Month: August 2017

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.

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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)