Author: duartefmagalhaes

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

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

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

Series Results:

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

Game 2: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

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

Game 5: Nashville Predators 3 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 6 Nashville Predators

 

Ducks’ shutdown line wore down in the third round

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

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

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

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

Nashville’s depth steps up following Johansen’s injury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anaheim gets ransacked in third periods

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

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

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

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

Best players in the series

John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks)

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

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

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

Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators)

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

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

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

Will the Anaheim Ducks return to the playoffs next year? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All-Star Team

Goalkeepers (2)

Manuela Zinsberger (Austria)

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

Austrian goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger holds the ball and looks on.

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

Almuth Schult (Germany)

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

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

Defensemen (7)

Lucy Bronze (England)

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

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

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

Theresa Nielsen (Denmark)

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

Simone Boye Sørensen (Denmark)

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

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

Anouk Dekker (Netherlands)

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

Carina Wenninger (Austria)

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

Millie Bright (England)

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

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

Demi Stokes (England)

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

Midfielders (8)

Sarah Puntigam (Austria)

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

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

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

Amandine Henry (France)

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

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

Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

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

Jackie Groenen maneuvers against Denmark in the group stage

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

Jordan Nobbs (England)

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

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

Laura Feiersinger (Austria)

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

Austria’s Laura Feiersinger controls the ball against Iceland

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

Shanice van de Sanden (Netherlands)

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

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

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

Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

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

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

Katrine Veje (Denmark)

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

Denmark’s Katrine Veje in action against Norway

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

Forwards (6)

Pernille Harder (Denmark)

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

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

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

Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland)

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

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

Swiss forward Ramona Bachmann evades two French defenders

Jodie Taylor (England)

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

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

England’s Jodie Taylor celebrates her marker against Spain

Nina Burger (Austria)

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

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

Nadia Nadim (Denmark)

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

Denmark’s Nadia Nadim reacts after scoring in the Final

Vivianne Miedema (Netherlands)

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

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

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

Best Eleven of the tournament (4x2x3x1)

M. Zinsberger (AUT);

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

S. Puntigam (AUT) – J. Groenen (NED)

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

J. Taylor (ENG) 

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

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

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

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

Best Player of the tournament

Winner: Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

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

2nd place: Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

3rd place: Pernille Harder (Denmark)

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

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

Unpacking the Women’s Euro 2017 (I)

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

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

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

Top three storylines:

A levelled competitive field

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

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

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

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

Misfiring star strikers

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

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

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

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

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

The bizarre sum of goalkeeping blunders

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

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

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

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

 

Best Game: Germany 1-2 Denmark

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

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

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

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

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

Honourable Mention: Netherlands 4 – 2 Denmark (Final)

 

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

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

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

 

Best goal: Daniela Sabatino (Italy – Sweden)

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

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

 

Best save: Almuth Schult (Germany – Italy)

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

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

 

Best fans: Iceland

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

Honourable Mention: Belgium

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

 

Best coach: Dominik Thalhammer (Austria)

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

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

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

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

Worst Coach: Olivier Echouafni (France)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underachieving team(s): France and Spain

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

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

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

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

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

Overachieving Team: Austria

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

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

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

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

Worst Team: Norway

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

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

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

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

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

Best Team: Netherlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series Results:

Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 @ 2 Washington Capitals

Game 2: Pittsburgh Penguins 6 @ 2 Washington Capitals

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

Game 4: Washington Capitals 2 @ 3 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 5: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 4 Washington Capitals

Game 6: Washington Capitals 5 @ 2 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 7: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Washington Capitals

 

Washington can’t turn thorough dominance into scoreline supremacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penguins’ resiliency shows up in crucial moments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Braden Holtby gets outshined…again

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

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

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

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

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

Best players in the series

Evgeni Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals)

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

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

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

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

Marc-André Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins)

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

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

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

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

Will the Washington Capitals return to the playoffs next year? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group D

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

England

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

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

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

Finals Appearances: Eight

Best Performance: Finalist (1984, 2009)

Head Coach: Mark Sampson (WAL)

Star Player: Karen Carney (Chelsea FC)

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

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

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

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

Player to watch: Jordan Nobbs (Arsenal FC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qualification: Group 2 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1997)

Head Coach: Jorge Vilda

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

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

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

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

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

Player to watch: Alexia Putellas (FC Barcelona)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

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

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

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Anna Signeul (SWE)

Star Player: Lisa Evans (Bayern Munich, GER)

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

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

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

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

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

Caroline Weir is one of Scotland’s key midfielders

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

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

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

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

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

Portugal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Francisco Neto

Star Player: Cláudia Neto (Linköpings FC, SWE)

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

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

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

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

Player to watch: Diana Silva (Sporting CP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group C

Headlined by one of the main candidates to the title, Group C is the most interesting of the preliminary stage because every team can realistically entertain the idea of advancing.

If everything goes according to plan, France should casually stroll to the next round and leave Switzerland, Iceland and Austria to discuss the other ticket, with the Swiss edging their rivals in individual talent, Iceland counting on being the only side to have participated in the competition previously, and Austria believing their core group of Germany-based players can carry the mail and overachieve.

France

Will Les Bleues finally get over the hump?  On paper, France is blessed with the strongest squad in the competition – next to Germany – but over the last international competitions they’ve repeatedly been stopped in the knockout rounds (QFs at the 2013 Euro, 2015 WC and 2016 Olympics) and underperformed significantly to the dismay of their fans.

Populated by Olympique Lyon and Paris St. Germain players’, the Finalists of this years’ Champions League, it’s more than time the French put it all together and topple Germany and the rest of the field to win a maiden international trophy. If they miss the mark again, tensions will escalate to unbearable highs ahead of the 2019 World Cup, which France will host.

Qualification: Group 3 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Sixth

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Olivier Echouafni

Star Player: Amandine Henry (Portland Thorns, USA)

The 27-year-old Henry is probably the finest defensive midfielder in women’s football these days due to her blend of controlled aggression, vision, passing range and poise in possession.

Amandine Henry, the outstanding “milieu du terrain” for France

Initiating the transition from the space usually destined to the defensive anchor, the French midfielder is able to impact the game in several areas, breaking lines with her elegant strides, picking up both long and short passes, initiating the press high up the pitch or tackling with aplomb. Moreover, her all-around brilliance shines even more when she can seamlessly swap roles with long time midfield partner Camille Abily, with whom she played for 9 seasons at Lyon to incredible success.

Awarded the Silver Ball for the second best player of the 2015 World Cup, Henry embraced a new challenge last year, traveling overseas to represent the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, but she’s still well versed on the style and tendencies of most of her French teammates, who surely breathe better knowing the midfielder is shielding their back.

Player to watch: Sakina Karchaoui (Montpellier HSC)

A surprise late call up for the French team that played at the 2016 Olympic Games, Sakina Karchaoui is rapidly becoming an important member of Les Bleues as a result of a series of solid defensive performances in high-stake matches.

The 21-year-old ascended the youth ranks as an offensive midfielder, but transformed into a left back at the end of her academy days in Montpellier and the decision is paying off big time. Speedy, athletic and aggressive, Karchaoui displays good defensive instincts, but what sets her apart is the effusive disposition and the energetic runs up and down the flank which usually end up with venomous crosses towards the box. Those are qualities that don’t proliferate in women’s football, much less in quality full backs, and therefore the Franco-Moroccan will be one of the hot properties to monitor over the next few seasons.

Twenty-one-year-old Sakina Karchaoui is one of the new faces of Team France

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): S. Bouhaddi; J. Houara – G. Mbock Bathy – W. Renard (C) – S. Karchaoui; A. Henry – C. Abily; E. Thomis – G. Thiney – C. Lavogez ; E. Le Sommer

The 4x2x3x1 has been France’s staple for many years and in Dutch soil that’s bound to continue, yet Olivier Echouafni isn’t short in personnel to change the mix if things get stale. Particularly the midfield’s offensive trio, which has been under the spotlight following Louisa Necib’s retirement after Rio and Amel Majri’s ankle injury.

