Month: October 2017

Five NHL rookies turning heads in the first month of the season

For everyone getting their feet wet in a new work environment, starting on the right foot is extremely important to establish rank and quickly earn the confidence of colleagues and bosses. The NHL is no exception, and for many fans one of the most satisfying parts of the NHL regular season is keeping track of the league newcomers, from those that arrive showered with praise and high expectations, to less heralded players that had to work their tail off to ascend from lower leagues and the college ranks.

Up to October 25th, 99 players (93 skaters + 6 goalies) have featured in, at least, a game in 2017-18 and are considered rookies eligible to receive the Calder Memorial Trophy*. Among those, the likes of Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils), Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning), preseason favourites for the award, stand out at the top of the leader boards, yet it’s not on the high-profile constituents we will cast a shining light here.

Instead, we’re looking for under-the-radar names that have popped out so far, seizing important roles in the respective teams even if few – outside of their home markets – had them pegged for such fast starts. To further limit our pool, we restricted  our evaluation to players that have logged over 18 min per game, in the case of defenseman, or forwards with an TOI/GP above 15 min, thereby claiming what can be roughly defined as top-four D/ top-six FW usage. Let’s meet the five most interesting cases from the lot.

* To be eligible for the award, a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single preceding season nor in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons in any major professional league. Beginning in 1990-91, to be eligible for this award a player must not have attained his twenty-sixth birthday by September 15th of the season in which he is eligible.

 

Victor Mete (D, Montreal Canadiens)

The lone beacon of hope on the Canadiens dreadful start, Victor Mete is a 2016 fourth-round pick that wasn’t supposed to make it to the big league on his draft +2 year, much less grasp such an important role for the group (not) shielding Carey Price.

Smallish at 5’9″, 184 pounds, the 19-year-old is surprisingly soaking up almost 20 mins (19:41) of ice time, playing regular shifts with captain Shea Weber on the Habs’ top pairing, drawing the toughest matchups and still coming out in the black on most possession metrics (Adj 51.55 CF%). Moreover, while his -5 rating is ugly, it is much more a product of poor team play, as no Canadiens player is in positive territory, and bad luck (94.8 PDO) than explicit defensive shortcomings.

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete protects the puck behind the net (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

In fact, Mete, a flashy puck-moving defenseman with elite skating ability, is already the only Montreal blueliner that can consistently elude forecheckers, hurry the puck up the ice, complete a quick pass out of the zone and join the rush, leading the offense-starved Canadiens in (individual) transition plays and both scoring changes for (78) and high dangerous shot attempts (40) when on the ice.

A left-side blueliner that has filled the void created by the departure of veteran Andrei Markov, Mete has the speed to get back on the play and recover loose pucks, but, naturally, still struggles against stronger players in the wall or in front of the net, reasons that explain why he’s yet to be thrusted into the penalty kill by Claude Julien. He’s made for it on the powerplay, though, handling 2:58 mins per night and picking up two primary assists on the man-advantage, where his shot and quarterbacking ability inspire predictions of gaudy offensive totals further down the road.

Alex Iaffallo (LW, Los Angeles Kings)

One of the last players added to the Kings training camp roster, Alex Iaffalo stunned everyone by not only making the roster, but also snatching the plum assignment on LA’s top forward group, playing left wing to Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown and being an integral part of the team’s excellent beginning of regular season.

LA Kings forward Alex Iafallo joins line rushes during a warmup session (Harry How/Getty Images)

The 23-year-old had excelled in his last college season, amassing 21 goals and 51 pts as a senior at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, and his noticeable speed caught the eye of several NHL organizations, with Iaffalo opting to sign for the Kings, a team in dire need of his attributes. A great skater that can keep possession of the puck despite being light (6’0’’, 185 lb), the undrafted forward also received rave reviews for his release and accurate shot, possessing the ability to slot in either wing or in the middle.

Nine games into his NHL career, Iaffalo is yet to find the twine, having collected just 3 assists, but he’s fired 21 shots on goal – with an additional 13 missing the net – and looks active, engaged and fast complementing the heavy, grinding style of his line mates. The Kings premium attacking trio has clicked so far, with Iaffalo boasting a +7 rating in 16:48 min of TOI/GP and good possession/scoring chances numbers (53.13 adj CF%, 50.0 SCF%,53.23 HD CF%), thus expect him to keep the ball rolling for the next while.

Robert Hagg (D, Philadelphia Flyers)

After making his NHL debut in the last game of 2016-17, Robert Hagg has taken advantage of the youth movement steadily revamping Philadelphia’s defensive outlook to grab a top-four spot, his blend of size, smarts, mobility and two-way acumen assisting partner Shayne Gostisbehere to a prolific season start (11 pts in 9 matches).

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Robert Hagg in action against the Carolina Hurricanes (Getty Images)

A former 2nd rounder (2013) who took his time getting acclimated to the intricacies of the North American game, the Swedish blueliner fits the mould of a modern shutdown defender: big (6’2’’), strong in the corners and physical – his 26 hits lead the team -, but also a good skater that keeps it simple in possession and can dish a sound breakout pass. Hagg topped at 20 pts in 3 AHL seasons, indicating limited offensive ceiling, however there’s every reason to believe the 22-year-old could be an excellent complement on the Flyers’ blueline to a more dynamic partner, be it Gostisbehere, promising 2014 1st rounder Travis Sanheim, or even the fledging Ivan Provorov on the top pair.

With one assist in 9 appearances, and a +5 rating clearly propped up by a sky-high 110.4 PDO, Hagg’s underlying numbers haven’t been spectacular (45.58 adj CF%, SCF 44.54%), yet it’s obvious coach Dave Hackstol trusts him, deploying the Uppsala-native for 18:14 mins per game, including 1:44 mins on the PK, where size and strength make it certain his usage is only going to increase.

Anders Bjork (RW, Boston Bruins)

As a former U-20 World Championships standout for the USA, and one of the top forward prospects in the Bruins organization, Anders Bjork’s name may not be as unfamiliar as the rest of this list, nevertheless he was consecutively overshadowed by teammate Charlie McAvoy in early season previews and his nice season start warrants the spotlight.

Boston Bruins winger Anders Bjork tries to evade a Chicago Blackhawks defenseman in a preseason game (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

A fifth round pick by Boston back in 2014, the winger cracked the Bruins roster after three seasons at Notre Dame where his point totals increased steadily (22 to 35 to 52), and he’s done nothing but impress so far due to his notable work rate and willingness to chase pucks, provoke turnovers and disrupt the breakout.

Praised over the years for his hockey sense and 200-foot game, Bjork was once expected to grow into a speedy, aggressive checking-line forward with some scoring touch, but there’s probably more to him, his versatility, slick hands and offensive instincts looking the perfect fit on the right side of Boston’s top line, flanking Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

This trio played together in preseason before Bergeron got injured, and the 21-year-old then moved to the David Krejci unit – with fellow rookie Jake DeBrusk – for the first five games, with his possession numbers suffering as a consequence (48.29 Adj CF%, 46.15 SCF%, 37.50 CF%) but not the scoring acumen. In 7 games, Bjork has already picked up 3 goals and 3 assists, and with Bergeron’s return, that pace shouldn’t decrease precipitously from here on. Except if he injures another preeminent teammate in practice, like recently happened with goalie Tuukka Rask.

Jesper Bratt (LW, New Jersey Devils)

It’s been 22 years since a teenager drafted as low as Jesper Bratt, the 162nd pick in 2016, played in the NHL, and if we add that he scored just 14 goals in 94 games on Sweden’s Allsvenskan (2nd tier) the last two years, it’s fair to say the Devils rookie completely came out of the blue.

Swedish winger Jesper Bratt skates in a game against the New York Rangers (NHL.com)

Few on his own organization expected the 19-year-old to make the team, but a mandate to inject speed into New Jersey’s roster worked on his favour and there he was, bursting onto the scene with six points in his first three games to get pundits scrambling. It’s true that Bratt is currently mired on a five-game pointless streak, still he has forged his niche inside John Hynes’ lineup as a special teams expert that can impact the game with his pace and creativity.

Moreover, in 8 games, the Swedish left winger has amassed a +5 rating and a pair of powerplay and shorthanded points, his average ice time of 15:16 mins entailing close to 6 mins of combined action in both situations. Coming in at 5’10’’ and 179 pounds, Bratt is small but explosive, an adept skater with a knack for reacting quickly and reaching loose pucks while outnumbered, as well as a skilled, intelligent offensive player with a puck control and shot that can prove lethal on the man-advantage. The production is not there yet at even-strength, partly explaining why he’s been shuffled down from the second line (Adam Henrique and Marcus Johansson) to play with Pavel Zacha and Brian Gibbons, but it will eventually come with experience.

 

All stats mentioned in this post updated until October 25th and gathered from NHL.com or naturalstattrick.com.

