Ice Hockey

2018 Winter Olympics medal prognostications

Arriving to PyeongChang, South Korea, from all corners of the World, athletes from 15 different sports will battle for the 102 sets of medals available during the 2018 Winter Olympics, the ultimate reward for years of hard work and sacrifices in the name of a dream.

Unfortunately, this writer won’t be one of them, which means I can’t do much more than sit back, monitor the proceedings from my living room on the other side of the planet…and try to look smart doing so. But how? Well, by predicting the Olympic medal winners in advance and before the wind, unexpected temperatures, injuries, illnesses or just plain bad luck conspire to reshape the course of history.

Now, forecasting 100 different events is a lot for a single person, and since I won’t bother to trick you into thinking I have any idea who is going to take the freestyle skiing ladies’ aerials gold, let’s narrow the field to 28 events and my own Fab Four: Alpine skiing, Biathlon, Ice Hockey and Ski Jumping.

For full disclosure, the projections released by Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and the statistical genius at Gracenote were consulted before publication, but the future will certainly prove my brilliance in comparison with the so-called experts and machines. Or not. Still, on a related note, can we, reasonable people with a functioning brain, agree that biathlete Laura Dahlmeier won’t leave Pyeonchang with six gold medals? Great. Let’s get down to business then.

 

Alpine Skiing

The Pyeongchang Games are expected to coronate overall World Cup leaders Marcel Hischer and Mikaela Shiffrin, but exactly how much metal can this star duo accumulate? Moreover, is Lindsey Vonn going to add a few extra Olympic honours to the 2 medals obtained in Vancouver 2010, further padding an already stellar career? Is comeback King Aksel Lund Svindal destined for greatness on his final Olympic appearance? There’s no shortage of intrigue ahead of the alpine skiing events of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

American Mikaela Shiffrin shined as an 18-year-old in Sochi 2014 and she’ll be looking for more gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics (GEPA/Mario Kneisl)

Men:

Downhill

Gold: Beat Feuz, Switzerland

Silver: Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway

Bronze: Matthias Mayer, Austria

World Champion Beat Feutz leads the downhill standings this season by virtue of 3 victories and 2 runner-up finishes in 7 races, and he’s the man to beat in the fastest of the alpine disciplines. Svindal should return to the Olympic podium at age 35, making up for the disappointment of Sochi, while an Austrian always seems to sneak into the podium in these occasions. My money is on defending Champion Matthias Mayer, wildly inconsistent but someone who’s been showing signs of life recently.

 

Super-G

Gold: Max Franz, Austria

Silver: Kjetil Jansrud, Norway

Bronze: Vincent Kriechmayer, Austria

Kjetil Jansrud defends the crown from Sochi and leads the World Cup charts at the moment, but he’s going to have his hands full with the Austrian armada. Between Franz, Kriechmayer and 2015 World Champion Hannes Reichelt, the most decorated Alpine country has nice probabilities of snatching multiple medals, and I believe the 28-year-old Franz is the man to devise the perfect run.

 

Combined

Gold: Alexis Pinturault, France

Silver: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Bronze: Peter Fill, Italy

Alexis Pinturault has topped the Alpine combined standings in four of the last 5 seasons and he’s due a major title. The French will pick up gold after holding off the slalom charge of Marcel Hirscher. Veteran Peter Fill clocks the best time of the downhill run and then clings to the podium in the ensuing slalom.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Ted Ligety, United States

If you’re as much as a casual alpine skiing spectator, you probably know Hirscher has yet to win an Olympic gold medal. That will end in PyeongChang, and as occurred in many previous instances this season, Henrik Kristoffersen will fill the bridesmaid role. After a first season podium on the GS of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Ted Ligety won’t approach the top two nor impact the fight for his succession, but the American still manages to shrug away the opposition for bronze.

 

Slalom

Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria

Silver: Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway

Bronze: Luca Aerni, Switzerland

Triumphant in six of the seven slalom events he’s contested this season, Hirscher is the odds-on favourite for the Olympic crown, but Kristoffersen will, undoubtedly, be lurking around if the six-time overall World Cup Champion commits the most insignificant of mistakes. Aerni, the 24-year-old who won the Alpine Combined at the 2017 Worlds, pipes Michael Matt (Austria) for third.

