Author: duartefmagalhaes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football: Juventus startled as Napoli marches on

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

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

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

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

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

Ligue 1

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

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

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

Bundesliga

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

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

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

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

La Liga

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

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

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

Premier League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moment of the weekend

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

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football: Taking the temperature at the 2018 World Cup qualifiers

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

CONCACAF

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

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

AFC

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

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

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

CONMEBOL

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

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

CAF

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

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

UEFA

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

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

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

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

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

Moment of the weekend

“El Mundial! El Mundial! El Mundial!”

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

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

The 2017-18 NHL season: Predictions

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

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

Regular season standings

Atlantic Division

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metropolitan Division

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

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

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

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

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

Central Division

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

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

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

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

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

Pacific Division

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playoffs

Eastern Conference Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Champions: Minnesota Wild

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

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

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

Stanley Cup Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

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

Conn Smythe Winner: Nikita Kucherov

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

Major Individual Honours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Adams Award (Best Coach): NOT John Tortorella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ligue 1

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

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

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

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

Serie A

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bundesliga

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

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

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

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

La Liga

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

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

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

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

Tennis: Caroline Garcia conquers Wuhan in battle of outsiders   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moment of the weekend

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

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

Weekend Roundup (September, 24th): Peter Sagan writes history at the 2017 UCI World Championships

It took 84 editions of the Cycling Road World Championships for a man to win the road race three consecutive times. That man wasn’t supposed to be a Slovak. Not when the Italians, the Belgians and the French have dominated the sport and the event since the beginnings back in the 1920’s. Not when the ten major nations are able to field rosters of 9 riders, giving them ample resources to control and mould the race to their liking, and to isolate a guy like Sagan with dozens of miles to spare. Yet, somehow, the 27-year-old is a three-time World Champion – something only four other men had done before – by adding the gold obtained in Bergen to the 2015 title in Richmond, when he launched a daring solo attack to ride to victory in the final kilometres, and last year’s triumph in Doha, wrestled at the sprint.

Yesterday, in Norway, it all suggested a return to his old days at Cannondale, before he had a team set up to cater to his needs, a target on his back and a distinctive rainbow jersey gleaming everywhere he went. In a discreet, blue and white Slovakian jersey that blended inside the peloton seamlessly, Sagan ghosted through the race. Definitely through the first 200kms riddled with doomed breakaways, but also during Tom Dumoulin’s attack on the penultimate passage in Salmon Hill, and the short spurts of action that followed as the powerhouses looked ready to actually trim the pack.

The peloton rode near the fjords of Bergen during the first hours of the Worlds men’s elite road race (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

Still, an inordinate bunch of 80 riders would make it back one final time to the key climb of the circuit, and someone had to break the race apart. It was France’s Julian Alaphilippe, who sinuously wheeled up the hill to peel away from everyone except Italy’s Gianni Moscon. At the time, it felt like the day’s decisive moment had come and gone, and Sagan was still to show his cards, uncharacteristically inconspicuous among the 25 cyclists that chased the front duo standing 15 seconds adrift on the crest of Salmon Hill.

Under the circumstances of such a long race, that advantage might have been enough for a proven rouleur, but the skinny Alaphilippe committed the tactical error of discarding Moscon too early, and he would pay for it when the bunch caught up to him inside the last two kilometres, ushering in a final sprint and Sagan’s opportunity for a “Three-Pete”.

As the group buzzed to the finish line, home favourite Alexander Kristoff jumped ahead by exploding off the final curve with 300m to go, but the Slovak was, as usual, in the right spot, slipping out of the Norwegian’s wheel to gobble up the deficit, and then thrusting his bike forward to edge Kristoff in a photo-finish by all of 20cm. Euphoria ensued for the Slovakian fans in attendance, disappointment transpired from the majority in Bergen, and bronze medallist Michael Matthews (Australia) got caught on camera punishing his bike while crossing the end line. So close, yet so far from his dreams.

A third gold medal and a brand-new rainbow for the Slovak superstar (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

The men’s Under-23 road race, contested on Friday, was won by France’s Benoit Cosnefroy, who beat Germany’s Lennard Kämna in a two-man sprint, with Michael Svendgaard, of Denmark, securing the bronze by finishing top of the peloton. Meanwhile, on Saturday’s women’s elite road race, the sun shined on Dutch Chantal Blaak, who kicked off from the front group on the flat 9 km run-in to the line, and ended up 28 second ahead and flapping her arms on the air. Australia’s Katrin Garfoot leaped the rest of the field for silver, while the 2016 World Champion, Denmark’s Amalie Dideriksen, completed the podium.