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Weekend roundup (October, 22nd): Inter Milan slows down Napoli’s scintillating start

It’s been a while since the Serie A inhabited the imagination of football fans around the world, the combination of boundless pockets of money, elite skill and tactical majesty vaulting the Italian League to rarefied air amongst its counterparts throughout the 90s and early 2000’s. Over the last few seasons, Juventus utter dominance has obscured the overall rejuvenation of the Calcio, yet Maurizio Sarri’s exceptional job at SSC Napoli is finally getting bandied across the continent, the Partenopei enjoying deserved recognition for their bustling footballing machine on the wheels of a perfect league start with eight wins in eight matches.

Consequently, it came as no surprise that after a massive mid-week clash with Manchester City, Napoli’s reception to second-place Inter Milan was, arguably, the match of the weekend in European football, a brimming San Paolo expecting another step forward on the long road towards a Championship they’ve craved for 27 years. However, if this Napoli team is perfectly qualified to trade punch for punch with the continent’s elite, it isn’t afforded the same roster depth as others and that may well be their demise as the season rolls on.

Against Inter, Sarri elected nine of the players that started against City last Tuesday, recalling midfielders Alan and Jorginho to fill in for Amadou Diawara and Piotr Zieliński, and despite preserving the foundations of their exquisite passing game and trademarked accelerations, the fatigued hosts failed to bust the rigid block set up by Luciano Spalletti’s side, also undefeated so far on the season.

Buoyed by goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, namely on a miraculous save on José Callejón’s point-blank shot in the 24th minute, and the last minute stop on Dries Mertens’ flick, the visitors actually could have left victorious had Mario Vecino’s inspired run and chip not been cleared at the goal line by center back Raúl Albiol.

Nevertheless, in the end, what will go down is the 0-0, Napoli’s unblemished record coming to an end, and the Serie A table cluttering with Napoli (25 pts) and Inter (23) watching as Juventus and Lazio (both 22) creep up on them.

Overshadowed and looking bewildered in occasion, this hasn’t been Juventus’ best start, yet Il Bianconeri sent a clear message this week, whipping Udinese (2-6) away with a hat-trick from German international Sami Khedira. Peek through the numbers and you’ll notice Juventus was, above all, extremely clinical, notching five times in five shots on goal and profiting from an own-goal, however Massimiliano Allegri’s squad will take it at this time. Meanwhile, in Rome, Lazio banked a fourth consecutive triumph, clocking Cagliari (3-0) as the inevitable Ciro Immobile upped his account to 13 goals with another brace.

Moreover, fifth place AS Roma won at Torino (0-1), a 69th minute free kick by left back Aleksandar Kolarov proving decisive to reach 18 pts with a game in hand, precisely against Sampdoria, sixth with 17 after routing Crotone on the strength of five unanswered goals at the Luigi Ferraris. As for AC Milan, the crisis is an evidence after a 0-0 home draw with Genoa in a game where prized summer acquisition Leonardo Bonucci was sent off in the 25th minute. I Rossoneri dropped to the second half of the table, putting Vincenzo Montella’s job in serious jeopardy.

La Liga

In the wake of another round of European matches, all top-four La Liga clubs won their encounters but only one managed to impress in the process. Welcoming Sevilla at the Mestalla Stadium, Valencia dismantled the opposition with four straight goals to secure second place, notch a fifth consecutive triumph and keep the four-point gap on leaders Barcelona (25 points), who got help from a controversial goal in the early moments of their 2-0 triumph over Malaga at the Camp Nou.

After Barcelona and Valencia fulfilled their duties on Saturday, the two Madrid outfits responded positively to their mid-week setbacks the next day. Real Madrid cruised to a no-frills 3-0 victory over Eibar, while Atletico negotiated the complicated visit to the Balaídos with a narrow 1-0 triumph over Celta de Vigo courtesy of Kevin Gameiro’s opportunistic finish. The capital rivals are separated by a point in the standings, and are now followed by the surprising Leganés, who amassed their fifth success in nine rounds after beating Athletic Bilbao (1-0). With their second consecutive league defeat, Sevilla dipped to sixth, their 16 points now equalled by Real Betis (2-0 over Alavés) and Villarreal (4-0 to Las Palmas).

Bundesliga

In a span of two weeks, Borussia Dortmund’s five point advantage vanished as their European hiccups spilled into Bundesliga action. Following the home defeat against Leipzig, the black and yellow allowed hosts Eintracht Frankfurt to roar back from two goals down in their round 9 contest, conceding a draw which restored Bayern Munich to their customary placing at the top of the table.

Traveling North to Hamburg, the Bavarians looked far from brilliant, however Corentin Tolisso’s second half marker expressed on the score (0-1) the numerical advantage the visitors benefitted from after midfielder Gideon Jung was dismissed in 39th minute.

French midfielder Corentin Tolisso netted the game-winner for Bayern Munich in Hamburg (AP)

Dortmund and Bayern have amassed 20 points from 9 games, and RB Leipzig comes right behind, totalling 19 after Austrian midfielder Marcel Sabitzer scored the lone goal against Stuttgart. In round 10, Leipzig visits Munich in a match that can further muddle things at the top.

Schalke 04, victorious (2-0) against Mainz on Friday, is fourth with 16 points after catching an Hoffenheim team that once again gave away two points (1-1 at Wolfsburg) in the dying moments of their encounter, while Bayer Leverkusen, absent from Europe this season, approached the top five after a devastating second half performance at Borussia Moenchengladbach. Down 1-0 at half time, they pumped five past Swiss goalie Yann Sommer in a 33-minute stretch to sink Die Fohlen, and now get a great opportunity to keep ascending with a reception to rivals – and last place – FC Köln (0-0 vs Werder Bremen) next week.

Ligue 1

In spite of the current resource disparity, every clash between fierce rivals Marseille and Paris Saint Germain is slapped with the “appointment viewing” tag and the round 10 encounter at the Velódrome was no exception. Le Classique was tense and intense, controversial and vicious inside and outside the pitch, marked by the ejection of debutant Neymar, and capped by a spectacular Edinson Cavani free kick in injury time that shattered Marseille’s heart and salvaged a point for PSG.

With the 2-2 draw, the Parisians conserve their lead at the top of Ligue 1, holding a 4-point advantage over Monaco, who returned to the winning column after a 4–game dry spell domestically and abroad. Forwards Keita Baldé and Radamel Falcao were on the mark against Caen, and Les Monégasques closest competition is now the surging Nantes, who brushed aside Guingamp (2-1).

In Troyes, a Memphis Depay hat-trick powered Olympique Lyon to a bloated 0-5 away victory and up a few rungs on the standings, surpassing Marseille, Saint Etiénne, surprised at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard by Montpellier (0-1), and Bordeaux, who fell at Amiens (1-0). Down at the bottom, another defeat, this time in Rennes, saw 2010-11 Ligue1 Champions Lille drop into the relegation zone.

English Premier League

One week after being denounced for the conservative game plan in Liverpool, Manchester United bombed spectacularly in the visit to newly promoted Huddersfield Town (2-1), their maiden loss of the campaign speeded up by defensive miscues and remarkable passivity.  José Mourinho’s men are now five points adrift of Manchester City, who glided towards three more points in the reception to Burnley (3-0), and levelled with a Tottenham team getting hot.

Several Huddersfield Town players celebrate with fans after their famous triumph over Manchester United on Saturday (Action Images via Reuters/Ed Sykes)

In front of a Premier League record crowd (80,827) at Wembley, the Spurs dispatched Liverpool by a conclusive 4-1, with Harry Kane bagging two more goals on their fourth consecutive league win to condemn the visitors to a pedestrian ninth place after nine rounds. Still, the Reds can take some solace on the fact that their city rivals, Everton, are considerably worst, submerged below the red line after another defeat at home to Arsenal, who took full advantage of Idrissa Gueye’s dismissal in the 68th minute to inflate the score.

The hefty 2-5 defeat cost Ronald Koeman’s job, while another coach under intense scrutiny, Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, found some relief on the Blues late rally against Watford. The visitors stunned Stamford Bridge when they tallied twice around half time in reply to Pedro Rodríguez fantastic opener, yet César Azpilicueta and substitute Michy Batshuayi (x2) found the net in the last twenty minutes to secure a 4-2 victory, which propelled Chelsea past the opponent in the standings and maintained the defending Champions nine points behind Man City.

Cycling: Fernando Gavíria feasts in China

We’ve arrived at the end of the road for the 2017 World Tour season, with the first edition of the Gree-Tour of Guangxi taking place in the faraway lands of South China since last Thursday. A six-day race, the event will only finish on Tuesday, but so far it’s been dominated by the two Belgium teams in the peloton.

