Month: Jun 2015

The main NHL draft gems since 2005

The NHL draft is one of the season’s most exciting events for a lot of NHL fans: two days of high expectations, an irrational belief in a better future for their beloved team and a rousing welcome of a franchise-saving bunch of teenage boys. It’s a chance to change the fortunes and history of entire organizations and that can happen not only on the first round but also during the frenzy of action of the crucial second day.

The value of late round picks has always been controversial and most fans usually disregard them when their GM’s throw it around like hot bread on trades that actually don’t do a lot for the rosters mid-season. In fact, it’s difficult to get all riled up for a player that won’t suit up for three, four, five years, but the history of the league has a basket full of superstars absolutely mined out of nowhere. The journeys of guys like Pavel Datsyuk (1998, 171th overall), Henrik Zetterberg (1999, 210th) or Henrik Lundqvist (2000, 205th) towards Hall-of-Fame-worthy careers are well documented even if the magic of the mysterious scout that uncovers gold on an eerie venue at the end of the (hockey) world is getting increasingly difficult on an era where information flows freely and instantly.

Until 2004, the NHL draft consisted of nine rounds that allowed for a plethora of home runs but the post-lockout landscape brought alterations that affected also the process of selecting young prospects, with the event now limited to seven rounds and (usually) 210 picks. Away from the first and second round choices, which a significant portion of everyday NHL fans have heard or read about on the weeks leading up to the event, dozens of players have their rights assigned to different teams although only a few pair of eyes have had the opportunity to witness their capacities on the ice. Obviously, most of them never reach the highest level but a selected few go on to make a real impact on the world’s best hockey league.

This article tackles the individuals that managed to fight those odds, highlighting the top players selected by NHL organizations on rounds 4 to 7 since 2005. After scouring the draft lists of each year, I ordered the top 10 players on that range based on the general impact they’ve already been able to produce, the individual and team success they’ve been a part off and, especially for the younger guys, the feats they may amount to.

The ranking is obviously biased by my own preferences but an overall overview shows that a single organization contributed with more than one name (no, not the Detroit Red Wings…) and there’s a balanced mix of positions and ages. However, unsurprisingly, the oldest events add more chips to the mix, with the latest choices hailing from 2011 – as expected, players picked since 2012 have yet to assemble a body of work worthy of consideration.

I assembled a small text for every player featured, including a resume of his earliest seasons, before and after getting drafted, their accomplishments and how they managed to develop in order to break into the NHL.

10. Niklas Hjalmarsson (CHI, 2005, 4th round, 108th pick)

Niklas Hjalmarsson, defenseman of the Stanley Cup Champions Chicago Blackhawks

Every time you can steal a core member of a roster that wins three Stanley Cups on the fourth round, you’re definitely doing something right.

The native of Eksjo was the fourth Swedish selected on the 2005 draft and the first defenceman at a time where the country was on the downside in terms of talent production, with only 12 players picked up on that weekend at Ottawa (at least 20 Swedes have been selected every year since 2009).

Hjalmarsson’s professional career started at HV71 but it was only in 2006-2007 that he asserted himself has a regular of the Jonkoping outfit, moving across the pond on the next summer to represent the Hawks affiliate on the AHL. He played 13 games for the NHL team during that season but his place was only secured towards the end of the following season, with the defenseman gaining valuable experience as a member of the emerging Chicago team on the playoffs. One year later, already established as a bonafide top 4 defenseman, Hjalmarsson was a key part on the team that brought the Stanley Cup to Chicago for the first time in 49 years, and his play was so impressive that the San Jose Sharks extended an (always rare) offer sheet to the defender, which was quickly matched by Chicago. Over the last few seasons he has collected two more titles and thousands of miles manning the Hawks’ blue-line and was also a member of the Swedish team that left the 2012 Sochi Olympics with a silver medal.

As a young prospect, Hjalmarsson was considered an unassuming, promising two-way defenseman with a good shot and capable of jumping on the play, but he ended specializing as a shutdown force for the Blackhawks, logging major minutes on the PK and punishing opponents with a physical brand of hockey.

9. Brendan Gallagher (MON, 2010, 5th round, 147th pick)

The undersized Edmonton native was always an undervalued asset during his formative years and that didn’t change in time for his NHL draft day. A ninth round pick on the 2007 WHL draft by the Vancouver Giants, the (now) 5-9 right-wing took a season to join his junior squad but made a real impact in short order, scoring 41 goals and 81 points on his draft year (2009-10), the second season for the Giants. However, his strong numbers weren’t enough to convince the scouts that the feisty winger could succeed on the NHL and he was an unheralded player on the selection held in LA.

Gallagher spent two more years in Vancouver, amassing 40 goals twice more, becoming a League All-Star and the team’s all-time scoring leader, but his major eye-opening appearance came after he snatched a spot on the always competitive Canadian U-20 roster, that disputed the 2012 World Junior Championships. He went pro a few months later and, twelve months after being one of the last cuts for the Canadiens opening day roster, the NHL lockout provided some time to gain invaluable experience at the AHL level. On January, at age 20, came his long-awaited NHL debut and Gallagher ended the season with 28 points and a nomination for best rookie of the regular season.

Over 207 NHL games, the Canadiens spark plug has already added 116 points and 58 goals and his fast, gritty approach have made him a fan-favourite of the exigent Montreal crowd, putting him among the leading candidates to don a letter for the proud franchise on the future. With a nice and quick release, the 23-year crashes the net with abandon, battles hard in the corners and plays bigger than his size, having become a role model for small players looking to build a successful career on the NHL.

8. Patric Hornqvist (NAS, 2005, 7th round, 230th pick)

From last player selected on the 2005 NHL draft to the main winger on a team blessed with the two most gifted centres in the NHL. Drafted out of Vasby IK, a small club from the Stockholm region, the Swedish winger is another player who has succeeded in the NHL on the basis of an exceptional work rate and the maximization of his strengths.

Hornqvist debuted on the principal Swedish league only in 2005 and played for Djurgarden over three seasons, including a 23-goal performance in 2006-07 that earned him a rookie of the year nomination. He decided to join the Predators organization in 2008, splitting the season between Milwaukee (17 goals in 49 games) and Nashville (28 games), but his breakout came in 2009-10, when he collected 30 goals and 51 points to lead the team and was also called to represent his country on the Vancouver Olympics. In 2014, Hornqvist was traded for the Pittsburgh Penguins, equalling his biggest career point total despite missing 18 games due to injury.