To wit, speedster Elodie Thomis will have to watch her shadow in youngster Kadidiatou Diani, and expected left winger Claire Lavogez is far from untouchable, while Gaëtane Thiney could be squeezed out by the reallocation of forward Eugénie Le Sommer to the creation zone.

Moreover, striker Marie-Laure Delie is also bound to receive an opportunity to get going, with a slight tweak to the system possibly in the cards, leading to the implementation of the 4x3x3 and the introduction of a third central midfielder in veteran Élise Boussaglia or 20-year-old portent Onema Geyoro.

Switzerland

Two years after hurdling past the group stage at the 2015 World Cup, the Swiss make their first appearance at the European Championships to provide a stark contrast with the other debutants, who will be more than satisfied with an honourable exit from the tournament.

A level of ambition justified by a perfect qualifying campaign, where they won all eight matches, and the presence of a handful of world-class performers in their ranks. While far from title contenders, Switzerland has the goods to upset any team in the tournament on a good day, and therefore the quarter-finals are the minimal requirement.

Qualification: Group 6 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg (GER)

Star Player: Ramona Bachmann (Chelsea FC, ENG)

Standing at a stocky 162cm, Ramona Bachmann doesn’t immediately radiate the aura of terrific football player, but you just need to wait until she gets going to realize the dynamic skill set and ability to pick defences apart. The 26-year-old Swiss zips around the pitch with and without the ball, making good use of her low center of gravity, and backs down defences with her dribbling ability, which opens up terrain in the final third for teammates to operate.

Ramona Bachmann scored an hat-trick against Equador at the 2015 World Cup, and will be looking for more during her Euro debut

With the characteristics of a winger, she’s primarily used as a nomadic forward or a false striker with Switzerland, exploring spaces between defenders with diagonal runs and overloading half spaces, but the 42 goals in 80 international caps certify the ability to finish is also there. After all, there has to be a reason Bachmann turned professional at age 16 and over the last ten years has represented top clubs in four different countries (Sweden, USA, Germany and England).

Player to watch: Lia Wälti (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

A diminutive midfielder that coordinates Switzerland’s play at the center of the park, Lia Wälti’s game is one that relies on intelligence and flawless, yet understated, technique.

Acting as the outlet at the start of the Swiss buildup, she distributes the ball with both feet and tremendous poise and accuracy, playing at one or two touches to accelerate but also controlling the pace when necessary. In addition, defensively Wälti is able to overcome the lack of size and strength with non-stop activity and positioning.

You can make a case that the 24-year-old is the silent mechanism that makes Switzerland’s machine run swiftly and on time, and that’s worth appreciating even if all the sparkle is provided by others.

Lia Wälti performs the unsavory tasks necessary to carry Switzerland to new heights

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): G. Thalmann; A. Crnogorčević – C. Abbé (C ) – R. Kiwic – N. Maritz; E. Aigbogun – L. Wälti – M. Moser – L. Dickenmann; F. Humm – R. Bachmann

Martina Voss -Tecklenburg’s team plays a direct, fast and attacking style of play that appeases onlookers but concurrently contributes to some tactical anarchy, with the four attacking players regularly exchanging positions and getting caught in transition. The role of veteran Lara Dickenmann is thus essential, since she’s the one responsible for curbing the offensive impetus and organizing support to the two central midfielders. In alternative, the introduction of Vanessa Bernauer in substitution of Fabienne Humm or Eseosa Aigbogun could similarly help tone down some riskier tendencies.

Conversely, if Switzerland is chasing the score, loosening the grip on Ana-Maria Crnogorčevic is the solution to adopt as she’s clamouring for a more prominent role in offense since being incomprehensively adapted to a full back position, hence quashing an element that scored seven times during the qualifying phase.

Iceland

On their third consecutive appearance at the European Championships, Iceland will try to mirror the result of 2013, when they advanced past the group stage before succumbing to hosts Sweden.

Similarly to the men’s team that captivated the continent last summer, the Icelanders have been growing their profile in the women’s game over the last few seasons, and much is owed to their all-time top scorer, Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir, who unfortunately won’t play in the competition after rupturing the cruciate ligament on her knee a few weeks ago. A massive blow that can make all the difference between progressing or heading home early.

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

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2013)

Head coach: Freyr Alexandersson

Star Player: Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is a workhorse in Iceland’s midfield

By assuming the team captaincy in 2014 on the heels of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir’s pregnancy, Sara Björk further increased her influence inside an Icelandic group that paces at the rhythm of its midfield heartbeat.

Armband draped on her arm, the 26-year-old does a bit of everything for her national team, directing traffic and her teammates, covering for positional mishaps, claiming the ball from defenders to start the transition and setting the example with her enduring predisposition to run.

Astute decision making, many rungs above her teammates, completes the description and clearly demarks why Gunnarsdóttir is the rare player on the roster to feature regularly for a top-level European club.

In her case, German double winners Wolfsburg, the team she chose to represent in 2016 after five seasons and four national titles amassed with Sweden’s FC Rosengård.

Player to watch: Elín Jensen (Valur)

Elín Metta Jensen can be considered a special case in Iceland’s squad, and not just because her name is much easier to scribble than the vast majority of her teammates’.

For instance, despite her youth, the 22-year-old has already participated in the tournament before, called up in 2013 after notching 18 goals in 18 games to pace the 2012 Icelandic League as a teenager. Moreover, her propensity for taking defenders off the dribble and individualize actions shocks with Iceland’s “Team first” battle cry, and that may be the chief reason behind her struggles to consistently break into the starting lineup over the years.

Maybe it will finally happen in Dutch soil, probably not in a center forward role but on the wing, where Elín Jensen can offer a jolt of offensive talent to turn around matches going the wrong way.

Probable Lineup (3x4x3): G. Gunnarsdóttir; G. Viggósdóttir – S. Atladóttir – A. Kristjánsdóttir; R. Hönnudóttir – D. Brynjarsdóttir – S. Gunnarsdóttir (C) – H. Gísladóttir; F. Friðriksdóttir – K. Ásbjörnsdóttir – H. Magnúsdóttir

After surging through qualifying on a 4x2x3x1 formation that sometimes versed a 4x3x3, the loss of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir instigated a drastic change of tactical structure, with Freyr Alexandersson expected to take his chances in matchday one against France with a 3x4x3 that defensively will very much resemble a 5x3x2/5x2x3.

The loss of influentional forward Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir (#9) changes everything for Iceland

Due to the new-fangled nature of this system, it’s still not clear where everyone will slot, especially up front, but in this projection I elected experience: from Dagný Brynjarsdóttir being hailed as the partner to Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir in the middle, to 32-year-old Hólmfríður Magnúsdóttir as the final piece of the forward trio alongside Fanndís Friðriksdóttir and the mobile Katrín Asbjornsdottir, who is expected to unseat qualifying joint-top scorer Harpa Thorsteinsdóttir.

Meanwhile, on defence, Sif Atladóttir is the main beneficiary of the extra center back position, and as a reward she brings with her a singular weapon Iceland will rely heavily on: the ability to propel the ball into the goal area from free throws, generating cheap opportunities to incite mayhem in front of the net.

Austria

Until a recent 4-2 home triumph over Denmark, It had been more than 3 years since Austria last defeated one of the other 15 participants at the Euro 2017, and that speaks volumes to the task ahead of Dominik Thalhammer’s women in this tournament.

On the contrary, in qualification the Austrians lost narrowly at home to Norway only to snatch a 2-2 tie away, while a look at their roster reveals six players that pontificate in top-four Frauen-Bundesliga outfits. It’s fair to say Switzerland and Iceland should underestimate the Austrians at their own peril.

Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2017 is the first in their women’s football history

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 8 (5W, 2D, 1 L), five points behind Norway

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Dominik Thalhammer

Star Player: Nina Burger (SC Sand, GER)

Top scorer of the Austrian League in six consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2012, Nina Burger was forced to take her talents abroad when things got too easy at home. She first landed in the USA before eventually returning to Europe to represent SC Sand, where she tallied 15 goals over two seasons.

