebrate the second goal of their stunning triumph over Germany

Nadia Nadim’s powerful equalizer in the early moments of the second half was born out of a mistake by two German players, who foolishly paused looking for a whistle, and it catapulted the Danes to a 15-min stretch where they blew several glorious chances. It appeared Denmark would rue their luck when Germany finally settled down to get back into attacking mode, but the underdogs were still looking very much alive.

Until the moment, with seven minutes to go, when time seemed to freeze as the ball crossed by substitute Frederikke Thøgersen met an unmarked Theresa Nielsen rambling through the heart of Germany’s defence. The Danish right back nodded it past goalkeeper Almuth Schult and the biggest upset in the tournament’s history was complete.

Honourable Mention: Netherlands 4 – 2 Denmark (Final)

 

Worst Game: Austria 0 -0 Spain (5-3 on penalties)

A great sample to appease the “tiki taka is boring” crowd looming out there. Spain had already passed the ball to exhaustion without much to show for it against England, and they allowed the proceedings to slow down to a halt in this encounter with Austria, a feisty, well-organized team that was more than happy to sit back, milk the clock and take their chances on set pieces.

Spanish coach Jorge Vilda would introduce all the offensive weapons at his disposal, move pieces around and tweak the approach, but his side wouldn’t break down the wall or generate enough to justify victory following a tedious 120 minutes. The decision came to a penalty shootout where Silvia Meseguer’s shot was the only one stopped by the goaltenders. Therefore, it sent Spain packing and Austria’s fairy-tale journey into the next stop.

 

Best goal: Daniela Sabatino (Italy – Sweden)

Italy and Sweden were levelled at one when full-back Linda Tucceri Cimini’s dipping delivery met the onrushing Daniela Sabatino inside the box. The veteran forward twisted her body to one-time the ball with her right foot, and the gorgeous chip sailed over goaltender Hedvig Lindahl to find the top corner on the opposite side. Lovely finish.

Honourable Mentions: Jordan Nobbs (England – Scotland), Pernille Harder (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best save: Almuth Schult (Germany – Italy)

An outrageous, right hand stop by the outstretched German goaltender to deflect Barbara Bonansea’s scorching free kick in a fantastic showcase of Schult’s athleticism.

Honourable Mentions: Manuela Zinsberger (Austria – France), Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best fans: Iceland

The Icelanders have learned how much fun attending these tournaments can be, and now they make the trip south in droves whenever possible to provide a special atmosphere to their matches. The blue legion congregated in the stadiums of the Netherlands proved as lively as in France last year, and there were copious amounts of their “thunderclap” to boot. Before, during and after the games even if their women’s team seldom afforded opportunities to cheer.

Honourable Mention: Belgium

Clad in Red, the Belgium fans trekked north by the thousands to fill the goal-line stands in each of their three matches, and it was pretty obvious how their girls feed on their energy and steered forward with renewed enthusiasm every time they stepped up the vocal support. It was almost enough to pry away a point from Denmark, and vital to secure a brilliant 2-0 triumph over Norway.

 

Best coach: Dominik Thalhammer (Austria)

With major props dispensed to Sarina Wiegman (Netherlands), who oversaw the most exciting team in the tournament, and Nils Nielsen, manager of a runner up that thrived, in spite of several injuries, due to their tactical malleability, the leader of the competition’s surprise package gets the award.

Short in talent, flash and experience compared with most opponents, the Austrian’s relied on versatile tactical principles, impressive physical condition and guile to masquerade their limitations in a way that made their campaign less surprising by each game. Seamlessly able to switch systems during the match, shifting between a defensive unit of three, four or five, a central midfield structured in 2+1 or 1+2, and an attack that could easily tolerate Nicole Billa alongside charismatic striker Nina Burger, Thalhammer expertly balanced defensive compactness, when necessary ordering two banks of players stationed in front of goal, and offensive depth, advancing the block in hopes of forcing dangerous turnovers (see their game-winning-goal versus Switzerland) before retreating to their shell as soon as the front line was surpassed.

Austria reached the semi-finals on the strength of their coach’s tactical sagacity.

Austria’s strong core of Bundesliga-based players possessed the tactical maturity to implement its coach’s vision, and the results were remarkable, with teams such as Spain, France and Denmark left without answers to forcefully pin them back, penetrate their block and coerce the novices out of their comfort zone.

Worst Coach: Olivier Echouafni (France)

We’ll absolve Martin Sjögren for now, as Norway’s problems run much deeper than management, and focus on yet another frustrating tournament for France.

Olivier Echouafni’s job was not an easy one, as he had to deal with the legacy of an international heavyweight that ultimately falters in key moments, but that can’t excuse a series of puzzling personal and tactical decisions which concurred to end their campaign at the hands of England.