Pittsburgh Penguins’ winger Patric Hornqvist

The Sollentuna native scored, at least, 21 goals on every (non-lockout) NHL season since 2010 and has turned into a dependable top 6 scoring forward that can hang with creative players, retrieve pucks efficiently and excel around the net. Usually placed among the players with the most shots on goal on the NHL, the Swede is considered a high volume shooter that lacks some foot speed and skating skills but certainly knows where to go on the ice.
After picking up more than 130 goals in 427 games, there’s no doubt that Hornqvist has severely outperformed the draft day expectations.

7. TJ Brodie (CGY, 2008, 4th round, 114th pick)

Born in Chatham, Ontario, the Calgary Flames’ defenseman played four seasons on the OHL for the Saginaw Spirit, developing his craft against the most talented Canadian major junior players. Brodie’s first full-time season for the Spirit came in 2007-08, his draft year, and the 30 points certainly didn’t jump of the page but it was enough to convince the Flames to take a chance on the smooth-skating defenseman.

The following year he amassed 50 points and on his last junior season the defenseman was traded for a contending Barrie Colts team, losing the OHL title but gaining valuable experience on high-stakes matches. Brodie turned professional in 2010 and made the Calgary roster out of camp but the season was spent mostly in Abbotsford, where he emerged as one of the Flames blue-chip prospects and represented the AHL team on the league’s All-Star Game.

Since 2011, the 25-year-old has been part of the Flames roster, slowly climbing the depth chart until the definitive explosion in 2013-2014, when the pair formed with captain Mark Giordano was unanimously recognized as one of the finest in the NHL. In 2014-15, Brodie set career-highs in goals (11) and points (41) and anchored the team’s defence after Giordano went down late in the season, impressing everyone with his all-around prowess, capacity to log major minutes (over 25 per game) and poise. The Flames two-way blueliner even received some Norris trophy buzz, capping an under-the-radar progression that took most NHL fans by surprise.

6. Mark Stone (OTT, 2010, 6th round, 178th pick)

The finalist for the 2015 Calder Trophy still has a lot to prove at the NHL level, but the second part of his rookie season was thoroughly impressive and merited a place on this list.

The Winnipeg-native played his junior hockey for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL and was another player that spent all four years on the CHL before turning pro. His first two seasons were unspectacular, including a 28-point performance on a draft year that was marred by a concussion and a thumb injury, sending Stone’s name down the draft ranks. However, the Sens took a chance on a talented power forward with a suspect skating stride and are just starting to reap the benefits. Stone had 106 points in 71 games in 2010-2011, added 123 more the following year, and this success, coupled with a strong presence at the World Juniors, provided enough confidence to leave Brandon and join the Senators organization.

The right winger spent the next two seasons playing for the AHL’s Binghampton Senators and was capable of producing offense at decent levels (two 15-goal seasons) but nothing predicted the breakthrough he enjoyed in 2014-15. Stone led all NHL players in points after the All-Star break, diabolizing opponents alongside top center Kyle Turris, and was an essential piece on a Sens team that put on a magical run to secure a playoff spot on the last game of the regular season. He ended with 26 goals and 64 points to tie for the rookie lead and showcased his hockey smarts, impressive pair of hands and underrated release while using his imposing 6-3 frame to appear on the scoring areas.

Mark Stone, the Ottawa Senators star rookie winger in 2014-15

Some will argue that the Senators’ winger is poised for a sophomore slump next season and NHL history is full of guys that never delivered on triumphal entrances, but everyone who saw him dominate for stretches in March and April knows how talented he is. Further improving his skating will help him contribute when the pucks suddenly stop hitting the back of the net and build a successful NHL career.

5. Ondrej Palat (TBL, 2011, 7th round, 208th pick)

A product of his hometown club, HC Frydek-Mistek, and HC Viktovice’s youth teams, Palat was not selected on the 2009 draft and decided to move to North America, joining the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs. However, 40 points in 59 games weren’t enough to convince an organization to give him a chance yet again and the forward had to go back to junior. 39 goals and 96 points later, someone had finally bought in on his style of play and the then 20-year-old had the chance to claim an NHL jersey.

The Tampa Bay Lightning signed Palat to an entry-level deal shortly after the 2011 selection and he immediately reported to the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, taking part on a team that would win a record 28 consecutive games and capture the Calder Cup. From the 30 points of his debut season, Palat jumped to 52 in 56 games during 2012-2013 and the reward was a 14-game stint for the Bolts after the NHL lockout ended.

Czech Republic’s Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning’s two-way force

The Czech made the Lightning roster out of training camp the following season, joining his AHL linemates Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik, and he was so impressive that his 23-goals and 59-points warranted a nomination for rookie of the year, alongside Johnson, and a place on his country Olympic Games’ roster.

His creativity, playmaking ability and quickness produced abundantly at the NHL level in 2014-15, amassing 16 goals and 63 points in 75 games, and Palat has also evolved into a top-notch two-way winger, extremely responsible on every zone, which resulted in a stunning +31 differential. The lack of size and strength that kept him down early on his professional career has been minimized and the Czech has every tool to have a long and fruitful NHL career.

4. Keith Yandle (ARI, 2005, 4th round, 105th pick)

The Boston-native was drafted out of high school, specifically the Cushing Academy, in 2005 and decided to forgo a commitment to the University of New Hampshire in order to join the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL. Yandle would only play one season of major junior since his 25 goals and 84 points led the Wildcats to the league’s Championship and were worthy of Defenseman of the Year honours, which persuaded the Coyotes to quickly pry away the offensive dynamo.

Former Arizona Coyotes’ defenseman Keith Yandle

In 2006-07, Yandle developed the defensive aspects of his game against more experienced players at the AHL level, adding 33 points for the San Antonio Rampage, and the decisive jump for the NHL would arrive on the second half of the following season, playing 43 games for the Phoenix side. Since 2008-09, the skilled blue liner has established himself as one of the best powerplay quarterbacks in the league, using a lethal one-timer, excellent offensive instincts and superior skating ability to help his teammates create scoring chances. Naturally, Yandle has picked up interesting point totals over the years, scoring over 10 goals from 2009 to 2012, and collecting a career-high 59 points during the 2011-2012 campaign.

His mobility helps him get away from the fearless forecheckers in the NHL but he suffers with the bulkiest forwards on physical confrontations, something that, along with his positional lapses, has limited his usage on defensive situations. Yandle was traded to the New York Rangers before the 2014-15 trade deadline and the move will significantly increase his profile and the pressure to perform on a major market, far away from the obscurity of Phoenix. The way he deals with that will define how the 28-year-old career will be remembered.