 

Women:

Downhill

Gold: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Silver: Sofia Goggia, Italy

Bronze: Ragnhild Mowinckel, Norway

Vonn and Goggia starred on the final speed events ahead of the Olympics and they’ll again put their friendship on the line in South Korea, with the American prevailing to reclaim the downhill Olympic title. Mowinckel wins bronze to clinch Norway’s first ever medal for a female Alpine skier (all previous 29 were collected by men).

 

Super-G

Gold: Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein

Silver: Lara Gut, Switzerland

Bronze: Lindsey Vonn, United States

Four years after crashing in a downhill training run in Sochi, Tina Weirather finally emulates her mother, Hanni Wetzel, and becomes the second Olympic Champion from Liechtenstein. Fourth in 2014, current Super-G World Cup leader Lara Gut climbs two steps to claim silver, while Nicole Schmidhofer, the reigning World Champion, is bested by Lindsey Vonn for the final podium position.

 

Combined

Gold: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Federica Brignone, Italy

Repeating the triumph of last year’s World Championships, Wendy Holdener creeps ahead of Shiffrin, the Slalom Queen, to savour her maiden Olympic title. In an all-Italian battle for third, Brignone knocks Sofia Goggia and Marta Bassino out of podium contention while Lindsey Vonn straddles a gate in the slalom to DNF.

 

Giant Slalom

Gold: Viktoria Rebensburg, Germany

Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Bronze: Tessa Worley, France

The most consistent GS competitor of the season, Rebensburg recaptures her Olympic crown four years after placing third in Sochi, therefore ending Shiffrin’s bid for 3+ titles in a single Olympics. A World Champion in 2013 and 2015, Tessa Worley makes up for the deception of missing the 2014 Olympics by rescuing the bronze medal.

 

Slalom

Gold: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States

Silver: Wendy Holdener, Switzerland

Bronze: Frida Hansdotter, Sweden

With an advantage of over one second, Mikaela Shiffrin blows the competition apart to secure a second consecutive gold medal in her signature event. The in-form Holdener settles for second, while 32-year-old Frida Hansdotter takes advantage of Petra Vlhová’s tentative run to steal third place from the Slovak’s hands.

 

(Mixed) Team Event

Gold: Austria

Silver: Switzerland

Bronze: France

Marcel Hirscher will bookend a spectacular Winter Olympics by guiding Austria to the top of the podium on the first Team event in Olympic history. A talented Switzerland ensemble guarantees silver by upsetting the France of Pinturault, Worley and Mathieu Favre in the semis, though the French rebound to push Sweden out of the picture in the small final.

 

Biathlon

Martin Fourcade and Johannes Thingnes Bø have monopolized attentions this winter by hoarding 14 of the 15 individual competitions staged so far in the biathlon World Cup season, and their multiple clashes are bound to set alight the Alpensia Biathlon Center, nevertheless don’t sleep on the women. Laura Dahlmeier will be looking to reproduce her unconceivable five gold, six-medal performance of last year’s World Championships, and she’ll be up against a smattering of powerful opponents, including Sochi’s dominant figure, Darya Domracheva, and the current World Cup leader, Kaisa Mäkäräinen.

Johannes Thingnes Bø (L) and Martin Fourcade (R) will renew hostilities in PyeongChang (biathlon-hochfilzen.at)

Men:

10km Sprint

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Jakov Fak, Slovenia

Despite leading the sprint World Cup standings, Fourcade has only one victory to Bø’s three in this discipline in 2017-18, and the Norwegian has generally looked faster from the get-go at every World Cup stop. Therefore, we expect Johannes to take the first assault in Pyeongchang, with Martin Fourcade stopping the clock a few ticks later for silver. The steady Jacov Fak, World Champion in this discipline in 2012, concludes the podium lineup due to a clean shooting performance in a day where most of the other contenders will miss more than usual for lack of acclimation to the track and Olympic atmosphere.

 

12.5km Pursuit

Gold: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Silver: Martin Fourcade, France

Bronze: Emil Hegle Svendsen, Norway

Staying ahead of Fourcade during the Pursuit following his sprint successes hasn’t been a problem for Johannes Thingnes Bø this season, and we predict the same will happen at the Olympics. The 32-year-old Svendsen has picked up an Olympic medal in every other biathlon discipline between the 2010 and 2014 Games, and it would be neat if he managed to complete his set at the Pursuit.

 

15km Mass Start

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Bronze: Tarjei Bø, Norway

The hectic Mass start is a race that gets Fourcade’s emotions flowing like no other, and the French will outlast his Norwegian rival here, erupting to victory by a comfortable margin. For his part, Johannes may string a few misses on the day, but his magnificent skiing form should pull him out of trouble and back into medal territory. Tarjei Bø will take a ride with his younger brother and land on the last podium position.