That’s an unimpressive total that we can probably chalk up to her unusual style of play. Far from a complete striker, Burger is, instead, more of an old-school poacher, someone that sticks to her high position, lays claim to lose balls in the area and aims for the net at every opportunity.

A limited skill set that is still incredibly valuable for the Austrian national team, since the five goals she notched in qualifying helped secure the ticket to the Netherlands and cemented her status as the country’s top scorer of all-time. Now, time to beef up those numbers at the biggest stage she’s ever been.

Player to watch: Sarah Zadrazil (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

Despite wearing the No. 9 shirt for Austria, Sarah Zadrazil is far from a major scoring threat in the pitch. In fact, the 24-year-old would match up far better with the No.8, the numerical digit usually associated with the box-to-box midfielder, the function she carries out to great lengths alongside Freiburg’s Sarah Puntingan.

Austria’s Sarah Zadrazil tries to break an English attack during an international friendly match

Industrious, unrelenting and highly reactive to lose balls, Zadrazil keeps Austria permanently prepared for the defensive transition, and any team could use a responsible player like that, which is why Turbine Potsdam coveted her services after a three-year spell playing college soccer at the United States.

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): M. Zinsberger; K. Schiechtl– C. Wenninger –  V. Schnaderbeck (C ) – S. Maierhofer; S. Puntingam – S. Zadrazil; L. Feiersinger – N. Billa – V. Aschauer; N. Burger

The positioning of Nicole Billa is the key element of Austria’s set up, as the Hoffenheim player can drop back to form a trio in midfield with Zadrazil and Puntingan (4x3x3), execute between the lines (the 4x2x3x1), or take a few steps forward to supplement Burger inside the goal area.

Either way, much is asked of wingers Laura Feiersinger and Verena Aschauer (both SC Sand players), who regularly rush up and down the corridor to assist the defence and necessarily tire out by the middle of the second half. The 26-year-old Nadine Prohaska is then called to action to replace one, while the other toughs it out, since depth is an issue for Austria at this level.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group B

Germany and Sweden are two of just three teams (Norway) to have won the Women’s European Championships and having been drawn into the same group are naturally prohibitive favourites to reach the Quarter-Finals. Conversely, Russia and Italy were once sides to take into account at the continental stage but are currently undergoing transitional periods that should hinder any possible challenge. Pretty straightforward, but there’s a reason they play the games…

Germany

For the past 22 years, the Germans have been the defending European Champions and there’s an excellent chance they’re going to extend their incredible run for a few more seasons despite missing many vital components of their Gold Medal winning team at the 2016 Olympic Games.

In fact, Annike Krahn, Saskia Bartusiak and Melanie Behringer retired from international football, Simone Laudehr and the multifaceted Alexandra Popp didn’t make the trip east due to injury, while head coach Silvia Neid stepped down after Rio, concluding a decorated 11-year stint behind the bench to cede the scene to former defender Steffi Jones. Nonetheless, even with such personnel turnover, Germany is still the odds-on candidate to lift the trophy.

Qualification: Group 5 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1989, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Steffi Jones

Star Player: Dzsenifer Marozsán (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The captain of Die Nationalelf has gradually established herself as the most impactful offensive midfielder in women’s football and, at age 25, the best is probably still ahead.

Germany’s captain Dzsenifer Marozsán in action during a friendly against Canada

Strongly built, exceptional in possession, masterful at controlling the rhythms of the game and changing the point of attack, the Hungarian roots of Marozsán help explain how she is football elegance personified in the way she drives forward with the ball at her feet, eyes surveying the scene before streamlining any kind of pass or shooting accurately at goal.

Wildly successful at every age category with the German national teams, her move from FFC Frankfurt to Lyon in 2016 has not only delivered the trophies she was missing at the club level, but further enhanced her overall skill set and tactical nous. So much that she’s now asked to play deeper on the field and render tasks that shouldn’t be hers. Germany would do good to not forget Maestro Marozsán is at her best free of defensive shackles, and her talent is ours to indulge on.

Player to watch: Lina Magull (SC Freiburg)

A shrewd two-year loan stint at SC Freiburg did wonders for the development of this right footed winger of immense technical resources and unexpectedly the 22-year-old arrives in the Netherlands as a probable starter for the mighty female Mannschaft.

Coming in at just 165cm tall, Lina Magull utilizes her nifty ball control to drift from the left side and invade central areas, engage defenders or provide weighted through balls that consistently push her team closer to the goal. No surprise then that after carrying modest Freiburg to surprise title contention, the Dortmund-native will return to Wolfsburg in the fall and try to leave her mark in its collection of stars. But before that, she’ll perform in front of the European audience for the first time.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): A. Schult; A. Blässe – J. Henning – B. Peter – I. Kerschowski; L. Maier – S. Däbritz – D. Marozsán (C) – L. Magull; S. Huth – A. Mittag

Regardless of Steffi Jones’ decision to structure her midfield quartet as a line stretching across the field or a narrow rhomb, Germany’s Achilles heel and major concern is the deep-lying midfield position, especially with Lena Goeßling’s lack of match fitness in 2016-17.

Sara Däbritz (#13), Tabea Kemme (#22) and Dzsenifer Marozsán (left) are in the conversation to take part of Germany’s midfield

In a curious and slightly desperate resolution, forward Alex Popp was tested there in a few preparatory matches due to her innate aggressiveness on the ball, but the Wolfsburg player picked up an injury and Germany will have to keep improvising. In the last friendly before the Euro, 22-year-old Sara Däbritz got the call to partner Marozsán, but don’t be surprised if Goeßling, central defender Kristin Demann or the adaptable Tabea Kemme also get their crack at establishing a presence. One thing is for certain, though: Marozsán, Magull and any player that finds her way into the midfield mix will have to help paper the gaps since the job will necessarily be done by commitment.

Sweden

Beaten by Germany at the 2016 Olympic Final and previously booted out of the 2015 World Cup and their “own” Euro 2013 by the same opponent, Sweden will certainly be eager to exert a bit of revenge when the two heavyweights face off in matchday one, but the Scandinavians shouldn’t lose focus of their main goal.

The Swedes know most central figures of their squad are getting up there in age and charismatic coach Pia Sundhage is about to leave, so this is a crucial and probably final opportunity to pick up a title before they’re forced to reload with younger players.

Qualification: Group 4 winners (7W 1L)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1984)

Head Coach: Pia Sundhage

Star Player: Caroline Seger (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

Sweden’s skipper may be slowing down, as her regular presences on the bench of Lyon during the 2016-17 season indicate, but Caroline Seger is still as essential as ever for a national team she represented in over 170 occasions.

Swedish captain Caroline Seger pushes the ball forward during a match against Finland

Renowned for her positioning, stamina and passing range, the 32-year-old has commanded the ball in the Swedish midfield for many years by being frequently involved in the buildup and successively engaged in 50-50 disputes. Moreover, her ball distribution skills eventually lead to perfectly timed runs to the box, where she regularly meets crosses or balls whipped in from set pieces to spread the panic on opposing defences.

As a rare, natural midfield general, Seger will be dearly missed, but maybe this last-ditch effort can land an elusive piece of silverware 12 years in the making.

Player to watch: Fridolina Rolfö (Bayern Munich, GER)

The 23-year-old traded Swedish Champions Linköpings FC for Bayern Munich at the beginning of the year and ended up failing to find the back of the net for the rest of the campaign, however there’s still a lot to like about the young striker and the role she can play for Sweden in the near future.

Tall and elegant in the mould of Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, Rolfö possesses a left foot that thumps the ball and makes an effort to meander outside the box, yet she’s clearly not comfortable getting open to combine with teammates and exploring the space between and behind defenders at this stage of her development.

The rangy forward can’t reproduce Lotta Schelin’s clever movement off the ball nor the brute strength of Stina Blackstenius, and that should cost her a starting spot, but don’t discount the impact Rolfö could have off the bench.

Fridolina Rolfö impressed at the 2016 Olympic tournament and once again will be at the disposal of Sweden’s manager.