3. Braden Holtby (WAS, 2008, 4th round, 93rd pick)

Drafting goalies is always a challenge and, consequently, the current group of elite goaltenders in the NHL was selected all over the place, from Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury, all top 5 picks, to Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne, 7th and 8th round picks, respectively. In this sense, Braden Holtby is like Jonathan Quick, a third round pick in 2005, since one understands that they could just as easily had flamed out.

Holtby had a 0.895 SV% in 2006-07 for the Saskatoon Blades and on his draft season the numbers were slightly better but not eye-popping (2.84 GAA, 0.908 SV%). He left the WHL a year later to join the Hershey Bears (with some ECHL starts here and there) and won the AHL Championship during his first season, posting interesting numbers (37 W, 2.32 GAA, 0.917 SV%) and solidifying his status as one to watch on a pipeline brimming with talent on the position.

November of 2010 marked his NHL debut and he collected 10 W and 2 SO from 14 stellar games before being sent down. He played just seven games for Washington the following regular season, amassing 40 wins for the Bears, but was named the Caps starting goalie in the playoffs as the team fell in the second round to the Rangers. In 2012-13, he finally took regular duties in Washington after the end of the lockout and enjoyed a nice season (2.13 GAA, 0.920 SV%) but his numbers suffered a bit in 2013-14, as he split time with Michal Neuvirth.

Washington Capitals’ goalie Braden Holbty showing off his athleticism

And then, last season arrived, with Holtby capitalizing on the trust of new coach Barry Trotz to play an incredible 72 times in the regular season plus 13 playoff games. The Saskatchewanian was one of the top goalies in the NHL, breaking the 40-win mark, and posting a 2.22 GAA and 0.923 SV% due to his above-average mix of athleticism, size and agility, coupled with an unwavering self-confidence. Just 25-years-old, the workhorse goalie has claimed the net after some years of instability at the position for the franchise, and the Caps are certainly happy they choose to bet on him after letting go other high-prized goalie prospects like Semyon Varlamov and Neuvirth, both picked on the top 34 of the 2006 draft.

2. Johnny Gaudreau (CGY, 2011, 4th round, 104th pick)

Johnny Gaudreau, the Calgary Flames’ offensive wizard

A natural of New Jersey, the diminutive left winger played on the Philadelphia region growing up and moved to the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2010, collecting 72 points in 60 games during his draft year to be named the league’s best rookie. His small frame (5-6), though, scared a lot of NHL teams and despite outstanding offensive instincts, more than 100 names were called before Gaudreau’s at Minnesota on draft weekend.

However, “Johnny Hockey” would not be discouraged and joined the Boston College in the fall to start a prized NCAA career. On his freshman year, the winger had 44 points in 44 games and was named the MVP of the traditional Beanpot tournament, before improving to 51 points in 36 games as a sophomore, the NCAA’s best point per game average, thus effectively becoming the team’s go-to guy. A finalist for the Hobey Baker award during a season where he also represented the USA on the World U-20 Championships – shining with a tournament-leading 7 goals and a place on the All-Star team – Gaudreau decided to return to Boston for a third college season.

The choice proved right as he set the NCAA on fire by establishing historical offensive figures, namely a 2 points-per-game pace (80 in 40 games), the highest of any player in more than a decade. Despite losing the title on the final against Union, he was obviously nominated as NCAA’s top player of the season and joined the Calgary Flames’ organization at the end of the regular season, taking advantage of the opportunity to open his professional scoring tally on the first shot of his only game. Before going on vacations, he still had to leave his mark on the World Championships, tallying 10 points on his first senior international competition.

Heading into 2014-15, the tantalizing Gaudreau had to carry the weight of expectations in Calgary and, after a slow start, he definitely did not disappoint. The 21-year-old delighted the fans with his elusiveness, creativity, superb puck control and stickhandling on the road to a 64-point rookie season, tying for the lead among his equals, taking part on the All-Star Game, and willing the Flames to a surprising playoff appearance. Now 5-9, the baby-faced star promises to be a dazzling NHL player for years to come and is yet another proof that the biggest talents always find a way to stand out at every level.

1. Jamie Benn (DAL, 2007, 5th round, 129th pick)

At the age of 25, the Victoria, BC native is already an Olympic Champion, an Art Ross Trophy winner and an NHL captain. Yet, most NHL teams had, at least, five chances to take him and none jumped at the opportunity.

Maybe the reasons can be rooted to a draft season played on the secondary BCHL, for the Victoria Grizzlies, instead of the major junior Canadian leagues, which he joined only on the 2007-2008 season, suiting up for the Kelowna Rockets. The left winger posted 65 points during his rookie season on the WHL, far from impressive totals at that level, and improved to 82 in just 56 games the following year to secure an All-Star team nomination. In the post-season, he performed even better, pacing the Rockets to the WHL title and a place on the Memorial Cup final, lost to Taylor Hall’s Windsor Spitfires even though Benn cracked the tournament’s All-Star team.

By this time, Jamie Benn was already a coveted prospect, having also taken part of Canada´s World Junior title in 2009, and it was only a mild surprise that he cracked the Dallas Stars’ line-up on his first professional season. He scrapped the usual AHL seasoning until the Calder Cup playoffs, when Benn led the Texas Stars to the final, amassing 26 points during the campaign.

Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn, the best late draft gem of the NHL since 2005

Displaying raw power forward qualities, the young winger scored 22 times during his rookie season and hasn’t stopped getting better since then, polishing his game and cracking 63 points in 2011-2012, before emerging as one of the best and most complete players in the world in 2013-2014, barely missing the elusive point per game mark with 79 in 81 appearances. He was also a key member of the Canadian team that triumphed at the Sochi Olympics.

In 2014-15, the Stars captain took his final step to stardom by tallying 87 points during the regular season, tops in the NHL, while his versatility and large frame, along with excellent sniping abilities and deft hands, create an invaluable specimen for the Dallas Stars and the envy of many other NHL organizations.

To end, a list of honourable mentions, players I also considered when comprising this list.

2005: Anton Stralman (TOR, 7th, 216th)
2007: Alec Martinez (LA, 4th, 95th); Jake Muzzin (PIT, 5th, 141th); Carl Hagelin (NYR, 6th, 168th)
2008: Gustav Nyquist (DET, 4th, 121th)
2009: Sami Vatanen (ANA, 4th, 106th), Marcus Kruger (CHI, 5th, 149th)
2010: John Klingberg (DAL, 5th, 131st); Frederik Andersen (ANA, 7th, 187th)
2011: Andrew Shaw (CHI, 5th, 139th)

Favourites and Stars of the 2015 Women’s World Cup

For some, it’s just the “other World Cup”. For smart football fans, it’s a great chance to catch up with the best female football players in the world on the biggest stage. “The same game, the same passion, the same emotion, different faces” could be a nice slogan for the Women’s World Cup, an event that keeps getting bigger, better and more interesting.