For instance, debuting against an Icelandic team that would populate their own half and try to retain the 0-0, did he really need to introduce a third central midfielder (Élise Bussaglia) into the lineup and break in a late call-up (Clarisse Le Bihan, who substituted injured Amel Majri in the final roster)? The French struggled to establish possession in dangerous areas, and the duo was unsurprisingly replaced as France furiously chased a winning goal, which would fall from the sky by way of an unnecessary penalty.

Eugénie Le Sommer’s late penalty saved France against Iceland but Olivier Echouafni’s options would still get in the way of a successful campaign

They weren’t as fortunate against Austria four days later, when Echouafni took 70 minutes to correct his hand after once again getting creative with his starting eleven. He sat playmaker Camille Ability for youngster Onema Geyoro, and fielded an head-scratching front three with Le Sommer on the left (ok), Gaëtane Thiney as a center forward (meh) and towering striker Marie-Laure Delie deployed along the right side (what?).

The 44-year-old manager seemed to finally crack the code against Switzerland, with the irreverent Claire Lavogez and Kadidiatou Diani flanking Le Sommer, but Eve Perisset’s red card and ensuing Swiss tally meant they would have to fight back, undermanned, for 75 minutes. With the clock running out, Abily’s free kick miraculously slipped past the Swiss goalie to send them through undeservedly, but any hopes of avoiding a precocious clash with England went up in smoke, and they fell despite playing their best game of the tournament.

Now, imagine if they hadn’t skidded early due to their manager’s strange options, avoided England and reached the knockout rounds buoyed by the confidence of three good showings. Just another “if” to add to France’s growing collection of disappointing exits.

Underachieving team(s): France and Spain

We’ve covered France extensively in the previous section, so let’s jump right into Spain, a team that crashed headfirst into their (high) expectations and understated concerns.

After waltzing past Portugal in a first match where their sweet looking, possession-based game seemed to be on point, the Spaniards’ problems started when England, up 1-0 from the get-go, deliberately conceded control the ball and watched as the Iberians struggled to disentangle a team that wouldn’t run around and chase, but rather keep the positions and pack the centre lanes. Missing an element that could break lines in possession, combine in the half spaces and still attack the box (have you seen Vero?), Spain’s game was quickly exposed for his lack of incisiveness and reduced to an unending succession of crisp, lateral passes that could be harnessed by any structured defensive unit.

Vicky Losada’s Spain was dumped out of the Euro 2017 by Austria

Picking up on England’s example, Scotland similarly found a way to neutralize Spain and take full advantage of a defensive error to secure a 1-0 victory, and therefore the ambitious title challengers only avoided a precocious elimination because the tiebreaker favoured them over two debutants.

A third newcomer stood on their way at the quarter-finals, and simply based on tactical fit, Austria was far from an ideal pairing for the bewildered Spaniards. Another frustrating 120 minutes without finding the back of the net – to stretch their streak of futility to more than 5.5 hours – were followed by a shootout loss, and they were issued a ticket home with a   recommendation to get back into the drawing board.

Overachieving Team: Austria

A pretty straightforward pick when a debutant reaches the last four, heads home undefeated (3 wins, 2 draws) and boasts the stingiest record in the competition, having allowed just one goal (from a corner kick) in five matches.

We warned in our preview that Austria would have a word to say in the outcome of Group C, and they made us look smart by outmanoeuvring their talented neighbours in the opener, courageously challenging France’s superiority before receding to secure the point, and thoroughly dominating (16-0 in shots on target) Iceland to finish top of the table.

Austrian players celebrate the second goal of their 3-0 victory over Iceland

Way more industrious and pragmatic than brilliant in the knockout rounds, they still engendered their own opportunities to avoid penalties against Spain and Denmark. Perfect (5 of 5) on their first attempt and abysmal (0 of 3) later, they left the Netherlands after an historic campaign that improved the stock of many of their players.

Worst Team: Norway

Three defeats in three games, 0 goals for, 4 goals against, 0 points and a record unworthy of one of the most decorated nations in women’s football. How to make sense of such paltry performance from a team that can field the likes of Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen?

With a clear understanding that football is a team game where the best can only play…at their best when put in positions to succeed and surrounded by teammates that can help them flourish. That means a dazzling offensive dynamo like Hansen has to receive the ball as soon as possible when it gets to the final third, looking to accelerate and spread the panic, but without a host of opponents harassing her and several banks of defenders to beat. That also means Ada Hegerberg, who is not a striker capable of creating her own chances, needs to be served with deadly through balls or swinging crosses she can reach without having to muscle out the three defenders strapped to her back.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hanse evades three Danish players on the last matchday of Group A

Norway failed spectacularly and systematically at these missions, and while much of it rests on coach Martin Sjögren – on paper, freeing the stars of defensive responsibilities in a  4x2x3x1/4x4x2 made sense, but the dynamics didn’t match – , there’s a lot to be said about the lack of creativity, technical quality, poise in possession and passing acumen of the full backs and roulette of midfielders and forwards tasked with supplementing the difference-makers.