Probable Lineup (4x3x3): H. Lindahl; J. Samuelsson – N. Fischer – L. Sembrant – J. Andersson; L. Dahlkvist, C. Seger (C) – E. Rubensson; K. Asllani – S. Blackstenius – L. Schelin

Pia Sundhage has given the 4x4x2 extensive practice, prodding two out-and-out wingers serving a pair of strikers, but at the tournament she should reverse back into the battle-tested 4x3x3, which eases the burden on veteran midfielders Lisa Dahlkvist and Caroline Seger but in opposition pulls Lotta Schelin away from the net and onto the flank.

This is precisely where the injury to Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson would hurt were it not for the existence of a wildcard in Olivia Schough, a masterful set piece taker that lends options tactically. The 26-year-old can seize one of the wings, benching Blackstenius (or Schelin) in the process, or roll as a playmaker, potentially shunning Elin Rubensson.

Italy

Despite tying Norway for the record-number of appearances at the European Championships, it’s telling that the two-time Finalists arrive in the Netherlands under a shroud of doubts about their ability to keep alive their 32-year streak of last eight finishes at the event.

Soundly toppled by Switzerland in qualifying, Italy’s hopes were seriously jeopardized when playmaker Alice Parisi broke her leg during a friendly match in England, and therefore few contemplate more than a lone victory over Russia in the opening confront of Group B.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 6 (6 W, 2L), 6 pts behind Switzerland

Appearances: Eleventh

Best Performance: Finalists (1993, 1997)

Head Coach: Antonio Cabrini

Star Player: Ilaria Mauro (Fiorentina FC)

An imposing striker that seems custom made for Italy’s style of play by being able to hold the ball while their block moves up, turn towards the goal or associate with teammates, Ilaria Mauro will play a central role for her country at the Euro 2017.

Italy’s Ilaria Mauro battles with Sweden’s Nilla Fischer during a group stage match at the Euro 2013. The pair will clash again in matchday 3.

Before returning to the Women’s Serie A, where she tallied 16 times on Fiorentina’s maiden title campaign, Mauro spent three seasons in Germany and she might want to tap on those memories for self-motivation, since the markswoman isn’t bound to enjoy many opportunities to shine in the Netherlands. Still, the 29-year-old forward and partner Cristiana Girelli combined for 11 goals during the qualification round, and hitting a mere fraction of that total could make a big difference at this tournament.

Player to watch: Manuela Giugliano (AGSM Verona)

The 19-year-old Giugliano is the most dynamic young player in Italy and the natural successor to Melania Gabbiadini, the legendary 33-year-old veteran forward that should represent the Azzure for the final time in the Netherlands.

A “trequartista” with pace and boundless skill, Giugliano scored 15 goals and terrorized defenders as a teenager for Verona in 2016-17, yet that shouldn’t be enough to guarantee a position amongst Antonio Cabrini’s first options. Her time to shine will come one day though, and a few glimpses of raw potential may already be discerned if she touches the field at the Euro 2017.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): L. Giuliani; S. Gama – C. Salvai – E. Linari – E. Bartoli; A. Guagni – D. Stracchi – M. Rosucci – B. Bonansea; C. Girelli – I. Mauro

Significantly less dangerous than their male counterparts but equally disciplined tactically, don’t expect the Azzurre to deviate from their rigid 4x4x2 edifice, with Mauro and Girelli battling up front to forge something out of nothing and two banks of four holding the forth.

Defensive midfielder Daniela Stracchi is an indispensable part of Italy’s lineup

The 25-year-old Martina Rosucci, who recently returned from a long-term injury spell, should slot into the starting eleven to cover for Parisi’s absence, while Melania Gabbiadini and Daniela Sabatini will regularly come off the bench to replace Mauro and Girelli as soon as they give away signs of fatigue.

Russia

Russia hasn’t gone past the group stage on their four appearances at the European Championships, and they face an uphill battle to change course with the quality of competition in Group B. Particularly since Elena Fomina sponsored a dramatic roster shakeup over the last few months, relegating many veterans that have carried the water for years, and tossing youngsters with limited international experience to the wolves.

Members of Russia’s women’s national team will try to avoid the outcome of every previous appearance at the European Championships: an early exit.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 5 (4 W, 2 D, 2L), 10 points behind Germany

Finals Appearances: Fifth

Best Performance: Quarter-finals (1993, 1995)

Head Coach: Elena Fomina

Star Player: Elena Danilova (FK VDV Ryazan)

Leading figure in the 2005 Under-19 National team that brought Russia its first European title at any level of women’s football, Elena Danilova’s development didn’t unfold as expected with several bouts of injuries and inconsistent performances stalling a career entirely spent in the domestic leagues.

At age 30, the gifted forward gets back into the spotlight as the most talented and unpredictable player in the squad that will attack the Euro 2017, and if she remains engaged and mentally prepared to withstand large periods of time without feeling the ball, Danilova’s flair and proficiency in front of the goal could eventually power Russia past the most positive forecasts.

Player to watch: Margarita Chernomyrdina (FC Chertanovo)

The 21-year-old midfielder promises to assume an important role for Russia as the main link between a packed midfield sector and lone forward Elena Danilova.

Adroit with both feet, Chernomyrdina is capable of carrying the ball up the field and reach the edge of the box in good conditions to threaten the goal, yet she impresses the most for her intensity and predisposition to press opponents. Such urgency sometimes turns into recklessness when she gets too aggressive and concedes free kicks in dangerous positions, nevertheless that’s nothing that can’t get sorted out with time.

Russia’s Margarita Chernomyrdina (#20) fights for possession of the ball during an international friendly match against the USA.

Probable Lineup (4x4x1x1): T. Shcherbak ; T. Sheikina – E. Morozova – A. Kozhnikova – E. Ziyastinova; ; N. Smirnova – D. Makarenko – A. Cholovyaga – E. Sochneva; M. Chernomyrdina; E. Danilova

With so many players dropping out over the last few months, including goaltender Elvira Todua, right back Ekaterina Dmitrenko, center back Ksenia Tsybutovich and former captain Elena Terekhova, predicting the exact Russian lineup is a gamble, yet the overarching tactical approach shouldn’t vary, with nine field players (4+4+1) invested in defensive duties and the lone forward ostracized until the ball is recovered.

The Plan B, to execute in case Russia needs to catch up on the score, is also quite simple: swap one of the midfielders for a second forward (Nadezhda Karpova or Ekaterina Pantyukhina) and lean back to discover whether they can work some magic.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group A

Far removed from the glitz and exuberant displays of patriotism that envelop the continent every four years for occasion of the men’s European Championship, the UEFA Women’s Euro is, nonetheless, a tournament attaining important recognition in international football’s calendar by taking advantage of the odd offseason missing major men’s events.

In 2017, for the first time, the competition will feature 16 nations – divided in four groups of four -, essentially doubling the total of participants from 12 years ago, and therefore it will function as another crucial barometer on the evolution and competitiveness of the women’s game at the highest ranks. Since almost a third (5) of the field makes its first ever appearance, UEFA hopes to avoid the watered-down version of play we were all offered during the preliminary stage of the 2016 Men’s European Championship, also recently revamped to accommodate more teams, and if someone manages to topple Germany, winners of the last six editions, the better.

However, regardless of a few one-side encounters that are bound to happen, the Netherlands and its seven host cities (Breda, Deventer, Doetinchem, Enschede, Rotterdam, Tilburg and Utrecht) will enjoy the talents of a cohort of superb footballers whose exploits will be broadcasted to football fans everywhere for the next three weeks.

An imperial German side has emerged victorious from every Women’s European Championships since 1995

A group of female athletes and teams you should definitely get to know, and that’s what this series of blog posts is about, as I spent a few dozens of hours researching, canvassing through game reports and watching games to compile this sweeping guide of the competition.

Group by group, I aimed to portrait every national team in the competition, providing some background information and clarity on their pre-tournament objectives, profiling two elements of each squad, their most emblematic performer and a player to watch (you’ll notice I took a broad approach in the definition of this item), and glancing at their tactical set up and plausible formation.