The 2015 edition, held in Canada, features 24 nations for the first time, 50% more than the customary, which is bound to result in some highly one-sided scores (see: Germany – Ivory Coast), but there’s no doubt that increasingly more countries are fuelling money for the women’s game and the field of candidates for the title expands on every occasion. Therefore, for almost a full month (6th June to 5th July), talented individuals will grace the stadiums of the six cities (Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver, spanning the entire Canadian territory) hosting the tournament, and produce unforgettable moments of football on the highly polemic synthetic grass pitches approved by FIFA.

This article aims to expose the major candidates to lift the Women’s World Cup trophy, point out the other teams that may leave a mark on the tournament and, along the way, introduce the biggest stars on the game. To start, I sort out the top five contenders to claim the whole thing.

5. Brazil

Despite becoming a powerhouse on women’s football on the last decade, the Brazilians have yet to clinch a major title, falling short on the 2007 World Cup final, to Germany, and the 2004 and 2008 Olympics (to USA).

Talent has never been a problem for the team, but the national federation understood that more had to be done in order to boast the chances of success. Therefore, they established a residency program for the national team’s players plying their trade at home, with the team training together, in Sao Paulo, through the whole year leading up to the World Cup. This method accounts for the lack of a sustainable national league on the country and improves chemistry on and off the field but there’s a slight weakness to the plan: superstar Marta (along with midfielder Beatriz), the five-times FIFA World Player of the year – and finalist in the last 11 years! – wasn’t there to prepare the competition with her teammates, which would certainly help in integrating her transcendent qualities on their style of play. It’s a problem this Brazil team faces now and then, not unlike the struggles of Lionel Messi and Argentina over the last international competitions…

The Brazilian follow Marta’s lead even in celebrations

Even if the Canarinhas will benefit from a pleasant group draw, facing debutants Spain and Costa Rica along with lowly South Korea, the danger is just around the corner, as the winner of group E will face, on the last 16, the runner-up of group D, highlighted by the USA and Sweden, possibly taking their journey to a premature close.

As is the norm with all of their teams, Brazil will rely heavily on the strength of the attack, with powerful striker Cristiane, she of the 74 international goals at the age of 30, once again joining forces with 29-year-old Marta to form an intimidating duo. Yet, the rest of their roster is not up to the par, with Formiga still being, at age 37 and on her sixth World Cup participation, a major component of their midfield with her tireless runs and outstanding work rate, doing justice to the nickname. Elsewhere, the adaptable midfielder/forward Andressa Alves is the only promising youngster who figures to make a real impact on the team, probably snatching a starting spot from the experienced Rosana (111 caps), and a lacking backline could be exposed by the high pressing style imposed by coach Vadao, something that was evident on last April’s 4-0 defeat to Germany.

With the Rio Olympics just a year away, the tournament can also be considered a stepping stone for a team that will be under real pressure to deliver gold. For the time being, Brazil will go as far as Marta can take them – Vadao recently said that ““Marta has the same impact on our team as Neymar does with the men’s side” – and that’s as dangerous for them as for their opponents, because she can dominate a game almost by herself and will them through the eliminatory rounds. I wouldn’t count on that, though.

4. Japan

The Nadeshiko defeated the USA on an unforgettable night in Frankfurt four years ago, but this time they won’t have the surprise factor on their side. Inspired by their people in 2011, just a few months after thousands of compatriots died on a terrible earthquake, Norio Sasaki’s side enjoyed a fairy-tale month, that included a shocking triumph over the hosts and tournament favourites on the quarter-finals, and a display of possession-heavy football that delighted the critics. From unknowns to recognizable figures, the 2011 World Cup brought attention to some of the team’s main stars and no other received as much laurels as the leader and Captain Homare Sawa, who left Germany as the tournament’s best player and would receive the FIFA Player of the Year award a few months later.

Japan’s Aya Miyama

Sawa would resign from the national team after the silver medal conquered in London 2012 but, at age 36 and 200 caps later, she’s back for another go-around, competing in her sixth World Cup and re-joining the brilliant Aya Miyama at the heart of Japan’s midfield. The pair is essential to the tiki-taka-like approach that the Japanese have implemented under Sasaki’s guidance, relying on his players’ technical excellence and passing skills, but the team has other individuals capable of shining on the big stage.
Let’s take, for instance, defensive stalwart Saki Kumagai, who was an important piece of the championship team in 2011 and whose performances provided a ticket for Europe, specifically FFC Frankfurt. At age 24 and now representing Olympique Lyon, she’s one of the finest skippers on the women’s game.

Meanwhile, outside of Miyama and Sawa, the midfield is populated by some combination of veteran Kozue Ando, Mizuho Sakaguchi, Nahomi Kawasumi and Rumi Utsugi, who all contribute to the fluent style of play, with the attack usually reserved for Wolfsburg’s Yuki Ogimi (53 goals in 117 caps), Shinobu Ohno and Yuki Sugasawa. On the bench, a former star in their youth teams, diminutive forward Mana Iwabuchi, now 22-years-old, keeps awaiting her chance to shine on the heels of a debut season for German Champions Bayern Munich.

Together, all Japan’s players share the same trait: low centre of gravity, quick execution, intelligence and an appearance of physical fragility that tricks opponents. The Japanese will always suffer on the air and during inevitable physical confrontations against the likes of Germany or the USA, but, through commitment and team work, they’ve found a way to compete head-to-head and, with the weapons at their disposal, repeating is certainly more than a pipe dream.

3. France

The cream-of–the–crop in women’s football is coming up next, but the supremely talented French are poised to join the top of the board in short order. Actually, some would argue that they’re at that level right now and only the lack of previous international successes keeps this team a step below on the pre-tournament favourite’s rankings. Four years ago, France ended up in 4th, repeating the outcome on the 2012 Olympics, both all-time bests, but this time anything other than the podium would be a disappointment.

Indeed, the roster at the disposal of Coach Philippe Bergeroo, a former GK of the men’s national team, is stacked with skilled, matured, in-their-prime stars who have amassed experience over the last few years. Not only for the national team but also on the emerging French League, especially on the powerful Olympique Lyon and PSG, which jointly supply 18 of the 23 players called to the World Cup (four players hail from FCF Juvisy, while youngster Claire Lavogez is the lone Montpellier representative).