Lastly, it was telling that in Norway’s final match, with the captain Maren Mjelde helping the build up a few meters ahead, and the talented, 23-year-old offensive midfielder Guro Reiten hovering close to Hegerberg and Hansen, their football’s fluidity and offensive punch shot up enough to substantiate multiple tallies (Hansen missed a penalty and they hit three posts against Denmark). Too late to salvage face, but a glimpse of what they need to do to stem the decay of a women’s football powerhouse.

Best Team: Netherlands

In the end, for the first time in 22 years, the Germans didn’t win but the best team clearly /did. Something these short summer tournaments don’t spit out as regularly as you’re led to believe.

Under the pulsating sea of orange shirts, the Netherlands women’s national team might not have been the embodiment of “Totaalvoetbal” or mechanical, clockwork efficiency, yet few didn’t relish their exquisite, effervescent expression of modern football: fluid and imaginative with the ball, responsible in transition and aggressive looking to regain possession.

A submission levitated by two flying Dutchwomen of contrasting attributes, the powerful, dizzyingly fast Shanice Van de Sanden and the silky electric Lieke Martens, that nonetheless couldn’t have gone into overdrive without its elegant spear (Vivianne Miedema), or reach the plenitude if two tireless, understated artists (Daniëlle Van de Donk and Jackie Groenen) had ever stopped loading the front lines.

Netherlands’ Daniëlle van de Donk is tracked down by her teammates after scoring against England in the semi-finals

Built on this splendid quintet of individuals whose complementary skills fit to perfection, and a defensive unit that responded affirmatively under the spotlight, the Netherlands surfed a mounting wave of confidence to the final triumph, dispatching two former winners (Norway and Sweden), belying a regional rival (Belgium), routing the mighty English in the semi-finals and twice overcoming a Danish squad that more than any other seemed to trouble them. In the group stage, when the Dutch were fortunate to secure the 1-0 win, and in the Grand finale, as the hosts chased the score for the first time and rose admirably to the challenge.

A necessary final ordeal to attest this young, highly-talented Dutch squad had been elected to succeed those all-conquering German teams, and was destined to double the number of countries that have won the men’s and women’s UEFA European Championship.

NHL playoff series digested: Washington Capitals – Pittsburgh Penguins (3-4)

Under the fratricidal breadth of playoff action, it doesn’t get much better than when the Presidents’ Trophy winners face off against the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Much less when both can throw a constellation of stars into the fray.

For the second consecutive postseason, Pittsburgh and Washington squared off in round two of the Stanley Cup playoffs and through peaks and valleys ended up on familiar locations: the Penguins preparing for the next stage of their trip and the Capitals headed to the greens after the ninth downfall in ten postseason confronts between the two franchises.

Series Results:

Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 2: Pittsburgh Penguins 6 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 3: Washington Capitals 3 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins (OT)

Game 4: Washington Capitals 2 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 5: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 4 Washington Capitals

Game 6: Washington Capitals 5 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 7: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Washington Capitals

 

Washington can’t turn thorough dominance into scoreline supremacy

A rundown of all major predictors of success in the NHL encapsulates how commanding were the Washington Capitals throughout the 7 game slate, yet hockey can be a pre-eminently chaotic game and you might as well just hang onto that notion to explain how a series like these could go the distance, much less tip Pittsburgh’s way.

In the balance of the tie, Washington outshot Pittsburgh by a 229-161 margin, a 58% share, and the discrepancy was even bigger at five on five (176-121, 59%). Moreover, encompassing all shot attempts, the Capitals controlled even more of the play, racking up a 61.41% CF%, which adjusted for venue and score still comes down to a preposterous 60.30%. This is almost uncharted territory in the most unbalanced of playoff series – for instance, no other team topped a 56% share of possession in round two – and if you inspect other metrics, such as scoring chances (65.74% at 5 on 5) or high-dangerous shot attempts (55.88%), things don’t look much brighter for Pittsburgh.

Washington administered the puck for most of the time but struggled to wreck Pittsburgh’s defensive wall (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

And still, Pittsburgh outscored Washington 20-18 overall and 16-13 at even strength to make the best of their limited opportunities and escape with unlikely victories in Game 1, when the Capitals wasted a 41-15 edge in scoring chances, or Game 4, when a Sidney Crosby-less Penguins squad survived a 13-39 shot attempts deficit in periods two and three.