Finally, a quick reference before we make it through the 16 contestants: I won’t pretend to pass by an avid women’s football enthusiast or a profound connoisseur, yet I have followed my fair share of women’s tournaments and deem myself qualified to do this work and hopefully help inform those looking to dive headfirst into the female game and its multiple charms.

Herewith, time to get started. After all, they say you should never leave a lady waiting.

Group A

Encompassing the host nation, a rising influence in the women’s game, and a traditional powerhouse in Norway, Group A boasts clear-cut favourites for the two spots that give access to the quarterfinals, yet don’t sleep on an experienced and well-drilled Danish team, surprise semi-finalists in 2013. Debutants Belgium are outcasts in this skirmish and likely limited to fighting to collect a first point at a major international competition.

Netherlands

Unexpected third-place finishers in their first appearance at a major meeting, the Euro 2009, the female “Oranje” is just now starting to reap the benefits of that landmark achievement. Having advanced past the group phase at the 2015 World Cup, the Netherlands should be considered a sleeper pick for the European crown by virtue of possessing an interesting crop of young, complementary offensive weapons and expectations of flourishing performances backed up by a football-mad nation. The Dutch population has already sold out all of the hosts’ group stage matches, and there’s no better incentive to instigate the ultimate dream.

Qualification: Host Nation

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (2009)

Coach: Sarina Wiegman

Star Player: Vivianne Miedema (FC Bayern Munich, GER)

With 41 goals amassed in just 51 senior caps, Miedema is already just 18 shy of Manon Melis’ top-scoring record for the women’s National team and she’s about to turn…21 years old, believe it or not.

Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema gets ready to celebrate after another goal for her country

Always a precocious goal scoring machine, the Hoogeveen-native made her first appearance on the Dutch League at age 15, tallied an astonishing 41 times in 26 games for Heerenveen in 2013/14, and consequently earned a move to German giants Bayern Munich, which proved decisive to add other dimensions to her game.

As she’s far from an imposing presence in the box, the lanky Miedema relies on smarts to find spaces to shoot since it takes her time to accelerate and the first touch is a work in progress. Shortcomings that slowed her prolific rate when she faced stiffer competition at the Frauen Bundesliga over the last three seasons, but ultimately wouldn’t suppress her superior killer instinct (35 goals in 61 league games).

After conquering two German Championships in three seasons, Miedema will join Arsenal FC for 2017-18, but before she lands in London, the hosts will need a full demonstration of her array of talents filling the net in order to summon an historic campaign.

Player to watch: Lieke Martens (FC Rosengård, SWE)

An important component of the Netherlands’ squad since 2011, the 24-year-old Martens can cement her status as a top-notch player with a cracking performance at the Euro 2017 ahead of her impeding move to FC Barcelona.

An exciting offensive midfielder blessed with quick feet and a dazzling ability to change directions and speed, Martens can slice defences with through balls soliciting the wingers or Miedema, and she’s also a headache for any full-back when cradling the ball close to the left sideline, jumping into the one-on-one or invading interior spaces to triangulate and pounce with the right foot. For all of these, I’m certain you won’t miss her as she powers the Netherlands’s offense at home this summer.

Netherlands’ Lieke Martens traverses an English roadblock

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): L. Geurts; D. van Lunteren – A. Dekker – M. van den Berg – K. van Es; S. Spitse – J. Groenen; S. van de Sanden – L. Martens – D. van de Donk; V. Miedema (C)

For some time the Netherlands has played in a defined 4x2x3x1 with Martens having license to roam behind Miedema and combine with England-based wingers Shanice van de Sande (Liverpool) and Daniëlle van de Donk (Arsenal), yet the injury to central midfielder Tessel Middag (Manchester City) and the emergence of Jill Roord (who recently agreed to join Bayern Munich) may have altered the plans of Wiegman for the middle of the park.

The Dutch have dabbled with a standard 4x3x3 recently, grouping Groenen, Roord and the cerebral van de Donk to improve ball retention in the midfield while Martens gets pushed to the left flank. An option for more balance that can pay dividends in the latter stages of the tournament.

Norway

Besides Germany, Norway is the only other nation to have won the European Championships, World Cup and Olympic tournament, yet their status as a heavyweight of the women’s game has been slipping for a few years since they’ve failed to reach the last four at the world scale in the last decade.

Still, they’ve consistently delivered at the Euros, reaching two finals and two semifinals since 2001, and the same is expected this year, especially as the spectrum of the 2013 Final – when they had two penalties denied by German goaltender Nadine Angerer – still looms. In the four years since, the Norwegian endured a tough renovation, with long-time stalwarts like Solveig Gulbrandsen, Ingvild Stensland and Trine Rønning hanging their boots, and the pressure is now squarely on the shoulders of two players who were just 18 years old the last time around.

Qualification: Group 8 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearance: Eleventh

Best Performance: Champions (1987, 1993)

Coach: Martin Sjögren (SWE)

Star Player: Ada Hegerberg (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The reigning UEFA Best Women’s Player in Europe was already a star in the making when she spearheaded Norway’s attack at the 2013 Euro and, in the meantime, she evolved into, arguably, the most feared striker in Europe. Particularly since her 2014 transfer from Turbine Potsdam to Olympique Lyon, with Hegerberg’s goal-scoring exploits (112 goals in just 97 games) being the tip of the French buzzsaw and the main reason her résumé swelled considerably to now include, for example, two Champions League titles (2016 and 2017).

Ada Hegerberg points the direction of sucess to Norway

Powerful and robust, Hegerberg is a smiling assassin in the box with a knack for finding the ball in premium positions, yet she’s been steadily refining her balance, agility and technique to further improve her play outside the area, where she now uses the body to shield opponents off the ball and connect with colleagues.

Those characteristics will be essential for a Norwegian squad that isn’t exactly suited to dominate possession and play with a high line like most favourites, and if Hegerberg can still lead them on a deep run, she immediately jumps to the front of the pack regarding the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Player to watch: Caroline Graham Hansen (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Absolutely ravaged by injuries since her breakout performance as a teenager at the 2013 edition, Caroline Hansen will be trying to make up for lost time as the hand to Ada Hegerberg’s blade in Dutch land.

An electrifying, free-spirited talent that demolishes defenders in direct confrontation, at his best Hansen is virtually unmatched in women’s football for her ability to sprint with the ball down the flank, break lines in possession and craft deadly passes to put teammates in front of the goal.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen leaves an opponent in the dust in this match against Spain

She’ll have carte blanche to wander all over the final third and opponents would be wise to never lose sight of the skinny No.10 with “Graham” plastered on the back of the jersey. As would every spectator, since she’s that good and incredibly fun to watch.

Probable Lineup (4x3x1x2): I. Hjelmseth, I. Wold – M. Mjelde (C) – N. Holstad Berge – E. Thorsnes; I.  Schjelderup – I. Spord –Andr. Hegerberg; C. Hansen; A. Hegerberg – K. Minde

Norway’s nominal set up is the 4x3x1x2, with Hansen free to roam behind two strikers, but without the ball Martin Sjögren demands they shift to a 4x4x2, with Minde (or Emilie Haavi) dropping back to complete the line of four in the midfield and Hansen joining Hegerberg to form a two-person unit pressing the opponents up top.

This option is partially explained by a relative distrust in the elements manning the operations in the halfway line, which lack seasoning at the international level. None of Schjelderup (29 years old), Spord (23), Andrine Hegerberg (Ada’s big sister, 24), Anja Sønstevold (25), Guro Reiten (22) or Frida Maanum (17) has collected more than 25 international caps and therefore, on occasion, Sjögren may advance captain Maren Mjelde and slot Maria Thorisdottir as a center-back.

Denmark

After going all the way to the brink of the final four years ago in spite of failing to record a single triumph in Sweden, Denmark will conceivably need to wring more out of their group to emulate that run in 2017.