With the first three stages marked as flat, Colombian Fernando Gavíria looked the man to beat and the Quick-Step Floors sprinter confirmed his favouritism, compiling wins No. 11, 12 and 13 of his 2017 season in imperious fashion. The likes of Max Walscheid (Team Sunweb), Magnus Cort Nielsen (ORICA-Scott) and Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) were left in the dust by Gavíria, and the scenery then changed for stage 4, which concluded with the ascension to the Mashan Nongla Scenic Spot.

Lotto Soudal’s Tim Wellens edged Bauke Molema (Trek Segafredo) at the finish line to claim victory on the Queen stage, and he now leads the Dutch rider in the general classification by four seconds, with Irish Nicholas Roche (BMC) standing nine seconds behind. Since the last two days will tackle the rugged terrain around Guilin, including 6 categorized climbs, it’s early to appoint Wellens as the future winner, but he should like his chances of picking up a fourth WT overall triumph after the Eneco Tour in 2014 and 2015, and Tour of Poland in 2016.

Belgian rider Tim Wellens celebrates his win in stage 4 of the Tour of Guangxi (Tim de Waele / TDWSport.com)

Tennis: Juan Martín Del Potro defends title in Stockholm to enter ATP Finals fray

The ATP Tour year-end Championships are less than a month away and, at this time, just four names have booked their trip to London: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. Hence, with four spots still up for grabs, this week of action was absolutely pivotal for many of the contenders, who could choose between the final three ATP 250 tournaments (Moscow, Antwerp and Stockholm) of 2017. Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and the idle Marin Čilić inched closer to qualification, yet David Goffin and Pablo Carreño Busta, who hold the last two places, had performances that made them no favours.

Playing at home and with the recent conquests in Shenzhen and Tokyo still fresh, Goffin fell to qualifier Stefanos Tsitsipas in the QF of the European Open to complicate his situation and boost the chances of fellow hopefuls Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Diego Schwartzman. The French and Argentine eventually jostled in Antwerp’s Final, with Tsonga keeping his perfect 2017 record in tournament-deciding matches with a 6-3, 7-5 victory. After Rotterdam, Marseille and Lyon, this was a career-best fourth title of the year for the powerful 32-year-old, who’s looking for a fourth ATP Tour Finals appearance, whereas the diminutive Schwartzman lost the Final in Antwerp to a French player (Richard Gasquet) for a second consecutive year.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the strongest player in the European Open, contested in Antwerp last week (ATP Tour)

Meanwhile, in Moscow, where he defended the 2016 title, Spaniard Carreño Busta, battling a finger injury, was knocked off in the second round by Russian Daniil Medvedev. That meant the Kremlin Cup ended up on the hands of Damir Džumhur, who beat unseeded Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in three sets (6-2, 1-6, 6-4) to prove his predilection for Russia. Just one month ago, the Bosnian had captured his first ATP Tour title in Saint Petersburg.

Moreover, in Stockholm, as a result of the best draw contested this week – all eight seeds reached the QF – the Swedish crowd was rewarded with a sumptuous Final between World No. 8 Grigor Dimitrov and fourth seed Juan Martin Del Potro, two former winners of the event.

Making good use of a relentless delivery, the lanky Argentine dominated the match to amass a straight sets victory (6-4, 6-2) that secured a 20th career title and his first of the 2017 season. It was also the second consecutive triumph in the Swedish capital for Del Potro, who moved to 14th in the Race to London (or 11th, discounting the injured Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka), just 470 points behind Carreño Busta, while Dimitrov is fifth, having failed to lock his place but well on his way to do so over the next two weeks.

On the women’s side, with the WTA Finals kicking off in Singapore yesterday, the weekend marked the conclusion of the regular WTA Tour calendar and the final smiles were reserved for two German players.

In the WTA Premier of Moscow, missing defending Champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and with Maria Sharapova flopping on her first appearance since 2007, it would emerge 28-year-old Julia Görges to put an end to a personal six-year drought without a WTA Tour title.

Enjoying a bounce back season after several years toiling on the second half of the Top 100, the former World No.15 (2012) had already reached three finals in 2017 (Mallorca, Bucharest, Washington D.C.) but could only capture her third career title on Saturday by crushing (6-1, 6-2) 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina. With the victory, Görges ascends to the top 20, breaking into the WTA Elite Trophy field at the last minute, and leapfrogging Angelique Kerber as the leading German player on the rankings.

Julia Görges (L) and Daria Kasatkina (R) hold their trophies from the Kremlin Cup (Pavel Golovkin, AP )

A week of overwhelming feelings for Görges, but also for her compatriot Carina Witthöft, who conquered her first WTA Tour trophy at the Luxembourg Open. The 22-year-old bested Monica Puig, the Rio 2016 Olympic Champion, in two sets (6-3, 7-5) to close the season ranked just shy of the top 50 (No. 51), and with eyes set on further progression in 2018.

Moment of the weekend

Precision, power and transcendent speed on this magical run and sublime finish from Portuguese winger Gonçalo Guedes, one of the key figures in Valencia’s great start to La Liga in 2017-18. On a season loan from Paris Saint Germain, the 20-year-old’s belter was the inaugural goal of Los Che emphatic 4-0 victory over Sevilla, and he would add another marker plus an assist on a night to remember at the Mestalla.

Weekend Roundup (October, 15th): Roger Federer’s rampant 2017 season continues in Shanghai

More than Federer’s return to the top of his game at age 36, one of the sports stories of 2017 has been the meticulous, unanticipated turnaround we’ve been able to witness on year 13 of “Fedal”, the biggest rivalry in tennis history. Since that sensational fifth set in Melbourne, when Roger Federer came back from a break down to stun Rafael Nadal and collect the Australian Open, the dynamics of the pair’s meetings have shifted significantly, and after comprehensive straight set wins in Indian Wells and Miami, Shanghai hosted yet another magnificent display from the “Swiss Maestro” against his long-time foe.

Playing under a closed roof and in fast conditions that favour his wicked offensive game, Federer jumped on his rival from the onset in Shanghai, breaking serve in the first game of the match, and never looked back on his way to a commanding, 71-minute, 6-4, 6-3 victory. When the one-handed backhand is dissecting the court and the serve firing on all cylinders, the Swiss is virtually unbeatable in hard courts, and those two weapons were once again the main catalysts to a fifth straight victory over Nadal, who fought till the very end but never managed to dent his rival’s delivery, failing to muster a single break point all night and capturing just 17% of the points contested on Federer’s first serve.

The two tennis legends share a moment in Shanghai after another chapter of their rivalry (Reuters)

With the victory over the World No. 1, which guaranteed a 94th professional trophy – just 14 off Jimmy Connors’ Open era record – Federer is now 10-1 against top-ten players in 2017, the only setback coming in Toronto to youngster Alex Zverev in what was also his only loss in seven finals to date. Moreover, he further diminished his head-to-head deficit with Nadal to 15-23, shaving off the 31-year-old’s lead at the top of the ATP rankings to 1960 points.

Three tournaments are still left on the schedule for both men: the Swiss Indoors in Basel, the Paris Masters and the ATP Tour Finals in London, hence there’s an outside chance the lead changes hands to allow the Swiss a six year-end No.1, an incredible feat that would come eight years after the last. For that to happen, Rafa would have to stumble early somewhere along the way, which is unlikely, yet we’ve seen far stranger things in this tennis season…

In the WTA Tour, the biggest news of the weekend was the return of Maria Sharapova to the titles, more than two years after triumphing in Rome (May 2015), and just on the seventh tournament appearance since the end of her doping suspension. In Tianjin’s WTA International, the Russian star, ranked No. 85 in the World, brushed aside a fearless Aryna Sabalenka in two sets, 7-5, 7-6 (8), with the 19-year-old from Belarus handling her first WTA Tour Final with impressive poise.

Aryna Sabalenka (L) and Maria Sharapova (R) exhibit their trophies after the Final in Tianjin (Reuters)

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a tournament which lost plenty of star power in one fell swoop with the withdrawals of Elina Svitolina (1st seed) and Caroline Wozniacki (defending Champion) coupled with defeats for Venus Williams (2) and Agnieszka Radwanska (4) in the same day, was rewarded with a gripping Final between two Russian-born players.  Rallying from a set down, the 26-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (6th seed) prevailed over Daria Gavrilova (7) by 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3) to claim the third title of the season (Monterey, Rabat) and 11th of her career.

Finally, in Linz, Austria, with no top 25 players in the draw after Jelena Ostapenko and defending champion Dominika Cibulkova dropped out, the Final was contested by the first and second favourites, a rarity in the wildly unpredictable female professional Tour. Entering the decider under the weight of an ugly 1-6 record in WTA Finals, Czech Barbora Strýcová was able to rise to the occasion this time, besting Slovak Magdaléna Rybáriková by 6-4, 6-1 to capture her first title since September 2011, when she lifted her maiden singles’ trophy in Québec City.