Regression eventually seemed to be dawning in face of the victories secured by the Capitals in Games 5 and 6, yet they wouldn’t take much solace of that in a winner-takes-all Game 7, furiously responding to the Penguins’ ice breaker in the second period only to be abandoned to their own back luck once again. Washington would find their disheartening end after cracking in the third period, incidentally one of just five (in 22) periods over the series where Pittsburgh claimed a larger slice of the shot pie.

Bryan Rust watches as his shot sails into the net to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead in Game 7 (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Penguins’ resiliency shows up in crucial moments

Up two games to one in their 2016 series against Washington, Pittsburgh clawed its way to a vital home victory in Game 4 without the suspended Kris Letang to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination. Fast forward twelve months and Pittsburgh guts out a 3-2 triumph to tighten the grip on the series in an even more perilous situation, this time missing their ailing superstar captain Sidney Crosby in addition to Letang,

Finding ways to win against all odds are one of the hallmarks of Championship-calibre squads and the Penguins, no matter how ugly it got at times, proved they were masters at it. At least against a Capitals team that devises innovative ways to recoil when facing their biggest rivals…or when staring the prospect of advancing to round three of the playoffs.

In times of adversity, the Pittsburgh Penguins found a way to overcome Washington (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

And so, after 2009 and 2016, history inclemently strutted down the same trail, with Pittsburgh edging Washington as much for their mental toughness and fortitude as for their on-ice prowess. In between fluky bounces of the puck and incredible saves by Fleury, It happened in Game 1, when the Capitals momentum from recovering from two goals down was shattered by a backbreaking Nick Bonino tally with just seven minutes to go in the third.

It almost happened in Game 3, when Pittsburgh snapped out of the trance dictated by Sidney Crosby’s early injury to tie the score with two 6 on 5 goals in the closing minutes before falling in overtime while wielding a 3-0 sledgehammer. It would, obviously, happen in Game 4, as they withstood the Capitals’ barrage to manufacture Justin Schultz’s powerplay goal that would stand as the game winner.

A (flightless) Penguin helps a Capitals’ player hover the ice in Game 6 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

And despite looking devoid of answers to counteract Washington’s physical pounding and clean up the bundle of turnovers that crippled their breakout in Games 5 and 6, it happened for Pittsburgh in Game 7, assembling a sturdy, unassuming road performance to shut down a desperate Washington team.

Braden Holtby gets outshined…again

During the 2016 encounter between these teams, Washington’s Braden Holtby was outplayed by rookie Matt Murray, but he still came out with the reputation unscathed since his final numbers looked respectable (2.57 GAA, .923 save percentage). Not this time though, as the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winner shoulders much of the blame for his team’s demise in view of a pedestrian 0.887 Sv% (and matching 0.887 EV Sv%).

While it’s never easy to perform on such a light workload – the Pens wired an average of 23 shots on goal per game -, Holtby is rather accustomed to backstopping an elite team that suppresses opportunities and he still whiffed way too much in the series. For instance, the Canadian goaltender got beat below the blocker in Nick Bonino’s partial breakaway that decided Game 1, was pulled in the second intermission of Game 2 after allowing three goals in just 14 shots, and couldn’t muster an additional save in Game 4 to bail out his team in a crucial match.

The puck shot by Matt Cullen sneaks by Braden Holtby’s body in Game 2 (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Capitals’ netminder improved alongside his teammates later, shining in the third period of Game 5 to preserve the Capitals lead, but it all came crashing down in Game 7. Down 1-0, that weak, fluttering backhand from Patric Hornqvist which handcuffed the 27-year-old simply couldn’t fly past him. Not in the third period of a match where so much was at stake for the franchise. In that moment, an already deflated Capitals team capitulated for good.

Conversely, Marc-Andre Fleury, who filled in for the injured Matt Murray, had a series to remember, as much for his overall output (2.57 GAA, 0.921 Sv%, 0.930 EV Sv%, 1 SO) as for seizing the opportunity to recapture his playoff pedigree. Stepping up to the task brilliantly during the first four games, he then rebounded from getting light up in Games 5 and 6 to shut the door in Game 7. In the process, ghosts of years past were eradicated from his head. Maybe Holtby and the Capitals took notice.

Best players in the series

Evgeni Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals)

The Russian center found some redemption for the disappointing performance of last year’s postseason, when a single assist picked up in six games ascertained his status as one of the patsies of another Capitals’ letdown.