The Danes will have their work cut out trying to deceive the Netherlands and/or Norway, but they certainly won’t fizzle due to a shortage of international experience. The Danish roster comprises plenty of returnees that are expected to assume large roles, and no player expected to start in their crucial tournament opener versus Belgium is under 24 years old.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 4 (6W, 1D, 1L), 2 pts behind Sweden

Finals Appearance: Ninth

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1984, 2001, 2013)

Coach: Nils Nielsen

Star Player: Pernille Mosegaard-Harder (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Denmark’s Pernille Harder makes a run

The Danish captain found another gear in 2015, when 17 goals in 22 games merited the distinction as MVP of the Swedish League, the Damallsvenskan, and she hasn’t looked back since then on her way to become one of the most complete forwards in women’s football and the precious touchstone of Denmark’s national team.

An elusive player that can dodge defenders with deft touches and play in tight spaces, Harder likes to drop back to create and explore the vacant spots between the lines, but she’s also a clinical finisher with a sharp right foot that is a serious threat from set pieces.

After vaulting Linköping to the Swedish title in 2016 on the back of 24 strikes, Harder filled calls from every top club in the World and eventually chose to sign with Wolfsburg in January 2017, providing the final ingredient on their successful attempt to recapture the German Championship. She now has the responsibility of doing similar work for her country.

Player to watch: Nicoline Sørensen (Brøndby IF)

A key performer for Brøndby IF, which recently reclaimed the Danish Elitedivisionen, Nicoline Sørensen is a daring winger/forward on the verge of breaking out for the national team as soon as a position opens up in the forward ranks. At the moment, she’s behind Harder, Nadia Nadim and club teammate Stine Larsen in the pecking order, but the slender 19-year-old will be an important alternative for head coach Nils Nielsen if he finds the need to instil more bravado and speed into his formation during the tournament.

Too talented for the Danish league, Sørensen will return to Sweden after the European Championships, hoping to increment her development at Linköpings FC and amend a fruitless stint as a 17-year-old for rivals FC Rosengård.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): S. Lykke-Petersen; T. Nielsen – S. Boye Sørensen – J. Arnth Jensen – L. Røddik Hansen; S. Troelsgaard Nielsen – L. Sigvardsen Jensen – N. Christiansen – K. Veje; P. HarderN. Nadim

Denmark’s basic structure is the 4x4x2, but they’re not afraid to mix it up with interesting variants. For instance, against Belgium in the first game, don’t be surprised if they showcase an offensive, diamond-shaped midfield, sacrificing Sigvardsen Jensen to post Nanna Christiansen as the only anchor and turn Pernille Harder into the creative fulcrum behind strikers Nadia Nadim and Stine Larsen.

The intrusive offensive positioning of right back Theresa Nielsen is a factor of turbulence for Denmark’s opposition

Furthermore, Denmark is also inclined to implement a backline of three when building from the back, pushing right back Theresa Nielsen up the corridor to provide width in the same horizontal line of left wingback Katrine Veje, and allowing Troelsgaard Nielsen to overload interior domains and move closer to Harder.

The Danes conceded just one goal in qualifying and scored 22 – the same total as group winners Sweden – and tactical malleability was one of their secrets.

Belgium

After coming close to reach the 2013 European Championships and the 2015 World Cup, Belgium finally booked its place on a major international tournament for the first time, and did it in comfortable fashion, edging third-place Serbia by 7 points. However, things will now get trickier for the “Red Flames”, who got hosed by Spain in a humbling 7-0 rout just weeks prior to the tournament, and can’t be considered more than outsiders in Group A.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 7 (5W, 2D, 1L), 5 pts behind England

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Coach: Ives Serneels

Star Player: Tessa Wullaert (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Belgium’s Tessa Wullaert controls the ball under the watchful eye of an English player

While not a prominent feature of Wolfsburg’s attack, Wullaert established herself as a useful piece and a regular solution off the bench for the current German Champions since her move from Standard Liège in 2015. The 24-year-old had outgrown the Belgium League and the national team benefitted from the new impulses and learnings picked up by Wullaert in the Frauen-Bundesliga, where she developed into the hard-working, resourceful forward that led the Euro 2017 qualifying phase with 9 assists to add to four important goals.

With Belgium, Wullaert is usually asked to operate across the attacking zone, whip set pieces and take on defenders, but at this tournament she’ll probable fill an even larger role, working tirelessly without the ball to make ends meet against three superior opponents. It’s not the right stage for her to shine, but it’s what a star player needs to do when his team is significantly outgunned.

Player to watch: Tine de Caigny (RSC Anderlecht)

Due to her height and sprightliness, 20-year-old midfielder Tine de Caigny is a noticeable presence on the Belgium lineup, where she uses her stature to win battles and dominate in the air, not unlike fellow Belgian footballer Marouane Fellaini. However, de Caigny lacks the patented, voluminous mane and doesn’t shake the earth when she walks, with her feet and passing already at a decent level for a young athlete that started out as a defender.

Hereby, take the time to seize her up at the center of the park, or stretching up the field to respond to goal kicks and long balls from the defence, all while hoping her resolute activity can afford a breather to the members of Belgium’s backline.

Tine de Caigny in action against Norway

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): J. Odeurs; M. Coutereels – A. Zeler (C) – H. Jaques – D. Philtjens; J. Biesmans – T. de Caigny – E. van Wynendaele – E. van Gorp ; T. Wullaert – J. Cayman

During qualification, Belgium achieved success riding the dangerous forward combination of Wullaert and Montpellier’s Janice Cayman, but Ives Serneels may well opt for a more cautious approach in the Netherlands, harmonizing a 4x4x1x1 that can unfurl onto a 4x2x3x1 in offense.

In this case, Cayman would be the lone attacker bothering the opposing center backs, with de Caigny offering support and an outlet, while Wullaert would drift wide to cover the right flank and Julie Biesmans would tuck inside to help screen the backline alongside Elien van Wynendaele or the more experienced Lenie Onzia.

NHL playoff series digested: Ottawa Senators – New York Rangers (4-2)

While the heavyweights Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins were contesting what many revered as the early Eastern Conference Final, Senators and Rangers were left to scrap for the other spot in the third round under much less media attention. Unfortunate ended up being the ones that missed out on the second ever postseason meeting between Ottawa and New York, who did their part to spark the respective fan bases by holding serve at home for the first five matches of the series.

In Game 6, the streak was broken by the visiting Senators and that was all she wrote, as the Canadian side moved on to their first Final Four appearance since 2007, while the Rangers missed out on a third presence in four years and the opportunity to be the first Metropolitan Division team to hoist a banner reading “Atlantic Division Champions”.

Series Results:

Game 1: New York Rangers 1 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

Game 2: New York Rangers 5 @ 6 Ottawa Senators (2 OT)

Game 3: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 4 New York Rangers

Game 4: Ottawa Senators 1 @ 4 New York Rangers

Game 5: New York Rangers 4 @ 5 Ottawa Senators (OT)

Game 6: Ottawa Senators 4 @ 2 New York Rangers

 

New York craters on the road under Ottawa’s late flurries of activity

With the Senators holding home ice advantage to start the series, the Rangers knew the responsibility of stealing a road victory on the other side of the border fell on them, so they went to work on it from the get-go. After surviving a 21-shots first period blitz in Game 1, New York shepherded a 1-1 score into the final minutes of regulation only to fall to Erik Karlsson, who sentenced the match on an extraordinary moment of perception as he sniped the puck off the top of Henrik Lundqvist’s back while stationed behind the goal line and just off the side boards. You can’t prevent moments like that, so the Rangers just shrugged it off and focused on another opportunity coming in two days.

The loss in Game 2 would sting immensely more as the Rangers had the Sens by the horns in multiple occasions and couldn’t close out. Riding two shorthanded tallies, they reached a 3-1 advantage in the second period, and later led 4-2 and 5-3 until center Jean-Gabriel Pageau deflected two pucks past Henrik Lundqvist at the tail end of regulation. Despite the setback, the Rangers regrouped and had their chances to take victory in overtime, yet the game was destined to go down as a memorable affair for the Sens and Pageau, who concluded the proceedings with his fourth goal of the night.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (#44) has just tipped a puck past Henrik Lundqvist (#30) to tie Game 2 in the last minutes of regulation (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

New York took care of business at the Madison Square Garden to level the series at two games apiece, and consequently booked a return trip to Ottawa for a pivotal Game 5, which would again elicit sleepless nights. The Rangers found their way into two early goals only to be upended, but reacted to secure a 4-3 lead heading into the final seconds. With the other net vacated, they would again crumble to the pressure of Ottawa and Derick Brassard pushed the contest to OT. This time, though, New York couldn’t settle down during the intermission and they were absolutely throttled by Ottawa (13-1 in shot attempts) until Kyle Turris scored the deciding marker just six minutes into extra time.