Tennis: Rookie joy at the ATP Tour

On the eve of a mass migration to Asia for an important three week swing, the last seven days felt very much like a transitional period in the ATP Tour before things get serious again. Consequently, while many of the top players had fun in an exhibition tournament, two ATP 250 tournaments were available for the lower rungs scalping for points ahead of the home stretch of the season. It was in this scenario that something rare happened: two first time ATP Tour Champions in the same week.

In St. Petersburg, with defending Champion Alexander Zverev absent, the trophy fell into the hands of Damir Džumhur, who not only conquered his maiden trophy at this level, but also became the first player representing the Bosnia-Herzegovina to hold an ATP Tour title. In the Final, the 25-year-old from Sarajevo fended off third seed Fabio Fognini in three sets (4-6, 6-4,6-2) taking advantage of the Italian’s fatigue after a tough, come-from-behind semi-final triumph versus top-seed Roberto Bautista Agut.

A delighted Damir Džumhur kisses his maiden ATP trophy in St. Petersburg (AP)

Meanwhile, in Metz, a deflated crowd watched as German qualifier Peter Gojowczyk ousted home favourite Benoît Paire, the 7th seed, in two sets (7-5, 6-2), to capture his first ATP Tour trophy and secure a new career-best singles ranking of #66. Devilish stuff, no doubt about it.

Nonetheless, most tennis fans spent this weekend not with their eyes in France and Russia, but glued to the action in Prague, where the inaugural Laver Cup took place. Named after the Australian legend, this tournament pitted Team Europe and Team World in a Ryder-Cup style event where players squared off on a series of singles and doubles matches over three days.

Team Europe, containing five top-ten players, including Rafael Nadal (ATP No.1) and Roger Federer (No.2), was the overwhelming choice heading into the series, however the winners only emerged on the last of 12 scheduled matches. And not without some heroics from Roger Federer, who needed to save a match point against Nick Kyrgios (4-6, 7-6, [11-9)) to clinch the trophy for Team Europe by a final tally of 15-9.

While the men are still boarding planes to Asia, the WTA Tour is already entering the second fortnight of action in the Far East. On Sunday, three tournaments met their new holders and the highlight was the victory of Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki on the Pan Pacific Open, a WTA Premier Event that gathered most of the top-ten women taking the courts this week.

Wozniacki, the World No.6, was defending her title in Tokyo and she signed off in style for a second consecutive year, clobbering newly-minted World No.1 Garbiñe Muguruza (6-2, 6-0) in the semi-finals before sweeping past Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchekova in the Final (6-0, 7-5).

Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki poses with the Championship trophy from the Pan Pacific Open (AFP Photo/Kazuhiro NOGI)

Across the Sea, French Open Champion Jeļena Ostapenko confirmed her top seed status in Seoul by overpowering first-time finalist Beatriz Haddad Maia (6-7, 6-1, 6-4) to collect the Korea Open, while, four years after winning her first WTA title in Guangzhou, Zhang Shuai found bliss at home soil again. The 28-year-old Chinese beat Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunić by 6-2, 3-6 and 6-2 in the decisive match to hold the trophy aloft in front of her compatriots.

Athletics: Eliud Kipchoge wins Berlin Marathon but misses out on World Record

Many hailed it as the greatest men’s marathon lineup of all-time, and for good reason. After all, taking part were the reigning Olympic Champion and 2015 winner Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) – who raced in a blistering 2:00:25 in May at Nike’s Breaking2 project, an event which took place in Monza, Italy, under controlled (and non-conforming) conditions – , the 2013 Champion and former world record holder Wilson Kipsang (Kenya), and the defending Champion, track legend and 5000m/10000m world record holder Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia).

Three athletes with personal bests below two hours and four minutes running together, in Berlin, where flat roads, a fast surface and mild temperatures collude to power the elite to record breaking performances. Three men bidding to smash Dennis Kimetto’s marathon world record of 2:02:57 (Berlin, 2014) and fantasizing with a sub-two hour time.

And then, when the day came, it brought the rain with it. And Bekele going empty shortly past the midway mark. And Kipsang suddenly dropping out at the 30kms. The blockbuster showdown for history up in smoke and drizzle.

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge crosses the line to win the 44th Berlin marathon on Sunday. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

Nevertheless, there was still a race to be won, and Kipchoge ended up crossing the finish line in 2:03:32, just 35 seconds off the fancied mark after being pushed by a neophyte, 26-year-old Guye Adola (Ethiopia), whose 2:03:46 now stand as the best marathon debut ever. Far behind, Mosinet Geremew, also of Ethiopia, clocked 2:06:09 to claim third.

In the woman’s event, Gladys Cherono imitated her compatriot to repeat the 2015 triumph in 2:20:23. She was flanked in the podium by Ethiopia’s Ruti Aga (second) and fellow Kenyan Valary Ayabei (third).