Evgeni Kuznetsov celebrates Washington’s go-ahead goal in the third period of Game 5 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Kuznetsov’s 7 points tied Nicklas Backstrom for the team lead and his four goals, all obtained at even strength, seemed to pop out in important junctures: the 25-year-old momentarily levelled the score in the third period of Game 1, scored in back to back games in Pittsburgh, and later found a gap short side to substantiate the Caps rally in Game 5.

A dangerous presence who generated regular offense (24 SOG, 61.0 adj. CF%, 65.31 SCF%) regardless of the matchup against Evgeni Malkin or Nick Bonino, the 25-year-old’s contributions could have been even more significant had his linemates, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, been able to find the mesh in the many chances the play of Kuznetsov generated.

Marc-André Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins)

The 32-year-old goaltender was Pittsburgh’s stabilizing force on so many occasions over the 7 games that it is impossible to name them all, but in Pittsburgh’s collective memory one instant will certainly linger. The moment when the shaft of Fleury’s stick deflected an Alex Ovechkin bullet billed for the top corner in the second period of Game 7, preserving the precious one-goal advantage.

Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury denies Evgeni Kuznetsov with a spectacular save in Game 3 (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fleury certainly savoured all the big saves on what was his greatest playoff series performance since 2009 – and final one in a Penguins sweater – yet some of his teammates also chipped in decisively.

Rookie Jake Guentzel amassed a series high +5 and 8 pts (4+4), while Evgeni Malkin (3 + 4) drove the Penguins’ group that drew closest to positive territory in the possession front (47.97 adj. CF%) and remarkably compiled a 17-10 advantage in high dangerous shot attempts. Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby, despite being knocked out by Matt Niskanen in the first minutes of Game 3 and appearing…vulnerable after coming back, surfaced in selective instances to post 7 pts and a +4 rating in direct confront with the Capitals’ top defensive pair and most potent forward line.

Will the Washington Capitals return to the playoffs next year? 

Yes, even if their reign at the top of the NHL regular season standings is probably a thing of the past. Such is life in the league when all the chips are pushed to the table in two consecutive seasons, the team falls short and a bevy of important players hit the market at the same time.

Due to salary cap constraints, tough choices needed to be made this summer in Washington and the result was a major facelift to the roster. Against most projections, the Capitals retained top-line winger TJ Oshie, but they had to fork over 46M to close an 8-year deal that they may soon regret, while Evgeni Kuznetsov used KHL leverage to pry his own max-term extension at the premium rate of 7.8M per year. Furthermore his compatriot Dmitry Orlov signed a six-year pact that will pay him 5.1M per season, essentially ending Kevin Shattenkirk’s brief cameo in red and blue and Karl Alzner’s long tenure in Washington.

Justin Williams was one of the players that left Washington this offseason (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The 28-year-old Alzner signed with Montreal, while fellow UFA Justin Williams returned to Carolina, squeezed out by Kuznetsov’s big ticket, which also forced GM Brian MacLellan to trade Marcus Johansson to New Jersey for pennies on the dollar. In between, RFA Andre Burakovsky re-signed and UFA forward Devante Smith Pelley was added to the fold, however defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was line for a promotion to a top-four role, was scooped up by Vegas in the expansion draft to compound an offseason of suffering for Capitals’ fans.

With 4M in cap space and just 17 players on the active roster, Washington still needs one or two top-nine forwards to replenish the attack in addition to couple of depth defenseman, therefore opportunities are inevitably on the way for their youngsters. Jakub Vrana, the 13th overall pick in 2014, and 23-year-old Travis Boyd, who collected 63 pts at the AHL level in 2016-17, are names to watch up front, while Christian Djoos, a 2012 7th round pick who posted 58 pts in the minors, and former second rounder Madison Bowie are eyeing regular blueline duty.

Developing the in-house reinforcements to pick up the slack of the departed lot will take time, but you can never discount a team built around the likes of Alexander Ovechkin (signed until 2022), Nicklas Backstrom (2020), Matt Niskanen (2021) and Braden Holtby (2020). At least in the regular season, that is.

Another season, another playoff collapse for Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals in front of their fans (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group D

Full of geographic curiosities by congregating the two Iberian countries (Portugal and Spain) and two of the nations that comprise the United Kingdom (England and Scotland), Group D may ultimately fail to deliver much in the way of drama since the strongest sides are expected to bully the two debutants. Consequently, it’s entirely up to Portugal and injury-ravaged Scotland the task of spoiling the pre-written narrative.

England

Despite having previously reached the final at the Euro 2009, England’s campaign at the 2015 World Cup – where they overcome Germany to secure bronze – has been considered the dawn of a new era for the “The Lionesses”.