That goal pushed the “Blueshirts” to the brink of elimination, and they eventually ran out the time to get the job done in Canada since the fourth and last chance would never come.

Senators hit all the bases in Game 6 to reverse the trend

Unlike the Rangers, Ottawa couldn’t even sniff a road triumph in Games 3 and 4 as the Sens were clocked in matching 4-1 bouts that were over way before the final buzzer. The Rangers had raced to 4-0 leads in both matches while facing feeble opposition, therefore all the ingredients seemed to be on hand to force a winner-takes-all Game 7.

Senators’ goalie Craig Anderson makes a save on New York’s Mats Zuccarello during Game 6 (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Except the Rangers actually believed they would breeze in Game 6, and came out so flat for a team with the season on the line that Ottawa took notice and found a way to put together the mettle required to finish the job that night. For instance, for the first time in the whole series, the Sens broke the ice when Mike Hoffman redirected the puck just 4 minutes in, and then obtained their first two-goal lead, courtesy of a Mark Stone laser. In between, Ottawa killed a 4-minute, double minor penalty, and they would deny the Rangers’ powerplay twice more later on as goaltender Craig Anderson delivered a great performance to make up for the four consecutive games where he allowed 4+ goals.

Ottawa’s starting goaltender and two of their top forwards had already made huge contributions to the cause, and their captain and best player was about to join the fun. Just two minutes after Mika Zibanejad cut the Sens advantage to one, Erik Karlsson transitioned the puck up the ice, dished it to 7M-man Bobby Ryan and then grazed a soft spot in coverage to receive it back and fire past Henrik Lundqvist.

Erik Karlsson reacts after scoring Ottawa’s third goal in Game 6 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 3-1 stunned the MSG, and not even Chris Kreider’s marker just 53 seconds into the third period changed the narrative, as a bit of luck and a lot of Anderson helped the Sens withstand the impetus of the now desperate Rangers and hold onto the precious lead to snatch victory, the fourth they needed to progress.

Henrik Lundqvist’s age finally catches up to his postseason play

In the first round, New York’s franchise goaltender had outlasted Carey Price in a battle of superstar netminders to showcase he’s still got it, but the Swede isn’t 28 anymore and can’t be asked to carry his team in the same way as he approaches the twilight of his career.

The wild fluctuations in Lundqvist’s level have been the norm over the last few regular seasons, and it was probable they would eventually spill into the playoffs regardless of the rest afforded to him throughout the season. It happened in the series against Ottawa, as the “King” posted a not-so-royal 0.905 Sv% and 2.80 GAA while mixing in great performances (Game 1), efficient outputs (Games 3 and 4) and pedestrian efforts in Games 2 and 5, where he allowed six and five goals, respectively.

A dejected Henrik Lundqvist sits down after allowing Derick Brassard’s game-tying goal late in Game 5 (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

While true that the 35-year-old is not to be faulted for the many deflections his teammates granted by declining to box out opponents or take away sticks in front, the Swede could and should have stopped a few important markers, such as Pageau’s first tally in Game 2 or Kyle Turris’ OT winner in Game 5.

Furthermore, Lundqvist had won 10 of the previous 11 home fixtures when the Rangers faced elimination, however he couldn’t sum up his best in Game 6, surprised by Hoffman’s high tip on the first goal and sharp – but in no way indefensible – releases by Stone and Karlsson later on.

In the end, “Hank” gets flack because his even strength Sv% reads 0.896, and that won’t cut it from a goalie that pulls in 8.5M per year and only had to be average to outperform his counterpart (0.907 sv%, 3.09 GAA) and bail out the team.

Best players in the series

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators)

The 24-year-old put forth the performance of a lifetime in Game 2 by becoming the first player in almost 7 years to score four times in a playoff game, yet Pageau’s overall display throughout the series also merits a host of accolades.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau rushes to celebrate his overtime winner in Game 2, his fourth goal of the night (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

He collected 11 hits and 8 blocks, posted a team-high 58.5 FW% and amassed a 53.84 adj. CF% to back up his all-around chops, while his final tally of six goals in six games – half the sum obtained in 82 regular season appearances – propped up his +/- rating to a series-high +4. Moreover, Pageau wired 20 SOG in 19:03 min TOI/GP, including 3:02 min recorded per game with a man down, a situation where he proved key in limiting the Rangers to a 8.3% (2/24) conversion rate.

Mika Zibanejad (New York Rangers)

Last summer Ottawa exchanged Zibanejad for fellow center Derick Brassard, and the Stockholm native don his best suit to the six-game rendezvous to demonstrate the Rangers won the bet even if they didn’t ultimately conquer the series.

Despite scoring just once, on a partial breakaway to pull the Rangers within one in Game 6, the 24-year-old led New York’s forwards with 5 points, all at even strength, and 21 shots on goal in 19:20min TOI/GP. Flanked by Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, Zibanejad’s line was the Rangers’ most dynamic offensive unit, and that is expressed on the Swede’s impressive 50.61 adj. CF%, 55.88 SCF% and 68.75 HD CF%.

Mika Zibanejad celebrates with teammate Mats Zuccarello after a NY Rangers’ goal in Game 3 (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the New York Rangers return to the playoffs next year? 

Perhaps. The Metropolitan Division seems to improve with each passing week hence even a small dip can bump the Rangers out of the playoff picture in favour of a team like the Philadelphia Flyers, NY Islanders or Carolina Hurricanes.

Nevertheless, so far, the Rangers have done some judicious work this offseason as GM Jeff Gorton cleared cap space looking out for the future. He started by buying out defenseman Dan Girardi, whose contract had grown into a tremendous headache, and then shipped out center Derek Stepan to Arizona to expose an extra 6.5M, giving the Rangers 15.6M to work with and 17-18 spots filled out after extending defenseman Brendan Smith at 4.35M per year.

A crestfallen Rangers team skates off the ice at MSG following Game 6’s defeat against the Ottawa Senators. Changes are in order before they come back for the 2017-18 season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

That margin leaves the door open for a splash on July 1st, which could be the long-rumoured engagement with prized offensive blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk, or an impact addiction up front, preferably a center to replace Stepan and Oscar Lindberg, who was picked up by Vegas in the expansion draft. If it’s the latter, the names of San Jose’s veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau quickly spring to mind.

Still, the Rangers need to be careful since a few of their players are bound to climb a few rungs up the salary ladder soon, including forwards and 2018 RFAs JT Miller, Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey plus defenseman Brady Skjei. Additionally, they also have to re-sign RFAs Mika Zibanejad and Jesper Fast in the coming weeks, possibly chipping away as much as half of the available funds, add a couple more forwards, and secure a decent backup that can stand in for 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist with the same composure of previous understudies Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot.

NHL playoff series digested: Anaheim Ducks – Edmonton Oilers (4-3)

Eleven years after dispatching two Californian teams in route to the Stanley Cup Final, the Edmonton Oilers aspired to rehash history by sending home the Anaheim Ducks following a first round scalping of the San Jose Sharks. They came close, stretching the tie to the limit after a slew of high-scoring games, but capitulated in Game 7 to the Anaheim Ducks, a team that pulled through by exorcizing the demons of recent meltdowns. Here’s how they did it. 