Football: Juventus startled as Napoli marches on

With the top-six sides in direct confrontation, round 8 of the Serie A promised fireworks and it delivered in spades, beginning with Juventus’ first loss in 41 home league games. The Vecchia Signora, resting the likes of Paulo Dybala or Miralem Pjanic ahead of an important Champions League clash, still managed to get in front when Douglas Costa scored in the 23th minute, yet the raging Ciro Immobile took over in the second half, tallying twice in seven minutes to power Lazio in front.

The in-form Ciro Immobile fired Lazio past Gianluigi Buffon’s Juventus

The burly striker passed Dybala in the goal scoring race, and Massimiliano Allegri was forced to send in his Argentinian joker, with the No.10 coming off the bench to hit the post and then waste a last minute penalty, the second consecutive match where his shot from the 11m mark was parried by the goalkeeper.

The final 1-2 outcome meant Lazio caught Juventus in the table, the two sides square at 19 pts, and now five back of Napoli, who preserved their perfect record with an impressive 1-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico. It would belong to winger Lorenzo Insigne the role of expressing the Partenopei superiority over AS Roma on yet another show of strength by the well-drilled squad of Maurizio Sarri.

Finally, in a Milan Derby that elicited flashbacks of great battles of the past, Inter ruled in an emotional, back and forth thriller (3-2) decided by striker Mauro Icardi, who converted a penalty in injury time to complete a hat-trick. The Nerazurri collected their seventh win in 8 matches, and are in second place, just two pts behind Napoli, while the revamped AC Milan, despite all the good signs, are tenth, already 12 pts off the top.

Ligue 1

Even with Edinson Cavani safeguarded for the battles to come and a misfiring Kylian Mbappé, Paris St. Germain collected three points in Dijon (1-2) to extend their lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table. A late equalizer by Benjamin Jeannot put a scare on the visitors, yet right back Thomas Meunier emerged in additional time to complete his brace and help PSG capitalise on the stumble by the closest opposition.

Conceding in injury time for the second consecutive round, this time a perfect free kick by Olympique Lyon’s captain Nabil Fékir, defending Champions AS Monaco lost (3-2) for the second time in the league to let the leader out of sight. Now six points adrift, they need to start watching their back as the pack is approaching, with five teams positioned at arms-length.

One of them is Lyon, who rose to fifth, catching Bordeaux, who drew at home to Nantes (1-1), allowing the Canaries to secure an important point away to keep pace with Marseille, involved in the round’s best game in Strasbourg (3-3), and Saint Etiénne, who rallied from a goal down to beat Metz (3-1). Further back, reference to the persisting Lille crisis, with the Northerners still looking for a first triumph since the opener after a late penalty allowed Troyes to snatch a point (2-2) at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

Bundesliga

In Jupp Heynckes’ first game back in charge, Bayern Munich thrashed SC Freiburg (5-0) at the Allianz Arena and the victory allowed the Bavarians to approach the top after leaders Borussia Dortmund lost for the first time.

In a tumultuous match between Champions League teams, RB Leipzig went 3-1 up in Dortmund, responding in style to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s early tally, but two bookings in succession by midfielder Stefan Ilsanker levelled the number of men on the pitch just nine minutes after Sokratis had been sent showering. Borussia pressed to rescue some dignity, with Aubameyang cutting the deficit from the penalty spot however that was all she wrote, with the defeat shrinking Dortmund’s advantage at the top to just two points.

Forward Yussuf Poulsen scores RB Leipzig’s second goal in Dortmund. (Foto: Lars Baron|Bongarts|Getty Images)

Meanwhile, with the triumph, Leipzig managed to climb to third since Hoffenheim dropped two points at home, an 89th minute own goal by Kevin Vogt cooperating to let Augsburg leave Sinsheim with a 2-2 draw. Borussia Moenchengladbach and Schalke 04, who captured assertive victories at Werder Bremen (0-2) and Hertha Berlin (0-2), respectively, approached European territory, while FC Köln’s agony continues as their 7th loss in 8 games was settled by a 94th minute game-winner for Stuttgart.

La Liga

At the eight hurdle, FC Barcelona finally tripped to concede points for the first time on the 2017-18 campaign. Facing a difficult test at Atletico Madrid, the Catalans found themselves chasing following Saúl Ñíguez long-range shot 21 minutes in, and they couldn’t do more than draw level when Luis Suárez found the end of an excellent delivery by Sergi Roberto with 8 minutes to go.

The leaders have amassed 22 pts to date, retaining a six point advantage over Diego Simeone’s team, which got leapfrogged by city rivals Real Madrid this weekend. Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goal of the campaign oddly arrived deep into October, but the Portuguese superstar at least saved it for when it mattered, notching in the 85th minute to overcome a pesky Getafe side (1-2).

Concurrently, Sevilla, who were second entering round 8, fell in Bilbao (1-0) to an Athletic team that was on a six-match winless streak, while Valencia’s trip to Andalusia turned into an exhilarating experience. The visitors scored four times until the 74th minute to get a firm handle on the match, yet Real Betis countered with three in a five minute spam to set up a furious finish where Valencia tallied two more to come out victorious by 6 goals to 3. With these three points, Los Che are now in second place, 4 pts behind Barcelona.

Premier League

The calendar of the Premier League is saturated with exceptional clashes year round, but none is quite like the most traditional match in English football, the North-West derby between Liverpool and Manchester United. For their 169th league encounter, Anfield Road hosted a colorless 0-0 that didn’t really help anyone, even if Liverpool can claim to have carried the better of the play for most of the afternoon only to be deterred by a sublime David de Gea.

With the result, the Reds of Jürgen Klopp picked up their 13th point in 8 games, seven less than Man United, who lost contact with their city rivals after they unsurprisingly pummelled Stoke City (7-2) at the Etihad Stadium. Although it wasn’t as easy for Man City as the score might indicate, the Citizens holding a three-goal advantage inside 27 minutes and the visitors scoring twice around halftime before the game truly got out of hand. Nevertheless, Pepe Guardiola’s side, boasting a staggering 29-4 goal record, are finally clear at the top and few would bet that anyone will reel them back.

Rolling five points behind City, Tottenham Hotspur edged Bournemouth (1-0) with a lone tally from Christian Eriksen securing their maiden Premier League triumph at Wembley, while Chelsea plunged down the table after a shocking defeat (2-1) at Selhurst Park to Crystal Palace. The last-place team was still looking for their first goals and points of the campaign, and César Azpilicueta’s own goal was the kick they needed to clinch a famous victory over a side whose lack of depth was exposed by the absences of N’Golo Kanté and Álvaro Morata.

Wilfried Zaha shoots past Thibaut Courtois to put Crystal Palace 2-1 up on Chelsea (Reuters)

The London Blues are now levelled in points with Liverpool, Burnley and Arsenal, who have yet to win away from home following another disappointing result at Watford, where the hosts earned a come from behind victory (2-1) that vaulted them to fourth.

Cycling: Diego Ulissi presides over the Tour of Turkey during Sam Bennett’s party

At the same time most of the world’s best lay on some paradisiacal holiday destination, the 2017 cycling season slowly trundles to the finish line under a small fraction of the attention destined to the major races in the rear-view.

The (Presidential) Cycling Tour of Turkey may have been elevated to the World Tour this season, yet you would be hardly pressed to believe it simply by looking at the peloton that departed last Tuesday. Comprising a total of 104 riders and 13 formations, including just four from the premier category (Astana, UAE Team Emirates, Trek-Segafredo, BORA-hansgrohe), it’s fair to say the change from late April to October did nothing to increase the profile of the event and, as a consequence, many shrugged the forgettable, uninspiring competition of the six-stage race, concluded in the bustling Istambul on Sunday.

Sam Bennett (BORA-Hansgrohe) celebrates his triumph in stage 5 of the Tour of Turkey (Bettini Photo)

Many but certainly not Sam Bennett, the 27-year-old sprinter from BORA-hansgrohe who did his best Peter Sagan impression to dominate for most of the week, taking four of the first five stages and later missing out on the finale after falling on a corner in the final meters. Opportunity for Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) – twice runner-up to Bennett – who took advantage to bag the stage victory on that last day, and for the race Champion, Italian Diego Ulissi, who snatched the general lead after sweeping the field on the uphill finish in Selçuk on day 4.

Moment of the weekend

The tremendous volley on the run by Dijon forward Benjamin Jeannot, which left goalkeeper Alphonse Aréola rooted to the ground and threatened to halt Paris St. Germain’s triumphant march in Ligue 1. Unfortunately for the 25-year-old, it was worth no points in the standings, but that’s no reason we can’t celebrate it here.

Weekend Roundup (October, 8th): Simona Halep’s special day

In sports, just like in life, you’re seldom granted second chances to realize your ultimate dreams. A third or fourth opportunity to hop on the train headed to your divine destination? Forget about it.

Nonetheless, if Simona Halep should thank a whirlwind 2017 WTA Tour season for affording multiple occasions to stand a single triumph from “becoming” the best tennis player in the world, such an achievement can’t, in any way, be called fortuitous.