A period where England is a full-fledged candidate for every title in women’s football on the strength of a fully professional national league (FA WSL) backed by the deep pockets of famous English Premier League outfits. The likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City are heavily represented in the experienced English roster, and with that comes the realisation there’s no reason to acquiesce to anyone but the Queen. The English ladies are going for the European crown, full stop.

Qualification: Group 7 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearances: Eight

Best Performance: Finalist (1984, 2009)

Head Coach: Mark Sampson (WAL)

Star Player: Karen Carney (Chelsea FC)

The Birmingham native is one of the longest serving players in the English roster since she prepares to take the field in a fourth European Championships, and it’s fair to say she never had so many good teammates to cooperate with.

England’s midfielder Karen Carney prepares to launch a long pass across the field

Usually deployed on the left side of the midfield, Carney perfectly personifies the gritty mentality the English love for her zeal looking to recover the ball, yet she also possesses the skill to manufacture offense in waves. Right footed, the Chelsea winger regularly strays from the flank to take her chances inside the opposing block, looking to disentangle defences with her trickery, propensity to play one-twos with the forwards and smart passing.

A bold, energetic style that betrays her old struggles with depression, an illness that almost put an end to her career precociously. England fans are certainly glad that story also took a turn for the best.

Player to watch: Jordan Nobbs (Arsenal FC)

Limited to a single appearance at the 2015 World Cup due to injury, the time has finally come for Jordan Nobbs, a former standout for England’s youth teams who has yet to shine in a major senior international competition.

A lithe midfielder of exquisite technique who loves to shoot from distance and play balls over the top, “Nobber” is utilized as a right midfielder by Mark Sampson so that she can overload central areas and expose her superior playmaking skills, which significantly boost the fluidity of England’s game in the final third.

Capable of lighting up a game with an extraordinary long-range howitzer or a superb assist, it’s time Jordan Nobbs’ name surfaces across the continent when mentioning the best midfielders around.

England’s Jordan Nobbs attempts to keep the ball in play

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): K. Bardsley; L. Bronze – S. Houghton (C) – M. Bright – D. Stokes; J. Nobbs – J. Moore – J. Scott– K. Carney; T. Duggan – E. White

The 4x4x2 is almost as ancestral as the sport in England, and Mark Sampson respectfully hasn’t deviated from it even if there’s a nuance worth mentioning.  Both Nobbs and Carney aren’t the usual line-hugging wingers and love to move inside, therefore the width is mainly provided by the overlapping runs of the full backs, especially the marauding Lucy Bronze.

Regarding the lineup, in comparison with the team that made history in Canada the fresh faces are center back Millie Bright (Chelsea) and midfielder Jade Moore (Reading), who seem to have usurped veterans Laura Bassett and Fara Williams, respectively. In attack, Toni Duggan is close to untouchable, but Ellen White faces a lot of competition from Jodie Taylor, Nikita Parris and diminutive Fran Kirby.

Spain

Verónica Boquete, “la Princesa del deporte rey” has been the flag bearer of Spain’s women’s football for close to a decade.

Verónica Boquete has scored more goals (38) than any other player in Spain’s national team history, including eight at the Euro 2017 qualification phase.

Verónica Boquete, elite level playmaker, played over 30 matches this season for Paris St. German, the UEFA Women’s Champions League Finalists.

Verónica Boquete, 30 years old, is still widely regarded as Spain’s best offensive player.

Verónica Boquete is NOT in Spain’s Euro 2017 roster for “performance”-related reasons, according to Coach Jorge Vilda. Incomprehensible.

Nonetheless, Vero or no Vero, Spain is a deep well of confidence following an imposing qualifying campaign, and there are expectations La Roja is finally ready to enter the conversation concerning Europe’s best teams.

After all, it would simply ride the example established a long time ago by their youth teams, perennial contenders at the U-17 and U-19 level, and more recently by the Spanish clubs, with each passing season gaining traction against their German, French, Swedish and English counterparts.

Qualification: Group 2 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1997)

Head Coach: Jorge Vilda

Star Player: Verónica Boquete Irene Paredes (Paris St. Germain, FRA)

A mainstay of Spain’s backend for many seasons, Irene Paredes Hernández achieved a new level of recognition over the last two seasons by marshalling Athletic Bilbao to an unlikely Primera Division title in 2015-16, and following it up with a high profile move to Qatari-backed PSG.

Irene Paredes rallies her teammates during a World Cup qualifier in Italy

The 26-year-old went on to quickly pick up the reigns of the French defence, and performed at an admirable level on their campaign to the Champions League Final, displaying all the qualities of modern center backs: speed, agility, aerial prowess, assertiveness under pressure, and poise handling the ball and completing the first pass from the back.