Series Results:

Game 1: Edmonton Oilers 5 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks

Game 2: Edmonton Oilers 2 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 6 @ 3 Edmonton Oilers

Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 4 @ 3 Edmonton Oilers (OT)

Game 5: Edmonton Oilers 3 @ 4 Anaheim Ducks (2 OT)

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 7 Edmonton Oilers

Game 7: Edmonton Oilers 1 @ 2 Anaheim Ducks

 

Kesler unit oppresses Connor McDavid

Playoff action is all about matchups and it doesn’t get much bigger than seeing the most exciting young player in the World chased unrelentingly by a pesky two-way maven and his two apprentices. In order to advance, the Oilers knew Connor McDavid would have to find a way to duck out Ryan Kesler, Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano and impact the game at even strength, but it simply didn’t happen consistently.

The 20-year-old wunderkind picked up just two 5 on 5 points over the 7-game slate, and spent myriad shifts separated from the puck, unable to break out in transition with speed as the opposition grinded in the boards and Kesler attached himself by the hip as soon as the puck changed hands, limiting McDavid’s touches to a minimum and the strokes of genius to a single dazzling goal in Game 3.

Connor McDavid (#97) and Ryan Kesler (#17) tangled up during Game 4 (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The outcome of such suffocating pressure was a flummoxed, frustrated superstar restricted to uncharacteristic sub-45% totals in adj. CF%, scoring chances for% and high-danger CF% despite a 7-6 edge in goals-for at 5 on 5 while on the ice. More than enough to allow the Ducks’ depth to take over and tilt the series, as Anaheim lumped a 55.69 CF% (2nd best in the second round), 55.1 SCF% and 54.3 HD CF% that sustained a 19-16 superiority in even-strength goals.

Oilers fail to nurse precious multi-goal advantages

For the second consecutive series, Edmonton squared off against a team boasting significantly more playoff experience, and the ebbs and flows of the series would end up ascertaining that can still be a germane factor in determining the victorious side. The youth, callowness and a certain lack of poise were readily evident in the way the Oilers cracked under pressure and conceded three goals in the final minutes of Game 5 to squander a crucial win, but there were a few more moments where things unravelled quickly while not necessarily leading to defeat.

Goal scorer Corey Perry (#10) and teammates Josh Manson (#42) and Rickard Rakell (#67) celebrate victory in the 2OT of Game 5 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

For instance, the Oilers left Anaheim with a 2-0 advantage however not without a major dose of fortune, blowing a two-goal lead in a three-minute stretch during the third period of the first encounter only to get bailed out by a lucky banked shot, and barely surviving another third period push in Game 2 where Patrick Eaves and Cam Fowler found the post. And since these things usually even out, it went south for the Oilers on the return home.

In Game 3, the Oilers rallied back spectacularly from three goals down only to surrender all the momentum from McDavid’s amazing goal when fourth-liner Chris Wagner responded just a few seconds later. The Ducks would escape with a 6-3 win, and then overcame a two-goal deficit in Game 4 by striking three consecutive times in the second period before securing victory in overtime.

Edmonton deserves full credit for answering the bell emphatically in Game 6, with their season on the line and the sucker-punch of Game 5 still resonating, but it would again fail to seize control in Game 7 despite being gifted an early lead on a ludicrous bounce, and facing a team that bear the heavy burden of having lost five consecutive Games 7 at home after falling behind.

Ducks’ forward Nick Ritchie reacts after scoring the series-deciding goal in Game 7 (Photo by Robert Binder/NHLI via Getty Images)

Todd McLellan never found an answer for superlative Ryan Getzlaf

In nine seasons as a coach on the Pacific Division, the first seven at the helm of the San Jose Sharks and the last two with the Edmonton Oilers, Todd McLellan has faced Ryan Getzlaf and his Anaheim team in more than forty occasions. With that much insight, you would think the Oilers manager had already mastered a way to slow down the Ducks’ captain and major offensive hub, yet the 32-year-old ran rampant for the first four games, hoarding the puck, dishing physical punishment and posting 4 goals, 4 assists and a +4 rating as his group gobbled, chewed and spit out the Ryan Nugent Hopkins line and the Klefbom/Larsson pairing to the tune of +55 adj CF% and +62 SCF%.

Nevertheless, it would take an imperious four-point performance in Game 4 and a series tied at two games apiece for McLellan to act and scramble his lines, shifting the big Leon Draisatl permanently off Connor McDavid’s wing and onto a head-to-head matchup with Getzlaf. Territorially, the difference was slim, as Getzlaf’s scoring chances (+66 SCF%) and possession metrics (+62 adj CF%) actually improved, but, at least, he cooled off on the scoresheet, recording a single even-strength point – a primary assist on Corey Perry’s overtime winner in Game 5 – in the last three games as the series went the distance. Not that it mattered much when the imposing #15 watched from the ice as Nick Ritchie wired the puck past Cam Talbot to pot the series-deciding goal and set his final stat line at five goals, five assists and a +7. Simply superb.

Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf makes a play as Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins lags behind during Game 2 (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Best players in the series

Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)

This pick requires no further argument as we just dedicated an entire section to the utter brilliance of Anaheim’s top-line center, yet Jakob Silfverberg also played a huge part in getting the Ducks over the hump and merited a few lines of his own.

The Swedish winger matched his Captain’s five goals, tallying once in each of the first four games to cap the streak with the overtime winner in Game 4, but he was thoroughly a force to be reckoned with, finishing with 8 points, 28 shots fired on goal in 19:59 mins of TOI/GP, and a sparkling 59.10 adj. CF% and 58.62 SCF%. All of this while devotedly assisting Ryan Kesler on the Connor McDavid assignment.

Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers)

The German had already enjoyed tremendous success against Anaheim during the regular season, amassing 6 goals and 2 assists in 5 confronts, and he continued his excellence in the playoffs to justify the sobriquet “Duck Hunter”.

Draisatl notched a four-point performance in Game 1 to kick off the series in style, and he proceeded to make good use of the pockets of ice left available by the Ducks’ option of keying in on teammate Connor McDavid to post monster offensive numbers. In 21:02 mins of action per night, the 21-year-old tallied a +4 rating, totalled an incredible 13 points (5+8), opened the score twice, and banged in a hat-trick in Game 6’s 7-1 demolishing which kept the Oilers alive for a few more days. Not bad for a maiden playoff campaign.

Leon Draisatl shone under the spotlight during the Oilers’ second round series (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will the Edmonton Oilers return to the playoffs next year? 

Barring a major Connor McDavid injury, the young Oilers will be a playoff team for years to come and perhaps the Pacific Division’s perennial favourite as soon as 2017-18. A luxury afforded by Connor McDavid’s MVP-calibre level at age 20 and the presence of a perfect sidekick, Leon Draisatl, the team’s main order of business this offseason.

Loaded with 19M in cap space for 2017-18, the Oilers should lock down Draisatl to a maximum-term extension in the 7-7.5M range, and consequently leave sufficient room to accommodate what should be a preposterous extension for the captain in 2018. McDavid may only settle for upwards to 12M per year, but maybe they can work out a four or five-year pact at around 10M that would mimic the structure of the 2nd contracts signed by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Either way, GM Peter Chiarelli will have quite some time to mull over his options, since he’s already checked off most of what he needed to do this summer.

Edmonton’s players embrace after a goal as hats rain in Game 6. The Oilers will feature prominently at this stage of the playoffs over the next few seasons (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

For instance, the Oilers finally traded winger Jordan Eberle and netted Ryan Strome in return, a 23-year-old center that could slot in the third hole and thrive on a new environment, hopefully making expendable UFA David Desharnais. Depending on production, Strome can earn a fair raise next year as a RFA, and the Oilers may also prepare to compensate Patrick Maroon (1.5M) and Mark Letestu (1.8M) should they build on successful 2016-17 campaigns.

Moreover, it was expected the Eberle trade would land a top-four defenseman but instead Edmonton secured Kris Russell for four additional seasons at a 4M rate, an excessive compensation they may be able to live with for now since Adam Larsson, Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera are tied up at reasonable figures. Matthew Benning and Darnell Nurse, both RFAs in 2018, round out the defensive group after Griffin Reinhart got plucked by Vegas in the expansion draft, therefore leaving forward Benoit Pouliot and his 4M in the books until 2019 and young backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit to cover for starter Cam Talbot.