In fact, it is the deserved recognition for three years of top-notch tennis from the longest active member on the WTA Top-10, the reward for the regular appearances in the latter stages of tournaments this season (11 quarter-finals and 7 semi-finals in the last 13 events she contested), the deserved compensation for the hard work and difficult decisions undertaken to convert into one of the fittest players in the Tour and, above all, the triumph of resilience and determination to overcome successive setbacks as she edged ever closer to her lifelong goal.

The 26-year-old, who pursued the World No.1 incessantly through 2017, could feel it within touching distance in three previous instances this year only to languish when it went away. First, in Paris, when Jelena Ostapenko recovered from a set and a break down to snatch Roland Garros and crush the Romanian’s thoughts in double fashion. Later succumbing in three sets to Johanna Konta on the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, when all she needed to do was capture the second set tie break. Finally, in Cincinnati, when Halep was annihilated by Garbiñe Muguruza in the Final, opening a door the Spaniard walked into after the US Open.

Hopes dashed in heart-breaking fashion over and over again until last Saturday, at the Premier Mandatory of Beijing, the Romanian’s tortuous odyssey coming to its happy end, to a certain extent culminating her steady rise since a breakthrough 2013 season. Poetically, Halep faced the same Ostapenko that had delivered the first and most scathing blow, and she fought  through the nerves to expunge all the demons in a convincing 6-2, 6-4 triumph which showcased the assets that brought her here: consistency, superior speed and agility, the ability to turn defence into offense in a blink, the understated aggressiveness.

Reunited after the 2017 Roland Garros singles final, Jelena Ostapenko was the first to congratulate Simon Halep on her achievement (Getty Images)

In the grand scheme of things, it may have been just a semi-final of a late season tournament, but this match meant the World to Halep, the first Romanian to reach the pinnacle of the female tennis rankings, the 25th woman to hold the top position since 1975, and the third to do it for the first time this year, after Muguruza and Czech Karolína Plíšková. It was indeed her special day, even if that elusive Grand Slam title still looms large on the career arch she will follow from here on.

Somehow lost in the shuffle of Halep’s milestone was the reality that a Final still had to be played in Beijing the next day, and another woman also craved her share of the spotlight. Fresh of a title in Wuhan the previous weekend, Caroline Garcia scampered to the Chinese capital and proceeded to reel in victory after victory to reach a second consecutive Final, eventually toppling the impending No.1 in a tight decider (6-4, 7-6(3)) to lift her first Premier Mandatory title.

An upset that capped a stunning fortnight and improbable eleven-match winning streak for the soaring 23-year-old, vaulted into the Top-10 (No.9) for the first time, and now firmly enmeshed in the race to Singapore, where the WTA Finals will be contested later this month.

Caroline Garcia compiled an unprecendented Wuhan/Beijing double (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, as a new No.1 emerged on the women’s tour, the ATP’s top dog was strengthening his grip in same venue. The week may have started with a scare for Rafael Nadal, who fended off two match points from Lucas Pouille in round one of the ATP 500 of Beijing, but he quickly got acclimated to the Asian humidity and blossomed into his dominant self for the rest of the event, demolishing 8th seed Nick Kyrgios by 6-2, 6-1 in the Final to collect his 6th title of the year and 75th of his career.

Concurrently, in Tokyo, David Goffin confirmed his push for a spot on the ATP Tour Finals by securing a second straight title following the triumph in Shenzhen the previous week. The Belgian defeated France’s Adrian Mannarino in the Final in two sets (6–3, 7–5) to pick up an ATP 500 for the first time, and denied his 29-year-old rival of a maiden tournament victory on the highest professional circuit.

Cycling: Vincenzo Nibali reigns at Il Lombardia for a second time

Contested against the spectacular background of Lake Como, the “race of the falling leaves” is the last landmark of the cycling season, the final Monument Classic of the year and a gruelling finish to the autumnal series of Italian one-day classics. Almost 250km long, featuring plenty of steep uphill sections and treacherous, swerving descents, it favours the riders that can sustain their form until the latter stages of the season, are well versed on the terrain in hand and have the technical skills to operate the bike in challenging conditions.

In resume, it is perfect for Vincenzo Nibali, the pugnacious Italian star that is not only one of the greatest climbers in the World, but also a great terrific time-trial list and exceptional descender. Victorious at Il Lombardia in 2015 and unable to defend his title last year after an unfortunate crash at the 2016 Olympics, the Shark of Messina was the prohibitive favourite heading into the 111th edition of the famous event, and he made his presence felt when it mattered.

Home favourite Vincenzo Nibali captured his second win at the Giro di Lombardia (Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com)

With less than 20km to go, as the action picked up on the penultimate climb (Civiglio) of the race, Nibali sniffed the danger when Thibault Pinot (FDJ) went on attack for a third time and he lunged across to join the French before the hill’s crest. From there, the Bahrain Merida leader furiously hurried downhill, skimming the bends to distance Pinot and opening a gap that only widened in the final ascent to San Fermo della Battagli and short run-in to the finish line in the city of Como.

With authority, the 32-year-old sealed the 69th triumph for the home nation in the history of the event – but only the second in the last 9 years – while, further back, Pinot’s forces faded with Nibali out of the sight and he was absorbed by a small chasing group from which compatriot Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) free wheeled in the final kms to take second on the day, 28 seconds off the winner and 10 ahead of Italian Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), who won the skirmish for third.

Italian and French riders split the top seven at the Giro di Lombardia, and when attentions shifted to France for the prestigious Paris-Tours the following day, the hosts wanted to get their neighbours back. It wouldn’t happen since the in-form Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step) once again displayed his mettle, pushing the pace on an elevation inside the last 10km to break away from the pack alongside Danish youngster Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb), and then imposing his will in the final sprint with a small boost from teammate Nikki Terpstra, the only man who had managed to bridge across.

Matteo Trentin edged Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) on his final race for Quick-Step Floors (Getty Images)

By securing a seventh victory in just over two months, Trentin bid a perfect adieu to Quick-Step after six and a half seasons with the Belgium outfit. The Italian will represent Orica-Scott when the peloton returns to the European roads next season.

Football: Taking the temperature at the 2018 World Cup qualifiers

No domestic leagues action this weekend, so we’ll instead dive into the final stretch of the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. One Confederation at a time, which teams have already punched their ticket and who’s still in play?

CONCACAF

Costa Rica joined Mexico in the group of qualified nations after a last-gasp goal by Kendall Waston secured a dramatic draw against Honduras on Saturday, and the United States are in the driver’s seat for the last spot after a commanding 4-0 win over Panama.

Due to their superior goal difference, a draw in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday should be enough for the Americans to clinch third place, while Honduras and Panama will fight for fourth and the corresponding playoff wild card to face the Asian representative. Panama currently holds the tie breaker by a five-goal margin, and therefore any triumph over Costa Rica may do the trick.

AFC

Regulars Iran, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia are already gearing up for Russia, and that prominent list is only missing Australia, pipped on goal-difference by the Saudis on the group stage.

The Socceroos can still make it for a fourth straight time, but they’ll need to finish off Syria in Sidney on Tuesday before tackling a final playoff round with the fourth place team from the CONCACAF.  Meanwhile, the Syrians are eyeing an astonishing debut appearance in the midst of a raging Civil War that forced their home leg (1-1) to be held in Malaysia.

Syria and Australia will meet again in Sidney on Tuesday to decide who advances to the final playoff round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers (AP Photo/ Vincent Thian)

CONMEBOL

With Brazil having already booked their trip a few months ago and Uruguay virtually qualified by virtue of a +10 goal difference, the South American 18-game marathon will meet its explosive finale on Tuesday, four days after a sensational round of games scrambled the standings even more.

Five teams (Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay) are currently separated by two points and there’s only a pair of direct slots up for grabs plus a wild card for a final playoff with New Zealand in November. Strap down, this is going down to the wire.

CAF

The first two African nations to arrange their trip to Russia were Nigeria, who bagged group B after edging 2012 African Champions Zambia, and Egypt, who secured qualification for the first time in 28 years with an injury time winner from the penalty spot against Congo on Sunday.

In group A, Tunisia and DR Congo are still in the race, with the Tunisians only requiring a draw from the reception to Libya next month to return to the World stage for the first time since 2006, while in Group C it’s down to Ivory Coast and Morocco, who will square off in November with the Ivorians ahead in the table and holding home advantage. Conversely, Group D is a mess, with all four teams alive after the decision to repeat the polemic South Africa-Senegal, whose original outcome was invalidated for allegations of match manipulation.

UEFA

In the first round of the final group-stage double-header, powerhouses Germany, Spain and England joined Belgium and hosts Russia on the list of qualified teams, with Poland securing their spot on Sunday following a nervy victory over Montenegro.