Four years after scoring an own goal in Spain’s quarter-final affair at the Euro 2013, she will be looking for redemption with a national team hoping to build on the triumph at the 2017 Algarve Cup, a competition where Paredes was, not  incidentally, named “Best Player”.

Player to watch: Alexia Putellas (FC Barcelona)

After taking part in consecutive European Championships at the U-17 level, Alexia debuted for the senior team as a 19-year-old and in time to secure a place on the roster that would reach the last eight at the Euro 2013. Four years have passed since then, and her influence on Spain’s and Barcelona’s game still hasn’t stopped growing

A versatile left footer that is comfortable as an interior, winger or supporting forward, Alexia Putellas is one of Vilda’s favourites because she can either act as the main conduit of offense in the center of the park, or provide a dangerous presence out wide, curling balls into the area and attacking the far post. At age 23, and with three Spanish League titles on her résumé, one of the brightest faces of Spain’s ambitious generation is also the key to unlock new heights.

Spain’s midfielder Alexia Putellas (#21, white) has the guile to get out of difficult situations

Probable Lineup (3x5x2): S. Paños; I. Paredes – A. Pereira – M. Léon; M. Torrejón (C) – V. Losada – V. Torrecilla – A. Putellas – L. Ouahabi; J. Hermoso – O. Garcia

Jorge Vilda replaced long-time manager Ignacio Quereda after the fiasco at the 2015 World Cup, and he gradually introduced a backline of three to rip into the tactical DNA of a team that used to run a 4x3x3 or 4x2x3x1.

With more elements operating in central areas, the possession-based style was maintained, but the defensive record improved significantly, as Spain allowed just two goals in qualifying and scored 39. A testament to the progresses experienced by many players, including “carrilleras” Marta Torrejón and Leila Ouahabi, whose offensive propensity really shines in this system.

Without Vero Boquete, new Paris St. Germain recruit Jenifer Hermoso – who tallied 35 goals this season – is the major offensive catalyst, while the greatest dilemma is the identity of the starting goalkeeper. Lola Gallardo’s Atletico Madrid pipped Sandra Paños’ Barcelona for the Spanish title, but it’s the latter that seems to hold the inside lane in this race of 24-year-olds.

Scotland

If a very demanding draw and a quarrel between the players and the Scottish Football Association over compensation wasn’t already enough to cast a large cloud over Scotland’s perspectives at the Euro 2017, the last months of preparation brought an additional element: an injury-barrage that all but ends their chances of upstaging England and Spain for a place in the quarter-finals.

Forward Lizzie Arnott and defensemen Jennifer Beattie and Emma Mitchell, all prospective starters, were ruled out in the weeks leading up to the tournament, but those misfortunes fall short of the monumental problem that is the absence of 2016 BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year and Arsenal FC’s star playmaker Kim Little, who suffered an anterior cruciate knee ligament rupture in club training.

An untimely injury took Scotland’s star Kim Little out of the competition

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 1 (7W, 1D), inferior goal difference in tie with Iceland

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Anna Signeul (SWE)

Star Player: Lisa Evans (Bayern Munich, GER)

Without the talent of Kim Little at their disposal, Scotland will have to rely even more on the hardworking, resilient nature of most of their players, and there’s no better example to follow than winger Lisa Evans.

Even though she wasn’t blessed with the speed, creativity or flash of many positional counterparts, the 25-year-old has still been able to attract the interest of clubs such as Turbine Potsdam, Bayern Munich and Arsenal  FC because few can match her tactical awareness and willingness to sacrifice individual accolades for the better of the team. Feisty and diligent tracking down the flank, Evans hugs the line to provide width in attack, but can also dash towards the goal or surprise defenders with diagonal runs.

No doubts remain that Scotland will have to stand firm in the face of adversity and take advantage of every offensive transition. That’s where Evans’ versatility and stamina could prove essential.

Player to watch: Caroline Weir (Liverpool FC, ENG)

Caroline Weir proudly wears the No. 10 shirt for Liverpool FC, and such honour serves to bestow the potential of a player Scotland’s managers believe is able to pick up part of the slack left by Kim Little.

Caroline Weir is one of Scotland’s key midfielders

A gritty midfielder that always plays with her head up, Caroline Weir has the vision to deliver passes from afar to center forward Jane Ross or the wingers cutting inside, yet her true strength lies on the ability to slow the game down, hold the ball and wait for the play to develop in front of her eyes.

A feature that she’ll explore at the European Championships, since the 22-year-old is bound to operate a few meters closer to the goal, looking to support the lone forward and make the best of opportunities to hit from long range with her excellent left foot.