Louisa Necib (#14) and Gaetane Thiney (#17)

The main star of France’s squad is definitely Lyon’s playmaker Louisa Necib, the superb 28-year-old creator with supreme vision, technical skills and a powerful accurate shot from distance. The Marseille-native has crafted an impressive chemistry with teammate Eugénie Le Sommer, whose speed and flair make her a dangerous contributor whether she plays up top or on the wing. Gaetane Thiney creates all over the last third of the field and adds an impressive finishing touch (13 goals on the qualifiers), while 30-year-old Camille Abily is the voice of reason on the midfield when necessary.

With 58 goals in 86 caps, lengthy Marie Laure Delie is the main striker in the roster while speedy Élodie Thomis can play any attacking role needed. And we haven’t even talked about Kheira Hamraoui and Kenza Dali, recent additions that shined this season for PSG, the vice-European Champions. Anchoring Les Bleues’ behind all this firepower, there’s Amandine Henry, one of the best holding midfielders in the world, who occasionally enjoys the help of former captain Élise Bussaglia. The 28-year-old, mistake-prone, Sarah Bouhaddi is still the team’s main goalkeeper but she can count on a reliable defence line, patrolled by the imposing central presence of skipper Wendy Renard and Laura George.

Overall, France entertains the crowds with an attractive blend of football, based on high pace and fluidity, and is a deep, athletic, versatile team with few weaknesses and options that allow for different styles of play depending on the circumstances. Because of this, they’ll be a tough out for everyone, having recently beaten, for example, the two teams coming right after. A first major title can certainly be on the cards for the French.

2. USA

Winner of the last three Olympic gold medals, the USA have missed out on the World title since 1999, with their closest chance to regain glory being squandered against Japan, four years ago, after the deciding penalty shootout. In 2015, with thousands of fans getting north of the border to support their team, it’s, once again, gold or bust for the United States Women’s National Team (or USWNT).

Alex Morgan (#13) and Abby Wambach rejoice after the decisive goal on USA’s victory over Canada en route to the 2012 Olympic gold.

Swedish coach Pia Sundhage, who led the team from 2007 to 2012, is now at the helm of her nation’s outfit and it’s one of her former assistants, Jill Ellis, who has the ingrate task of managing a squad with so many weapons and expectations that the pressure can be overwhelming. Long known for their physical domination, fighting spirit and athleticism, the Americans had to catch up with the evolution of the game at the world scale and they’ve slowly tried to implement a style more based on possession and tactical prowess instead of long balls, exploring the space behind the opposing backlines and overpowering speed. The gamble has delivered some ups and downs, advances and setbacks, and ultimately they’ve seemed to found a fusion that adapts to this era’s needs and still reaps the best out of their players.

And what a stellar collection of talent they have, starting from the best goalkeeper in the World, Hope Solo, a player that has saved the team countless times over the years. In front of her, there’s a defence that suffered a renovation since the London 2012 tournament, with captain Christie Rampone (40 years and 306 (!) caps) yielding her centre-back place to Julie Johnston, a fiery 23-year-old who will a have long career leading the team from the backline. 30-year-old Becky Sauerbrunn has also come off the shadows to pair with Johnson, while Meghan Klingenberg snatched the left back position after developing nicely during two seasons on the Swedish League. The only mainstay is the experienced Ali Krieger, which manages the right side after missing the last Olympics.

Midfielder Lauren Holiday

The 37-year-old Shannon Box is well past her prime, just like Rampone, and she has also been replaced on the defensive midfielder role, which now is managed, in turns, by Carly Lloyd, a box-to-box midfielder with a knack for decisive goals (Lloyd scored the game-winning-goal in the last two Olympic finals) and Lauren Holiday, which started in the national team as a forward, then drifted to the outside of the midfield and now uses her vision, awareness and technical abilities to manufacture the attack. Even though both Lloyd and Holiday are responsible defensively and have good stamina, none is a classic holding midfielder and that can severely expose the team against other favourites for the trophy.

From super-sub in Germany to driving force of the midfield in 2015, the daring Megan Rapinoe is a key player for the Americans, with her brilliant feet producing spectacular crosses and being a threat on shots from far. The Seattle Reign star is naturally responsible for all set pieces and her imaginative game makes the difference, while another creator, winger Tobin Heat, comes off the bench oozing confidence on her touch and incredible dribbles. 26-year-old Christen Press took her time arriving on the main national team after scoring boatloads of goals in Sweden, but she’s found her niche on the right side, using an explosive stride and instincts to get to the dangerous areas and provide offense.

Press is a natural forward and had to take a back seat precisely due to the quality of the team’s strikers, starting with Abby Wambach, whose 182 international goals are a football record, and her size (181 cm) and ability on the air a rarity on the women’s game. The 35-year-old hopes to get her first World title before surrendering the lead, for good, to Sydney Leroux, the boisterous forward born in Canada, and Alex Morgan.
Fighting injuries during the last months, Morgan is not only the most marketable player on the team (and the entire female football world) but a unique piece of the puzzle, congregating strength, speed, tenacity and a deadly release in front of the goal to become the biggest single threat on the team if fit.

Such an arsenal promises to be almost impossible to stop, with the United States poised to score at will, but the defensive aspects are a major concern heading into the tournament. The Americans’ games will be entertaining and eventful but, come the decisions and close games, their defensive effort must be well calibrated or otherwise the tournament may end in disappointment.

1. Germany

World Champions in 2003 and 2007, European Champions (for the eighth time in a row!) two summers ago in Sweden, and shockingly dispatched in the quarter-finals of “their” tournament in 2011. The Germans have the history, the experience, the desire to avenge that setback, and a powerful squad capable of breezing through the Canadian event. Oh, and they can do so even without the services of the injured Nadine Kessler, merely the reigning FIFA Player of the Year, who misses the tournament due to a knee surgery.

Germany’s Nadine Kessler will miss the tournament

With a roster constantly refreshed by the talent nurtured on the Frauen-Bundesliga, as of today probably the best women’s football league in the world, the squad, led by Silvia Neid since 2005, is a top contender every time it steps on the field and the depth on every position is enviable.

Starting on their own goal, the goalkeeper of the women’s Mannschaft is Nadine Angerer, the only goaltender (man or woman) to win the FIFA Player of the Year award (2013) and the Captain that is bound to retire at the end of the tournament. The centre-backs, Annike Krahn and Saskia Bartusiak have over 200 international caps between themselves and the full-backs available are all relatively young, yet experienced, energetic and consistent, from Leonie Maier and Jennifer Cramer (both 22-years-old) to Bianca Schmidt (25) and Tamea Kemme (23). The defence, as a whole, lacks some speed and strength, but it shouldn’t be a weak link, something the midfield won’t be either.