With four groups yet to settle, there are a lot of moving parts to take into account regarding the remaining group winners and the eight teams that will advance to the playoffs, but it’s safe to say France (Group A), Serbia (Group D) and Iceland (Group I) should qualify when they host weak opposition (Belarus, Georgia and Kosovo, respectively) on the closing match day.

After a spectacular 3-0 win in Turkey, Iceland is on course to reach a first World Cup tournament (STR / AP)

That leaves a trio of games to track feverishly on Monday and Tuesday. Wales and the Republic of Ireland (Group D) clash in Cardiff and Ukraine meets Croatia (Group I) in Kiev in pair of encounters where draws could sentence both sides, while the Lisbon battle between Portugal and Group B immaculate leaders Switzerland sees the European Champions in need of a win to leapfrog their rivals.

Moreover, welcoming Gibraltar to Athens, Greece (Group H) is three points away from pairing with Northern Ireland (Group C), Italy (Group G) and Denmark (Group E) in November’s two-legged playoffs, while only a disaster – an inconceivable seven goal defeat – in Amsterdam would stop Sweden (group A) from doing the same. Finally, with their schedule complete, Slovakia, the Group F runners-up, can’t do much more than crunch numbers and wait as others determine whether they did enough to reach the playoffs.

Moment of the weekend

“El Mundial! El Mundial! El Mundial!”

It’s probably the dream of every live sports announcer. Nailing the call of an everlasting moment for the history of their nation.

The 95th minute equalizer by Kendall Waston, which secured Costa Rica’s fifth appearance at the FIFA World Cup, certainly fits the description, sending into raptures every one of the 35,175 spectators blessed to celebrate inside the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica, and most of the other 4.9 million that populate this Central American country.

The 2017-18 NHL season: Predictions

The new NHL season is ahead of us, and it’s time for another venture into the worthless world of preseason prognostications, a guilty pleasure for every self-proclaimed pundit. Not satisfied with all the blanks straying from my iffy gunfire 12 months ago (you can recall them here), I’m back to extricate some sense of redemption and to unload a new shipment of hot fire.

The blueprint for this post was established last year and there’s no reason to change it, so let’s go straight ahead and start mumbling.

Regular season standings

Atlantic Division

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Montreal Canadiens
  4. Ottawa Senators

Outside (in order): Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings

With Steven Stamkos finally steering clear of his rotten luck, the Tampa Bay Lightning overcome a slow start to clinch a first Division title in 14 years, staving off the challenge of the effervescent Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that will rank in the top ten on both sides of the puck. The Montreal Canadiens, with Alex Galchenyuk and not Jonathan Drouin as the No.1 Center, ride Carey Price to third place, setting up the playoff encounter we all want to see, while the superpowers of Erik Karlsson waft the Senators through a late charge and into a dramatic appropriation of the last wild card on the final day of the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs should enjoy a smooth ride in the Atlantic Division (Sportsnet.ca)

The team Ottawa leaps right at the finish line are the Sabres, whose thin defence cracks under pressure deep into the regular season slog. Meanwhile, the Bruins hit a mid-season swoon when their dynamic top line (Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak) suffers a casualty, and then Tuukka Rask falters as they try to re-enter the race.

Florida’s puzzling offseason moves backfire to cost Dale Tallon’s job on the eve of their elimination from the playoff race (taxi charges included), while the Red Wings engage on a throwback dispute with the Colorado Avalanche for the right to evade the bottom of the table. They triumph twice, on and off the ice as Detroit wins the lottery to secure the first pick in the 2018 Draft.

Metropolitan Division

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Carolina Hurricanes
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins

Outside: Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders

It’s not the cakewalk of recent times, but the Capitals are still able to capture the Divisional crown when their youngsters step up to the task, fending off the Blue Jackets. The Artemi Panarin trade pays off for Columbus when the attack keeps them afloat through Sergei Bobrovsky’s ups and downs, and, in addition, they get a cushy first round encounter with the Hurricanes. Backed by the stellar goaltending of Scott Darling, Ron Francis finally ants up his assets on defence to acquire Matt Duchene mid-season, and Carolina ends its 9-year playoff drought with a week to spare.

The Carolina Hurricanes are on the cusp of greater things, starting with a return to the playoffs in 2017-18 (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Stumbling out of the gate and pulled further back by a two-month stretch missing half of their two-headed monster, Pittsburgh nearly misses the playoffs, but gets lucky when Philadelphia chokes down the stretch. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and a spectacular bounce-back year from Cory Schneider inspire the Devils to a surprising 90-pt season, yet they still fall short of the cut, while both New York outfits enter tailspins when goaltending isn’t up to the task and central problems bubble up: the lack of centre depth in Manhattan, the continuing John Tavares’ melodrama in Brooklyn.

Central Division

  1. Minnesota Wild
  2. Dallas Stars
  3. Nashville Predators
  4. Winnipeg Jets

Outside: Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche

I shall not underestimate Bruce Boudreau’s regular season magic again, therefore Minnesota takes the Division on the strength of their superior depth at forward. As expected, Dallas clicks offensively though their defensive woes won’t subside for good under Ken Hitchcock just yet, especially with that immature defensive corps and Ben Bishop threading merely average numbers. In Nashville, Juuse Saros peacefully overthrows Pekka Rinne midseason, but health – after Ryan Ellis’ return – is the main reason the Predators stride comfortable into third place.

The Minnesota Wild of Nino Niederreiter (#22) are primed for a divisional title this season (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

After years of agony, the Jets fire Paul Maurice in December and Winnipeg goes batshit crazy when they pummel Chicago on the last day of the regular season to secure the last Wild Card. Sure, they do it by relying way too much on the power play and top-heavy offense, but it’s enough since the Blackhawks’ own depth issues finally catch up to them. The steep regression experienced by Jake Allen, coupled with an unrelentingly injury bug, derail St. Louis season to end their six-year playoff streak, however the Blues still finish miles ahead of Colorado, the NHL’s only sub-65 pts team.

Pacific Division

  1. Anaheim Ducks
  2. Edmonton Oilers
  3. Calgary Flames
  4. LA Kings

Outside: Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks

Oilers’ goaltender Cam Talbot goes down in early March, and that opens the door for Anaheim, who collects a sixth consecutive Pacific Division banner due to Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Corey Perry’s 30+ goals campaigns. Still, another 100-pt season from Connor McDavid powers Edmonton past the adversity, and they hold off fierce rivals Calgary for home ice advantage in an explosive first round battle.

Unshackled under the guidance of John Stevens, the Los Angeles Kings rebound to go on a stunning ten-game scoring spree that fortifies their return to the postseason, while Arizona’s rebirth – impelled by a bunch of pubescent kids – emerges as one of the main storylines of the year. It isn’t until the rookies hit the wall that their playoff aspirations evaporate, but 88 pts are enough to finish above the Sharks, a team caught in the middle of a generational change and undone by a freak Brent Burns’ injury.

Arizona’s mix of youngsters such as Clayton Keller (#14) and veterans like Oliver Ekman-Larsson (#23) may catch teams by surprise this season (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Amassing a respectable 75 points, Vegas’s debut goes according to plan and the Golden Knights even manage to pipe Vancouver, who try – and fail – to offload any veterans before the Sedins ride into the sunset.

Playoffs

Eastern Conference Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Champions: Minnesota Wild

The Penguins’ three-peat ambitions dissolve at the hands of the Washington Capitals in round one and our beloved Planet Earth disintegrates the following day, for sure.

However, in case that does not happen, Washington proceeds to squander the opportunity, getting Halak’ed by Scott Darling in the Divisional Final and signalling the end of the road for Barry Trotz and Alex Ovechkin. In the Atlantic, Bolts and Leafs clash in a sensational second round played at breakneck speed, with Tampa advancing in Game 7 before sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to reach a third Stanley Cup Final in their history.

In the West, Oilers and Ducks go the distance for a second consecutive season, and the exhausted winner bows out to the Minnesota Wild, whose ability to bypass the proverbial series with the Chicago Blackhawks proves as important to their success as overcoming Bruce Boudreau’s playoff tribulations in an emotional Game 7 triumph over Winnipeg.

Stanley Cup Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Propelled by the likes of Tyler Johnson (#9) and Nikita Kucherov (#86), the Tampa Bay Lightning will lift the Stanley Cup next June (Mike Carlson/Getty Images North America)

Conn Smythe Winner: Nikita Kucherov

Victor Hedman delivers a Lidstrom-esque effort, logging 31 minutes per game throughout the postseason, but Kucherov’s three playoff overtime winners, including Game 5 of the Finals, sway enough votes to crown a second Russian in the history of the award, after Evgeni Malkin in 2009.

Major Individual Honours

Art Ross Trophy (Most points): Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers)

Turning Ryan Strome into a 30-goal scorer along the way, Connor McDavid shatters the century mark for the second consecutive season after managing a 10-point gap on everyone else for the last two months. The prodigious 20-year-old finishes with 105+ points in 80 games, keeping at bay Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn (96) and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (92), whose performances get vaulted to new levels due to some kind of telepathic connection with Jaromír Jágr.

Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Buffalo’ Jack Eichel also amass more than 85 points for the first time on their careers, while perennial contenders Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby fall short of 80.

Maurice Richard Trophy (Most goals): Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets)

Teed up “ad nauseum” by the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine erupts to post a 49-goal  – the 50th hits Chicago’s empty net but gets called back for offside –  sophomore campaign and become just the second Finnish forward to lead the NHL in goals (Teemu Selanne).

Winnipeg’s sniper Patrik Laine is destined to win the Maurice Richard Trophy (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nonetheless, with the overall increase in powerplay opportunities, a rising tide means Laine will have plenty of competition nipping at his heels until the very end. Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Seguin tie for second place with 46 markers, while Jack Eichel, Jamie Benn and Connor McDavid also break the 40-goal barrier, something Auston Matthews (34) is unable to do after being knocked out of last three weeks of regular season action.

Calder Memorial Trophy (Rookie of the season): Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils)

The dynamic Swiss center is, definitely, no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, yet he’ll be the fourth No.1 pick in five years to take home the Calder on his rookie season (for shame, Connor).

Partnering with Taylor Hall on the Devils’ top line, Hischier will pot 20+ goals to graze the 60-pt threshold, and that will prove sufficient to ward off the challenges of fellow forwards Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes) and Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), respectively, the leading point-getter and goal-scorer amongst freshman. A pair of standout defenseman, Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), round out the top five.

James Norris Memorial Trophy (Best defenseman): Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Already embarking on his ninth NHL season, you can say this is a recognition that has been a long time coming for the hulking Swedish defenseman. With Tampa Bay romping through the regular season, Hedman’s dominance in every facet of the game will ensure he won’t even need to pile up as many points (72) as in 2016-17 to grab the Norris.

Tampa Bay Lightning’s All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman looks poised to take a first Norris Trophy (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Fellow Swede Erik Karlsson makes a proverbial late push, but the generational Ottawa blueliner will be shut down for a third consecutive year whilst Nashville’s Roman Josi gets rewarded for a career-best 65-point season with a maiden nomination.

Vezina Trophy (Best goalie):  Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals)

Washington’s defence suffered plenty of casualties, leading many pundits to write off the possibility of another imperious regular season, yet Braden Holtby is eager to atone for last spring’s performance, and he’ll start the healing process by snatching a second Vezina trophy with an NHL-best save percentage.

His closest competition will come from Pittsburgh, with Matt Murray making up for the Penguins’ uneven play and ghastly contributions of backup Antti Niemi to score a nomination for his first 40-win campaign. Completing the field to write history as the first Danish player selected for a major NHL award, Toronto’s workhorse goalie Frederik Andersen will be recognized for topping the NHL in starts, winning in excess of 38 games and compiling above average numbers both in GAA and Sv%.

Jack Adams Award (Best Coach): NOT John Tortorella

Hart Memorial Trophy (Most valuable player): Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)

Jamie Benn, your 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner (Jerome Miron / USA TODAY Sports)

An inordinate amount of shorthanded points, gaudy offensive totals, and a leading role on an electrifying bounce-back season for the Stars coalesce to power Dallas’ skipper over incumbent Connor McDavid in a major upset decided by a razor-thin margin.

Patrik Laine comes next, a distant third finalist emerging from the pack due to his vital contributions for the Jets’ late playoff push. Goaltender Braden Holtby hauls the Washington Capitals past some unexpected offensive struggles, and almost cracks the top-three, while Jack Eichel’s candidacy is ultimately ruined by Buffalo’s belated collapse.

Weekend Roundup (October, 1st): Manchester City puts the Premier League on notice

Sixteen unanswered goals in the previous three Premier League Games and seven straight victories in all competitions provide a nice cushion for a team that is about to enter the ground of the defending Champions, yet Manchester City’s presentation in Stamford Bridge was a different show of strength.

A comprehensive, meticulous supremacy that a man like Antonio Conte, the pragmatic, sly, single-minded manager of Chelsea has seldom suffered on his decade-long career; a preeminent football lecture founded on sharp, crisp passing, intelligent player movement, coordinated pressing and utter domination of the ball that would rank amongst the best performances of any Pep Guardiola-led squad, not just his Man City era.

Consequently, it came to be that nobody even remembered the visitors were without the insidious Sergio Agüero, involved in a car accident in the Netherlands, as they bossed over the thwarted Londoners, jumbled by the gracious, lavish play of midfielders Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Fernandinho, the agility of the rapidly-improving Gabriel Jesus and the incisive dashes of Raheem Sterling and, particularly, Leroy Sané. The stats tell it all, with Man City amassing 63% of possession and 17 shot attempts (5 on goal) to just 4 (2 on net) from the hosts, seemingly even more befuddled following Álvaro Morata’s departure in the 35th minute with an hamstring injury.

It’s true that the scoreboard only motioned once, a courteous bow to Kevin de Bruyne’s wonder goal in the 67th minute, the Belgium star playing a beautiful one-two with Gabriel Jesus before unleashing a thunderous left-foot screamer past the outstretched Thibault Courtois, yet the message resonated loud and clear through the Islands and the continent apart. Pep Guardiola’s Man City 2.0 is an incommensurable grander beast than last year’s side, which finished 15 pts back of Chelsea, and they’re here to subjugate, as much in substance and style.

The ball shot by Man City’s Kevin de Bruyne flies by Thibault Courtois on the late evening of Stamford Bridge (Getty Images)

Nevertheless, for all the class they’ve exuded in the pitch this season, the Blues of Manchester, now six points up on Chelsea, have yet to ditch their rivals at the top of the Premier League table. Manchester United may not be as aesthetically pleasant, but you can’t question the outcomes as José Mourinho’s side pumped four goals for the sixth time in eleven matches across all competitions in 2017-18. Their victim this time being the bottomless pit of despair that is Crystal Palace right now, seven losses in equal number of matches this term and still without a single goal to lean on.

Tottenham, also in a free-scoring mode in recent times, rose to third after a routine 4-0 win at Huddersfield Town with the inevitable Harry Kane netting a brace to elevate his September tally to 11 goals in 6 matches. The Spurs have 14 points, five less than the leaders, and one more than Chelsea and Arsenal, who have quietly climbed up the standings over the last few weeks and beat Brighton (2-0) at the Emirates Stadium in round 8.

Conversely, Liverpool has been sliding, compiling just one win in their last seven matches (all competitions) after drawing 1-1 at Newcastle. Philippe Coutinho scored for a third consecutive game, but the hosts levelled by Joselu seven minutes later, and Jürgen Klopp’s team now shares the sixth place with the surprising Watford (2-2 at West Bromwich) and Burnley, whose 1-0 victory at Goodison Park resulted in Everton’s fourth defeat in just seven Premier League games.

Ligue 1

For the second consecutive week, Monaco opened the round in France, however not even the indomitable predatory instinct of Radamel Falcao was enough to make amends three days after an embarrassing Champions League home defeat to FC Porto. The Colombian striker scored in the first half, but Montpellier would erase the deficit with a stoppage time marker by Souley Camara.

With the slip up, PSG had the opportunity to retake the three-point advantage squandered in round 6, and they walked right through it, acing what was supposed to be a real test against the unbeaten Bordeaux, who were third. An irresistible first half with 6 goals – five for the hosts – showcased once again the full might of the Parisians’ attack, with Neymar tallying twice and assisting Edison Cavani for the 2-0 before Kylian Mbappé also found the back of the net on the 6-2 drubbing.

With Bordeaux blitzed in Paris and St. Etiénne succumbing at Troyes (2-1), three sides parlayed wins in round 6 to leap the duo, with the spotlight falling on Olympique Marseille, who rallied from a two-goal deficit in Nice with four straight goals.

L’OM now sits at 16 pts, three behind Monaco, levelled with Nantes (1-0 vs Metz) and one above Caen (0-1 at Rennes) on the table of the Ligue 1, which also hit the news this weekend for two disparate moments: the hilarious sent off of Lyon’s center back Marcelo on the team’s 3-3 draw in Angers and, on a much sombre note, the suspension of the match between Amiens and Lille when several visiting fans got injured celebrating a goal after a barrier collapsed in the stands.

Serie A

Locked in a stare down from match day one, one of the leaders would eventually have to blink first and Juventus’ draw in Bergamo did the job, as the Old Lady’s perfect record came to an end to grant Napoli sole possession of first place.

The six-time defending Champions scored two times inside 24 minutes in Atalanta’s stadium, however Juventus’ loanee Mattia Caldara and a potent header by Bryan Cristante tied the proceedings at two. There was more to tell, though, since Paulo Dybala’s penalty kick in the 84th minute was denied by Albanian goalkeeper Etrit Berisha, and, in turn, Napoli now leads the league by two points.