Probable Lineup (4x5x1): G. Fay (C); K. Smith – I. Dieke – V. Barsley – H. Lauder; L. Evans – L. Crichton – R. Corsie – C. Weir – Fi. Brown; J. Ross

Scotland’s usual formation is the 4x2x3x1, but against their rivals in Group D expect a much more compact 4x5x1, with striker Jane Ross left to her own luck and no clearly defined creative fulcrum filling the void of Little. The better they can do is deposit their hopes in Lisa Evans and Caroline Weir, who should have green light to take their chances offensively.

As for the other substitutes called to action, center back Vaila Barsley is the most promising. A recent discovery by Scotland’s staff, she’s been exceptional filling in for Jenn Beatie while club teammate Fiona Brown seems to have locked down the left midfield position on the strength of a series of impressive showings.

Portugal

Fifteen of the top seventeen ranked teams at the time of the qualifying group phase draw ended up securing qualification to the Euro 2017. Care to bet who wasn’t supposed to be here?

The Portuguese women, listed on Pot D (26th) but surprise runners-up in Group 2. They upset the Republic of Ireland and Finland (the only finalist in 2013 to miss out this time) to snatch a playoff spot, and then ousted Romania to reach the Finals.

Portuguese players celebrated an historic qualification to the Euro 2017 after defeating Romania

Home to the reigning men’s European Champions, this is a massive step for a country where women’s football has been nothing more than an afterthought outside of a few days every March, when they host a prestigious international tournament in the region of Algarve.

That being said, what’s a realistic target in Dutch soil? Escape alive against England and Spain, first and foremost, and try to squeeze something out of the match versus Scotland.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 2 (4W, 1D, 3L), 11 points behind Spain; defeated Romania in the playoff on away goals (1-1)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Francisco Neto

Star Player: Cláudia Neto (Linköpings FC, SWE)

Portugal’s captain is their only World class player and, it turns out, also the inspirational leader. That much was plainly evident in qualification, when Cláudia Neto’s six goals rescued several crucial points to make the dream come true.

Key figure for Linköpings’s Damallsvenskan success last year, 2016 was truly a banner year for the 29-year-old midfielder, who does so much of the heavy lifting for this Portuguese team. Neto is a transitional force, carrying the ball up the field, a playmaker, recognizing passes others can’t, a pace-setter, a chance-creator and, finally, a goal scorer.

Cláudia Neto’s hat trick against Finland reinvigorated Portugal’s qualifying campaign

A facet instigated by Francisco Neto’s curious decision to slot his most important player as close to the other teams’ net as possible, wagering she could bury more opportunities than her colleagues would with the roles reversed. Until now, it has worked so well that Cláudia Neto is regularly nicknamed CN7, a cheeky comparison to a certain superstar footballer who happens to be a compatriot.

Player to watch: Diana Silva (Sporting CP)

The revelation of the Portuguese League in 2016-17 is expected to come off the bench at the tournament since Francisco Neto values experience to a tee, but be on the lookout for her disconcerting presence up front.

While undeniably raw on her movements and technical gestures, there’s an intriguing potential latent on Diana Silva, a striker that impresses for her quickness and mobility across the front end, yet isn’t afraid to work hard to get the ball back or enter in confrontation with the most rugged defensive players. Moreover, in possession, she can prove daunting to handle with time to accelerate, dribbling past the clumsiest opponents to set up her teammates or try to score.

At age 22, Diana Silva can still be considered a diamond in a rough, and an international career may be in the cards if she finds a way to make the most of her time in the Netherlands.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): Patrícia Morais; Matilde Fidalgo – Sílvia Rebelo – Carole Costa – Ana Borges; Dolores Silva, Vanessa Marques – Suzane Pires, Carolina Mendes; Ana Leite – Cláudia Neto (C);

In the most decisive of moments, the two-legged playoff with Romania, Portugal lined up on a 4x4x2 with a diamond-shaped midfield, and it’s possible things will remain that way for the final tournament in spite of a sharp rise in the quality of the opposition. However, a more rational option would be the return to a stingiest 4x2x3x1, with Cláudia Neto dropping back to partner defensive anchor Dolores Silva or, in alternative, holing up between the lines.

Portugal’s Dolores Silva jumps past the challenge of a Romanian player

Portugal’s main factor of disturbance is Ana Borges, a lightning quick winger adapted to the left back position who loves to charge up the field in possession. Meanwhile, Neto and Dolores Silva are the stalwarts of Portugal’s midfield and Ana Leite a mobile, German-educated forward that is a favourite of the coach.

The rest of the midfield and attack, though, is easily interchangeable, with the likes of Mélissa Antunes, Fátima Pinto, Amanda da Costa, Laura Luís and Diana Silva hunting down an opportunity to start.