Lena Goessling, Kessler‘s long-time partner, both at the national team and club (Wolfsburg) level, is an excellent all-around player and versatile 28-year-old Simone Laudehr will fill for the missing piece, connecting the play with the fantastic creative force of the team, Dszenisfer Marozsan. The 23-year-old FFC Frankfurt star is a little banged-up at the start of the tournament but should recover well in time for the round-robin matches, when she will delight the crowds with her imagination, soft touch, technique and capacity to place the ball everywhere, whether through pinpoint passes or decisive shots.

And if this wasn’t enough, spearheading the attack there’s a triple threat that has combined for 124 international goals. The youngest of the trio is the versatile Alexandra Popp (24-years-old), usually deployed wide on the national team to make space for the devastating goal scoring ability of Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag, who impelled the team during the qualifiers with a combined total of 20 goals. Sasic, the striker of the current European Champions FFC Frankfurt, is coming to Canada looking to boast the numbers stamped on her next contract, after the deal with the German club expired, and Mittag, after several seasons terrorizing defences on the Swedish league, will join PSG in the fall. With a blend of physicality, terrific finishing abilities and the support of Marozsan, the German attack will run wild against the opposing defences.

Germany’s attacking trio gets congratulated by midfielder Lena Goessling (right)

On the bench, a trio of young attacking threats looms, getting ready to take a spot on the starting eleven in the near future: Midfielder Melanie Leupolz and forward Lena Lotzen, both 21-years-old from Bayern Munich, were already part of the winning squad in 2013, as was Freiburg’s winger Sara Dabritz, and their role will be even bigger this time.

The number one ranked team in the World is the top favourite on the tournament based on their amount of talent and ability to overpower every team it faces. Anything but a presence on Vancouver’s Final would be a huge surprise, and Germany has excellent chances of becoming the first country holding, at the same time, the men’s and women’s World Cup crown.

The five aforementioned teams are the top favourites to lift the Women’s World Cup but the field of strong candidates can be extended to include, at least, three more teams.
The hosts, Canada, are coming off a bronze medal in London 2012, their best result in any major event, and hope to go even further with the support of their public. Just get the USA out of their way, since the Americans have eliminated Canada every time the Reds got out of the group phase.

Christine Sinclair, the captain, inspirational leader and top goal scorer (154 goals in 224 caps) in the history of the team, is the one inevitably leading the way and the 32-year-old is absolutely essential if they plan to transform a hardworking, solid but unspectacular group into a title contender. That probably won’t happen, but Canada will cause problems with an assortment of defenders and midfielders of good quality, headlined by 19-year-old centre-back Kadeisha Buchanan. They lack creativity, though, with Sophie Schmidt has one of the few capable of helping Sinclair setting up offensive chances. 17-year-old midfielder Jessie Fleming is the biggest promise of the country’s football scene and watching her evolution will be an interesting under-the-radar treat.

Norway’s Ada Hegerberg

Two Scandinavian nations complete the list of outside contenders, with Norway, coached by Even Pellerud, who occupied the place during the golden age of their female footballing success, the 90’s, trying to rekindle the lost magic. The Norwegian are big, athletic, have one of the most exciting strikers in the world, Olympique Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg, a 19-year-old burly prodigy, but lack explosive offensive talent and technical skills to be a real menace, even more without the injured Caroline Hansen, the dazzling 20-year-old winger from Wolfsburg. Veterans Solveig Gulbrandsen and Trine Ronning, versatile D/M Maren Mjelde and forward Isabell Herlovsen are other players to watch.

Moreover, Sweden relies on a trio of top players that is already on the wrong side of the 30’s: Nilla Fischer, a big, strong centre-back, team captain Caroline Seger, a cerebral midfielder that charges up and down the pitch, and forward Lotta Schelin, one of the most prolific strikers of the last decade, with 80 goals amassed for the national team and 203 in just 194 games over the last seven years at Olympique Lyon. The 31-year-old is tall, elusive, smart, skilled and a great finisher with her feet and head, or, in short, one of the most complete goal scorers in the women’s game. Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson, who exploded after scoring a hat-trick against Germany earlier this year, and fellow attacker Kosovare Asllani are also interesting players but not at the level of the three mentioned before, and, because of that, this may be Sweden’s last chance in a while at a major international title.

Dark horses (or some other teams and stars I wanted to write about and had to place somewhere):

England: A rapidly improving domestic league, boosted by the presence of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, has improved the competition provided to the best English players, but the team lacks talent to fight the top teams. Eniola Aluko, the shifty Chelsea forward, is their best player, partnering on the attack with Man City’s Toni Duggan, but she’s not a Sasic, a Morgan, or a Schelin, and the other recognizable names (Jill Scott, captain Fara Williams, Alex Scott, Karen Carney,) are just good. The Lionesses resemble Canada, but without a legend like Sinclair and the home factor.

The rest of the European contingent: Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland are all debutants and each team has its own superstar.

Frankfurt’s Veronica Boquete, the Spanish captain, has been one of the best European players for some time but never had a major nation’s tournament to shine on. It’s her opportunity and the little creative midfielder will be free to display her superb ball control with either foot, vision and poise, traits that have earned a comparison with some guy named Andrés Iniesta.

Veronica Boquete and Spain are taking part on their first Women’s World Cup

The Swiss, who have advanced past any qualifiers for the first time, like to attack a lot and their best players are, understandably, offensive starlets. Lyon’s Lara Dickenmann and Frankfurt’s Ana Maria Crnogorcevic are lynchpins in creating goal scoring chances but the true magician is Rosengard’s Ramona Bachmann, a feisty, rambunctious dynamo with off-the-charts imagination that promises to light up the synthetic fields of Canada.

Finally, the Dutch have Bayern Munich’s winger/striker Vivianne Miedema, a 19-year-old phenomenon that has already earned comparisons with…guess who…Arjen Robben (too easy!). Quick and effusive, Miedema willed a really young team (14 of the 23 players have less than 25 years) towards Canada, scoring 16 times during the qualifiers, and has already collected 19 goals in just 25 appearances with the national team. The Netherlands squad is obviously inexperienced and prone to defensive craters but the games they’ll play will surely be a lot of fun to watch.

Australia and Nigeria: These talented teams share group D with USA and Sweden, composing the proverbial Group of Death, hence one of them should go home after just three games (unless Sweden makes a real mess…). However, should they go through, a scare for a powerhouse may be in order.