Paulo Dybala’s missed penalty denied Juventus the three points against Atalanta (La Presse)

Mauricio Sarri’s men grabbed a full complement against Cagliari (3-0) at the San Paolo to go 7 of 7, while Inter won at last-place Benevento (1-2) with a brace from Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic to level Juve in second. Fourth-place Lazio recorded the rout of the week, thrashing Sassuolo 6-1 at the Stadio Olimpico.

In the round’s marquee matchup, AS Roma triumphed (0-2) at the San Siro to distance AC Milan in the table. The hosts attacked more, but it was Bosnian striker Edin Džeko who broke the deadlock with a superb shot from distance in the 72nd minute, before Alessandro Florenzi poked in the insurance five minutes later.

The result means the Rossoneri are now 9 pts behind Napoli, but a lot can chance in an explosive round 8 to be played after the international break, when the top six sides will be in confront. In a couple of days, Juve will host Lazio, Napoli will visit Roma and the Milan teams will battle each other at another chapter of the Derby della Madonnina.

Bundesliga

Carlo Ancelotti may be gone, but the problems at Bayern Munich didn’t magically disappear with the departure of the Italian manager. After the paltry performance in Paris, the Bavarians travelled to Berlin and they blew a two-goal lead for the second time in as many fixtures, with the goals of Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski cancelled in a five-minute span by Hertha’s Ondrej Duda and Salomon Kalou.

Hertha’s Salomon Kalou bangs in the equalizer against Bayern Munich at the Berlin Olympiastadion on Sunday (Reuters)

Bayern is now five points adrift of leaders Borussia Dortmund, who passed at Augsburg (1-2) in spite of Aubameyang’s missed penalty, yet they actually surged one spot on the table by virtue of Hoffenheim’s loss at Freiburg (3-2).

Hannover 96, defeated in Moenchengladbach (2-1), also eschewed the “unbeaten” label this week, tumbling to fifth, while RB Leipzig  visited last place FC Köln and came out victorious (1-2), cutting the deficit to Bayern to a single point and aggravating the situation of their opponents on the day. The Goats of Cologne are still stuck at one point after seven matches and the relegation line is already six away.

La Liga

On a politically charged weekend in Spain, football couldn’t manage to dodge the circumstances as FC Barcelona was forced to play its round 7 encounter inside an empty Camp Nou. Naturally lethargic for 45 minutes, the Catalan’s came out in the second half with extra resolve and cracked a problem named Las Palmas with three goals, the first from Sergio Busquets and the next two ascribed to Lionel Messi.

The day FC Barcelona’s motto meant more than just words sprayed on the seats of Camp Nou (Getty Images)

Incidentally, the other team from Barcelona, RCD Espanyol, was on the Spanish capital this week, yet they failed to put another dent on (Real) Madrid’s ambitions. Two goals from Isco were enough to finally secure the defending Champions’ maiden home victory of the campaign and to preserve the 7-point chasm to the top.

In between the two giants, though, there are still teams to take into account, and both Sevilla (2-0 vs Malaga) and Valencia (3-2 vs Athletic) fulfilled their duties in the weekend. The same cannot be said of Atlético Madrid, who can thank goaltender Jan Oblak for leaving nearby Leganés with a draw (0-0) before the reception to Barcelona at their brand-new Wanda Metropolitano.  At the bottom, Alavés surprised Levante (0-2) to pick up the first points in 2017-18, and left Málaga to hold the red lantern.

Tennis: Caroline Garcia conquers Wuhan in battle of outsiders   

The Wuhan Open – the last of the Premier 5 events on the 2017 WTA Tour calendar – took place last week in the most populous city in Central China, and in spite of the presence of eight of the top ten female players in the World, the scene was stolen by two unseeded players, who combined to play a thrilling Final that lasted almost three hours.

France’s Caroline Garcia, who had eliminated two of the tour’s best players in 2016, (Angelique Kerber and Dominika Cibulková) to reach her first final of the year, made it count in the end, lifting the biggest trophy of her career after a 6-7 7-6 6-2 triumph, however her opponent was the true star of the event.

An elated Caroline Garcia holds the trophy of the Wuhan Open (Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu)

Australian Ashleigh Barty, a 21-year-old who abandoned tennis for 18 months to become a professional cricket player, served twice for the Championship in the second set, and it would have a been a fitting reward after such a remarkable campaign in Wuhan. In fact, on her way to a third career final, Barty collected four consecutive wins over top ten players – Johanna Konta (5th seed in Wuhan), Agnieszka Radwanska (9), Karolína Plíšková (4) and Jeļena Ostapenko (8) – to compile a breakthrough performance which validates her new career-high ranking of 23. She will stand eight spots behind Garcia, who also reached a milestone after authoring the greatest triumph for French woman’s tennis since Marion Bartoli stunned the world at Wimbledon in 2013.

Besides Wuhan, the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, also hosted a WTA tournament last week. With only one top-50 player in town, the defending Champion Krystina Plíšková, the title fell to Ukrainian Kateryna Bondarenko, who upset second seed Tímea Babos on the Final in straight sets (6-4, 6-4). For Bondarenko, the World No.153, this was a second WTA Tour success, more than 9 years after taking the spoils in Birmingham, while the Hungarian Babos dropped a second singles final this month – after Québec City two weeks ago – but still found some level of redemption by winning the doubles event alongside Czech Andrea Hlaváčková.

Kateryna Bondarenko, draped in traditional Uzbek attire, shows off the Tashkent Open trophy (Tashkent Open)

On the men’s side, the ATP Tour made stops in two Chinese cities last week for a pair of ATP 250 tournaments.

In Shenzhen, on the southeast coast, broad smiles were reserved for Belgian David Goffin, who finally won a Final after six consecutive setbacks, including two earlier this year (Sofia, Rotterdam), with the trophy in sight. The 26-year-old needed three sets (6–4, 6–7, 6–3) to scrape by Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov, but he finally ended a three-year trophy drought, a puzzling stretch if we take into account that Goffin broke into the top-ten in between.

Meanwhile, in Chengdu, a decider pitting two of the ATP Tour journeyman, 32-year-old Marcos Baghdatis and 31-year-old Dennis Istomin, was terminated after just five games when the Cypriot Baghdatis couldn’t cope any more with acute pain on his back. The former World No. 8 was fighting for his first tournament win in seven years, but he had to abandon, thereby conceding the title to the powerful Uzbek player, best known to tennis fans for defeating Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open early this season. Two years after triumphing in Nottingham, Istomin claimed his second career ATP Tour event.

Dennis Istomin won the title in Chengdu (ATP World Tour)

Cycling: Giovanni Visconti tricks the peloton to win the Giro Dell’Emilia

The World Championships have come and gone, but cycling season isn’t over just yet. The last monument of the season, the Giro di Lombardia, is just days away, and some of main candidates gauged their form on Saturday at the 100th edition of the Giro Dell´Emilia.

With the start located in Bologna and finishing just outside the city, on the hill leading to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, the race course asked the peloton to weave through the roads of the Emilia-Romana region before tackling five times a finishing circuit that included the climb to San Luca. On the penultimate of these laps, with 16 km to go, Italian veteran Giovanni Visconti bolted the main bunch and quickly took a 30-second advantage that would prove enough to secure victory.

The favourites woke up late and tried to reel in the fugitive on the final ascent up Monte della Guardia, which included slopes of 18%, however all attempts were successively shut down by Vincenzo Nibali, Visconti’s teammate at Bahrain-Merida, and the 34-year-old would be able to finish with a 12-second lead on the runner-up, which ended up being Nibali.

Glory for Giovanni Visconti in Bologna on Saturday (Tim de Waele / TDWSport.com)

Colombian Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) completed the podium on a day that was overshadowed by the news regarding his compatriot – and defending Champion – Esteban Chaves. The Orica-Scott rider took a nasty fall negotiating a bend while in hot pursuit of Visconti, fractured his right shoulder, and will miss the remainder of the season, including the defence of his title at “Il Lombardia” on October 7th.

Also on Saturday, German Andre Greipel picked up a much-needed victory for Lotto-Soudal, claiming just his fifth win of the season on the final sprint of the Omloop Eurometropool. The following day, Spaniard Luis León Sanchez (Astana) upset Italians Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain -Merida) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky) to earn his first triumph in 18 months at the Gran Premio Bruno Beghelli, while British Daniel McClay (Fortuneo-Oscaro) snatched victory in dramatic fashion at the Tour de l’Eurométropole, pipping an unsuspecting Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) right at the finish line.

Moment of the weekend

In perfect alignment with our headline, it has to be Kevin de Bruyne’s sensational strike that gave Manchester City a momentous 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.

The Belgium‘s top-notch execution wrapped up a swift, smart, incisive connection in the final third, perfectly symbolizing the blend of artistry and ruthlessness present in the 2017-18 iteration of the Northwestern outfit.