Football: Juventus and Napoli remain perfect

Serie A

Another week, another victory for the duo of leaders, as Juventus and Napoli made it 6 out of 6 to maintain the pace at the top of the table. The Neapolitans suffered to overcome a feisty SPAL 2013 in Ferrara, yet a goal from left back Faouzi Ghoulam 7 minutes from time secured the 3-2 triumph. Meanwhile, Juventus throttled rivals Torino with another inspired performance from Paulo Dybala, who netted twice in their 4-0 romp.

Juventus forward Paulo Dybala starred at the Derby della Mole on Saturday (EPA)

Internazionale fans had to wait until the 87th minute for Danilo D’Ambrosio’s lone tally against Genoa at San Siro, but the victory maintains Luciano Spalleti’s side just two points behind the leaders. In the nation’s capital, AS Roma comfortably beat Udinese (3-1) and are now at 12 points with a game in hand, nipping at the heels of heart rivals Lazio, who capitalized on Ciro Immobile’s superb run of form (9 goals in the last 6 matches) to win in Verona. Conversely, the new look AC Milan couldn’t negotiate the difficult trip to the Luigi Ferraris, losing 2-0 to Sampdoria to fall six points back of the leaders.

Finally, in a game between newly-promoted sides, Crotone defeated Benevento 2-0 to escape the relegation zone, and guarantee the debutants will continue to wait for their first Serie A points.

Bundesliga

Dortmund increased their lead at the top of the table with an impressive 6-1 drubbing of Moenchengladbach in a battle of Borussias. Recruited from SC Freiburg in the offseason, Maximilian Phillip tallied the first two at the Signal Iduna Arena before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang notched a hat-trick in a smashing evening.

BVB are now three points up on Bayern Munich, who allowed Wolfsburg to steal a point at the Allianz Arena in the round’s opener. Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben scored in the first half, but Maximilian Arnold cut one back with some help from Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, and Daniel Didavi completed the shocker four minutes from time.

Standing in for the injured Manuel Neuer, Sven Ulreich’s howler cost Bayern Munich two points against Wolfsburg (Getty Images)

Sandwiched between the two giants is now Hoffenheim, who hosted and beat (2-0) Schalke 04, while fourth-placed Hannover 96 welcomed bottom side FC Koln and couldn’t get off the 0-0 to collect a second consecutive draw.

Ligue 1

On the strength of another brace from Radamel Falcao, Monaco waltzed in Lille (4-0) on Friday – pushing their opponent into the relegation zone – and then took a seat to watch as Paris St. Germain got swamped at Montpellier (0-0) without Neymar. After a tumultuous summer, where half of their team was swarmed with offers from greener pastures, the defending Champions proved they won’t relinquish the title easily and cut the deficit at the top to one point.

The red-hot Falcao is already up to 11 goals in 7 Ligue 1 matches this season (AFP / Denis Charlet)

After the top two, the battle for third position is also shaping up nicely. The still-undefeated Bordeaux took the mantle from St. Etiénne (2-2 against Rennes) after brushing past Guingamp (3-1), while Marseille (2-0 vs Toulouse) and Nantes (1-2 at Strasbourg) stand two points behind. On the other hand, Lyon (3-3, Dijon) and Nice (2-2, Angers) dropped points at home in entertaining affairs to lose ground on their adversaries.

La Liga

It wasn’t supposed to be that difficult, but Real Madrid eventually held on (1-2) to leave the home of bottom-feeders Alavés with the three points. Newly-recruited midfielder Dani Ceballos scored the two goals for the struggling behemoths, and the distance to the top remains at seven points after Barcelona made the best out of the short trip to Girona. The “Blaugrana” manufactured a relaxing 3-0 victory with the help of two own-goals and Lionel Messi could even afford to take a night off in that department.

On his first start for Real Madrid, Dani Ceballos tallied twice to save his team at Alavés (AP)

In Madrid, in a fight between La Liga’s best supporting actors, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann helped Atlético upend Sevilla (2-0) to climb to second, four points off Barcelona, whilst Valencia confirmed their good season start by snatching a precious 3 points away to Real Sociedad in a thrilling five-goal game (2-3). It wasn’t the only high-scoring affair of round 6, though, as Celta de Vigo triumphed 4-0 at Eibar, Espanyol beat Deportivo 4-1, Málaga picked up their first point of the campaign after drawing 3-3 to Athletic Bilbao, and Getafe crushed Villareal (4-0) to send the visitors coach, Fran Escribá, packing.

Premier League

We’ve reached the end of round six and most of the cream has already risen to the top of the Premier League table, particularly after a pair of vital 3-2 away victories for Tottenham and Liverpool this week.