The Matildas (that’s Australia, of course) are used to get to the round robin phase on international tournaments and have gifted players all over the field, forming a team capable of competing with everyone. The star is 30-year-old Lisa de Vanna and her devastating speed up front, but 21-year-old Samantha Kerr, 20-year-old Caitlin Foord (the best young player in the 2011 World Cup at age…16) and 22-year-old pigmy (154 cm..) Katrina Gorry are youngsters to watch on an explosive team that’s ranked 10th in the World. Meanwhile, Kate Gill, the Aussie’s all-time leading scorer, was left out of the roster for the event because coach Alen Stajcic thought he had better options…

The Matildas are looking to surprise some teams in Canada

Nigeria is, by far, the best African team and it’s built around the players that lost the under-20 World Cup finals of 2010 and 2014. As usual with the continent’s representatives, the roster is electric, fast and intense but lacks tactical knowledge, which can doom their chances, even if some of their best players already play abroad. Forwards Francisca Ortega (Washington Spirit, USA) and Desire Oparanozie (Guingamp, France) are two examples but none is close to the level of 20-year-old Asisat Oshoala, an unstoppable force after picking up speed with the ball.

The Liverpool player won the BBC Women’s Player of the Year award recently, and last year stormed through the youth World Cup, gathering the Golden Ball and Golden Boot, returning now to Canada to lead a team that will thrive on quick counter attacks.

(PT) Antevisão da Final da Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Chicago Blackhawks

O início de Junho traz novamente o ponto alto da temporada da NHL: A disputa pela Stanley Cup. Um ano depois de New York e Los Angeles terem discutido o título, o ilustre representante da terceira maior urbe do Estados Unidos está de volta à discussão, enfrentando a única equipa do estado da Flórida que triunfou na competição.

Com o potencial ofensivo e talento presente em ambos os conjuntos finalistas, os adeptos da NHL podem estar em vias de assistir a uma das mais espectaculares finais dos últimos anos. Por isso, está mais que na hora de explorar em profundidade os oponentes que sonham levantar o mais icónico troféu desportivo do planeta.

Histórico das equipas

Fundados em 1926, os Chicago Blackhawks fazem parte dos “Original Six”, as seis formações que compuseram a NHL entre 1942 e 1967, altura em que a liga experimentou a primeira expansão, um processo repetido várias vezes ao longo das décadas seguintes até se chegar às 30 equipas que a compõem actualmente. Depois de conquistar a sua terceira Stanley Cup em 1961, o emblema de Chicago passou por uma travessia do deserto que se acentuou no inicio do novo milénio, com a péssima gestão do dono Bill Wirtz (que adquiriu a equipa em 1967) a determinar um afastamento entre a cidade e a sua principal equipa de hóquei, algo que se fez notar grandemente nos níveis qualitativos do plantel e na falta de interesse dos adeptos. Os Hawks chegaram inclusivamente a ser considerados pela cadeia ESPN, em 2004, como a pior “franchise” das ligas profissionais americanas. Contudo, sob a liderança de Rocky Wirtz, que assumiu o controlo após a morte do pai em 2007, o rejuvenescimento foi estonteante, tendo culminado no fim da maior seca de títulos da NHL, em 2010, com os Hawks a superarem os Philadelphia Flyers na final. O sucesso repetiu-se em 2013, desta vez batendo os Boston Bruins na disputa pela Stanley Cup.

A formação de Chicago parte para a final deste ano à procura de garantir a sexta Stanley Cup da sua história e a terceira em apenas seis anos. Um feito que a acontecer, numa NHL crescentemente equilibrada devido à presença do tecto salarial instituído em 2005, fará destes Hawks uma espécie de dinastia numa era nada afecta a este tipo de ambições.

Em 2004, Dave Andreychuk levantou a única Stanley Cup que os Tampa Bay Lightning têm no currículo

Os Tampa Bay Lightning, por outro lado, são uma equipa bem mais recente, tendo sido estabelecidos em 1992, na cidade de Tampa, Flórida, a segunda área metropolitana mais populosa do estado, depois de Miami. Popularmente apelidados de Bolts, devido ao trovão que é a imagem de marca da franchise, os Lightning fizeram parte da grande vaga expansionista da NHL para os estados mais a Sul dos Estados Unidos e já conseguiram assegurar o mais desejado troféu numa ocasião anterior, em 2004, quando bateram os Calgary Flames na final após 7 encontros. Os avançados Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis e Brad Richards foram os maiores obreiros dessa conquista, mas hoje a equipa tem uma nova fornada pronta para juntar os seus nomes à história.

Percurso até à final:

Depois de eliminarem os Detroit Red Wings após sete partidas na primeira ronda, os Tampa Bay Lightning conseguiram uma confortável vantagem de três jogos sobre os Montreal Canadiens na final de Divisão, vencendo os dois primeiros embates disputados em Montreal para tomarem o controlo da série. Contudo, uma copiosa derrota no jogo 4, em casa, impediu o fecho do confronto no número mínimo de encontros, e os Canadiens conseguiram mesmo estender a série vencendo o jogo 5, de volta ao Canadá. Uma vitória por 4-1 dos Bolts no jogo 6 selou a primeira final de Conferência da equipa desde 2011, e o adversário seriam os New York Rangers, finalistas da Stanley Cup no ano passado.
As duas formações trocaram vitórias nos seis primeiros encontros, incluindo vários resultados desnivelados para ambos os lados, como o triunfo dos Bolts por 6-2 no jogo 2, e as derrotas por 5-1 e 7-3, nos jogos 4 e 6 disputados na Flórida. Na partida decisiva, perante a plateia do Madison Square Garden, foram mais fortes os visitantes, que fizeram história ao imporem a primeira derrota caseira aos Rangers em jogos 7. O marcador de 2-0 repetiu o resultado do jogo 5, realizado no mesmo ambiente, e a equipa da Flórida garantiu o acesso à derradeira série dos playoffs mais de uma década passada sobre a última vez.

Do outro lado, os Chicago Blackhawks, após superarem os Nashville Predators na ronda inaugural, tiveram que se haver, pelo terceiro ano consecutivo, com os Minnesota Wild, superando, mais uma vez, os rivais de divisão. Desta vez, bastaram apenas quatro partidas, apesar de três dos encontros da série terem sido decididos por uma diferença mínima, com a experiência dos Hawks a fazer a diferença nos momentos de maior equilíbrio. De seguida, na quinta presença na final de Conferência em sete temporadas, a formação de Chicago enfrentou os Anaheim Ducks, conjunto que sucedeu aos também californianos LA Kings, carrascos dos Hawks em 2014. A história podia repetir-se, com a série a ir novamente a jogo 7, mas os Ducks não foram capazes de aproveitar o factor casa no embate crucial, com uma exibição adulta dos visitantes a resultar numa vitória por 5-3 que determinou o regresso à final da Stanley Cup.


Joel Quenneville é, aos 56 anos, um dos mais bem-sucedidos e respeitados treinadores da NHL, cumprindo a sua sétima temporada ao serviço dos Chicago Blackhawks após ter sido contratado pouco depois do início da época de 2008-2009. O canadiano, que conta já com mais de 750 vitórias na NHL (terceiro maior total de sempre), teve a sua primeira oportunidade como treinador principal na Liga em 1996, ao serviço dos St. Louis Blues, e passou ainda pelos Colorado Avalanche antes de chegar a Chicago, onde liderou a emergência de um conjunto talentoso que já lhe valeu duas Stanley Cups (2010, 2013).
Sempre envergando um inconfundível bigode, Quenneville (ou Coach Q) tem o mérito de, ao longo da carreira à frente dos Blackhawks, ter sabido criar um sistema de posse do disco que assenta que nem uma luva no considerável talento à sua disposição, sendo ainda responsável por manter no topo um plantel que foi sofrendo mudanças muito relevantes à medida que os limites do tecto salarial obrigavam a equipa a renovar-se na procura do sucesso. Considerado um dos melhores estrategas da NHL, o seu brilhantismo ficou evidente, por exemplo, na forma como desmembrou a superioridade dos Ducks na série anterior ao juntar os craques Patrick Kane e Jonathan Toews antes dos jogos 6 e 7, criando uma linha que tirou do jogo Ryan Getzlaf e Corey Perry, a principal dupla atacante adversária.

Joel Quenneville lidera os Chicago Blackhawks desde 2008 (

Por contraponto, John Cooper, treinador dos Tampa Bay Lightning, estás apenas na sua segunda temporada completa ao comando dos Bolts, tendo pegado na equipa no final de 2012-2013, alguns meses depois de ter levado a equipa afiliada da formação de Tampa Bay, os Norfolk Admirals, à conquista do título da AHL. Nascido em 1967, Cooper tirou o curso de direito e foi inclusive um defensor público antes de optar pela carreira de treinador de hóquei, onde tem tido uma ascensão vertiginosa. Em 2006-2007 ganhou a seu primeiro troféu e desde aí tem deixado marca por onde tem passado, podendo chegar ao pináculo da carreira com menos de uma dezena de anos atrás dos bancos.

Gerindo um plantel jovem e exuberante, o treinador dos Bolts tem feito bom uso de muitos dos jogadores que o levaram ao sucesso em 2012, instituindo um sistema ofensivo baseado na velocidade e capacidade técnica. Esta estrutura tornou a formação de Tampa Bay na equipa com melhor média de golos da NHL em 2014-2015 (fase regular), mas também permite manter o equilibro defensivo, como mostrado nos jogos 5 e 7 ante os Rangers. O estilo comunicativo e carisma são apreciados por jogadores, adeptos e jornalistas, e não é exagero dizer que Cooper, apesar da inexperiência nestas fases adiantadas dos playoffs da NHL, está já no grupo dos melhores.


Marian Hossa é uma das armas do ataque dos Chicago Blackhawks (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America)

Jonathan Toews, capitão dos Chicago Blackhawks, leva 18 (9+9) pontos nos playoffs e marcou quatro golos nos três últimos encontros da série com os Ducks, incluindo os dois primeiros da vitória no jogo 7, secando pelo caminho o poderoso Ryan Getzlaf. Na final, o seu trabalho será semelhante, contribuindo ofensivamente e tendo a responsabilidade de conter o explosivo trio ofensivo que lidera o ataque dos Bolts. Na primeira linha, flanqueando Toews, Brandon Saad também teve papel essencial contra os Ducks, marcando três vezes nos últimos quatro jogos, e o seu poder físico e velocidade são sempre trunfos, com a dúvida a centrar-se em quem jogará do lado direito: se o mago Patrick Kane, que leva já 20 pontos alcançados nesta campanha e por lá acabou a final de Conferência, ou o eslovaco Marian Hossa, que, sem a potência de outros tempos, continua a ser um avançado tremendo em qualquer vertente do jogo.

Brad Richards, o melhor jogador dos playoffs em 2004 ao serviço dos Lightning, centra a 2ª linha de ataque dos Hawks neste ocaso da carreira, tendo a companhia de Bryan Bickell (5 mpontos), bem longe da prestação de 2014 que lhe valeu um contrato muito generoso. O impressionante poderio ofensivo dos Hawks estende-se à terceira linha, onde o goleador Patrick Sharp (12 pontos) complementa a consistência e versatilidade de Antoine Vermette, aquisição do dia limite de trocas, e o excitante talento do inexperiente Teuvo Teravainen, que ainda está a descobrir o seu lugar na NHL. O temerário Andrew Shaw (9 pontos) e Marcus Kruger só aparecem na quarta linha de ataque mas Joel Quenneville não tem receio de os usar em variadas situações, com Andrew Desjardins a fechar o grupo de ataque de uma equipa que se dá ao luxo de deixar Kris Versteeg de fora.

Os Tampa Bay Lightning não igualam o capital de experiência presente no ataque dos Hawks mas, em contrapartida, apresentam a mais impressionante linha ofensiva destes playoffs. O jovem trio composto por Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat e Nikita Kucherov tem direito a alcunha personalizada (“The Triplets”) e a química e entusiasmo que mostram cada vez que tocam no gelo é contagiante e letal para os adversários. O pequeno central Johnson lidera os playoffs com 12 golos e 21 pontos, e o russo Kucherov leva já nove tentos desde que encontrou as redes durante a série com os Canadiens, mas o papel de Palat é igualmente essencial, com os seus 7 golos e 15 pontos a serem complementados pelo brilhante trabalho no desempenho das tarefas defensivas que são solicitadas.

O estonteante surgimento do trio teve o efeito colateral de retirar pressão a Steven Stamkos, que teve um começo de playoffs muito complicado, sem golos na série com os Red Wings, mas que desde ai tem sido excepcional, somando 7 golos e 14 pontos nos últimos 13 encontros. O astro canadiano acordou quando ainda jogava como central, mas entretanto foi desviado para a direita da sua linha de ataque, cedendo espaço para Valtteri Filppula (3G, 11 pontos) que tem ainda a companhia de Alex Killorn (16 pontos), o marcador do tento que decidiu o jogo 7 contra os Rangers.

(Continuar a ler aqui)