Visiting Leicester for the second time in a matter of days, Jurgen Klopp’s side avenged the League Cup elimination on the return to grace of Philippe Coutinho (goal and assist), while the Spurs edged city rivals West Ham at the London Olympic Stadium with a two-goal performance from Harry Kane. Tottenham and Liverpool are now fourth and fifth, respectively, with 11 points each.

The front trio of City, United and Chelsea all won, even if the Red Devils had to suffer to preserve Romelu Lukaku’s winner at Southampton (0-1). Meanwhile, to the blue side of Manchester, the weekend reserved a routine 5-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace, which Chelsea almost matched (4-0) in the usually tricky confines of the Britannia Stadium. The (London) Blues vanquished Stoke City and the four goals originated from Spain: three belonged to striker Álvaro Morata and the other to Pedro Rodríguez.

Elsewhere, Everton claimed an important victory over Bournemouth (2-1), dodging the last places for now, while Watford triumphed at Swansea to cling to sixth (1-2).

Moment of the weekend:

The gripping finale to the men’s road race of the World Championships in Bergen, obviously.

While technical problems with the broadcast meant TV viewers around the World were unable to watch most of the final three kilometres, fixed cameras still managed to pick up the riders in the final 900m to complete the job. Hence, revel on the fleeting seconds of the titanic sprint between Sagan and Kristoff as commentated in the Slovak television, and then check the replay (2:30m) from an overhead view.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

✮✮✮✮ (5 stars)

Peter Sagan (Slovakia)

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

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

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

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

✮✮✮ (4 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

✮✮ (3 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2 stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1 star)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basketball: Slovenian delight in Istanbul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tennis: Belgium and France qualify for Davis Cup Final

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling: Irrepressible Matteo Trentin keeps rolling

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

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

Victory for Matteo Trentin in Belgium

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

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

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

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

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

Football: Shorthanded Real Madrid pulls through at San Sebastián

La Liga

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

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

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

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

English Premier League

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serie A

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

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

Bundesliga

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

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

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

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

Ligue 1

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

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

Moment of the weekend

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

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

 

European Tour of Sports – Finland

The Basics

Population: 5.5 M

Area: 338 424 km2

Capital: Helsinki

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

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

Popular Sports and History

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

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

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

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

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

Jari Litmanen, the greatest Finnish footballer of all-time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mika Häkkinen, Formula 1 World Champion in 1998 and 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Athletes

Tero Pitkämäki (Athletics)

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

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

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

Kaisa Mäkäräinen (Biathlon)

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

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

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

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

Kimi Räikkönen (Formula One Racing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena during an ice hockey match

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

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

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

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

Yearly Events

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

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

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

Lahti FIS World Cup event, Nordic Combined

Lahti, December/January/February

Artic Lapland Rally, Rally Racing

Rovaniemi, January

Lahti FIS World Cup event, Cross country Skiing

Lahti, February

Kontiolahti FIS World Cup event, Biathlon

Kontiolahti, March

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

Paavo Nurmi Games, Athletics

Turku, June

Rally Finland (WRC event), Rally Racing

Jyväskylä, Late July/early August

Helsinki City Marathon, Athletics

Helsinki, August

Helsinki Tallinna Race, Sailing

Helsinki – Tallinn (Estonia), August

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

Helsinki, October

Karjala Cup, Ice hockey

Helsinki, November

Levi FIS World Cup event, Alpine Skiing

Levi Ski Resort (Kittilä), November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Ski jumping

Kuusamo, November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Nordic Combined

Kuusamo, November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Cross country Skiing

Kuusamo, November

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

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

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

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

Series Results:

Game 1: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 2: Nashville Predators 1 @ 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 5 Nashville Predators

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 4 Nashville Predators

Game 5: Nashville Predators 0 @ 6 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 6: Pittsburgh Penguins 2 @ 0 Nashville Predators

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh’s superior offensive potency adds up

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

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

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

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

A disheartening tale of bad breaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best players in the series

Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins)

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

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

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

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

Frederick Gaudreau (Nashville Predators)

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

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

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

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

Will the Nashville Predators return to the playoffs next year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will the Pittsburgh Penguins return to the playoffs next year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series Results:

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

Game 2: Ottawa Senators 0 @ 1 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 5 Ottawa Senators

Game 4: Pittsburgh Penguins 3 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

Game 5: Ottawa Senators 0 @ 7 Pittsburgh Penguins

Game 6: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ 2 Ottawa Senators

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

 

Special teams’ misery sinks Ottawa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh takes control of the series after tottering start

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senators run out of heroic performances

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best players in the series

Matt Murray (Pittsburgh Penguins)

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

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

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

Bobby Ryan (Ottawa Senators)

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

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

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

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

Will the Ottawa Senators return to the playoffs next year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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