 

20km Individual

Gold: Martin Fourcade, France

Silver: Erik Lesser, Germany

Bronze: Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway

Martin Fourcade is the reigning Olympic Champion in the 20km individual and he won three consecutive World titles in this event before the third place of Hochfilzen 2017. The clear favourite since the race suits his deliberate shooting style and skiing prowess, the French will win ahead of Erik Lesser in a repeat of Sochi’s results. Meanwhile, Johannes Bø is not at his best in biathlon’s longest individual effort, but this season he tied his rival in the discipline’s standings by capturing a victory and a third place, and the Norwegian has the legs to make ground on the rest in spite of one, maybe even two, extra misses.

 

4×7.5km Relay

Gold: France

Silver: Norway

Bronze: Germany

Anchored by the two stars of the season, the men’s relay is expected to come down to the Johannes Bø – Martin Fourcade final showdown, with the French likely to start a few seconds late. In top form, a Norwegian group with Svendsen, the Bø brothers and Ole Einar Bjorndalen would be nearly unbeatable, however the legend was left off the team and Lars Helge Birkeland, while a steady athlete, doesn’t have as much international experience as the French trio supporting Martin. Simply because I’m still salty due to the absence of the greatest Winter Olympian ever, I’ll edge my bets on France.

With an experienced and reliable group, the Germans only need to avoid shooting themselves in the foot to secure third ahead of Austria, Italy and the Swedes, who recently triumphed in Oberhof. Russia, who won at home soil four years ago, couldn’t clear enough athletes to form a team for PyeongChang.

 

Women:

7.5km Sprint

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Anastasiya Kuzmina, Slovakia

Bronze: Tiril Eckhoff, Norway

Dahlmeier has yet to showcase the dominant skiing form of 2016-17, yet I sense she’ll explode off the gates in South Korea, shooting clean to overcome Anastasiya Kuzmina, the sprint Champion from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014. Tiril Eckhoff is usually at her best on the sprint, and the easy shooting range combined with an up-and-down track should suit her qualities, guiding the Norwegian to a second individual medal after the Mass Sprint of Sochi.

 

10km Pursuit

Gold: Kaisa Mäkäräinen, Finland

Silver: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Bronze: Denise Herrmann, Germany

Shut out of medal contention on the last two Winter Olympics, Kaisa Mäkäräinen will break her duck on the Pursuit, bursting ahead of Dahlmeier after the standing shootout to clinch an emotional victory. Denise Herrmann, the ultimate wild card with her lightning fast skiing and erratic shooting, will enjoy a good day in the office and power up the field to take the final podium position.

 

12.5km Mass Start

Gold: Laura Dahlmeier, Germany

Silver: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Bronze: Justine Braisaz, France

Although Dahlmeier won’t amass five gold medals like last year, she’ll still head home with a stuffed trophy case. This race will provide her with another opportunity to ascend to the highest podium level, while Domracheva, the 2014 Mass start Champion, will scamper away from the opposition with the finish line in sight to secure silver. Building back her form through the week after an untimely illness, 21-year-old Justine Braisaz will claim bronze and a first career medal.

 

15km Individual

Gold: Darya Domracheva, Belarus

Silver: Dorothea Wierer, Italy

Bronze: Nadezhda Skardino, Belarus

Returning to the World Tour after a couple of lost seasons due to mononucleosis and pregnancy, Domracheva is unlikely to repeat her haul from Sochi, but she won’t leave empty-handed either. I trust the Belarussian will keep her cool on the shooting range, defend her Olympic title and be joined on the podium by her teammate Nadezhda Skardino, who will shoot clean to secure the top-three for a second consecutive Olympics. Dorothea Wierer, the winner of the last 15km individual race in Ruhpolding, showed clear progression as the Games approached, and that will merit a silver medal on the event where she’s tallied three of her four World Cup victories.

 

4x6km Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Italy

Winners of seven of the last eight women’s relays, the German ladies should lock the Olympic title without too much trouble, and that will ring true even if they opt to save their trump card, Laura Dahlmeier, after the mixed relay. Surprising Champions in Sochi amidst political turmoil back home, Ukraine returns all four athletes and they’ll be in the mix again, but I just like more the blend of experience and youth on the French team. Moreover, Italy’s relay is filled with sharp-shooters and in Dorothea Wierer they have an excellent anchor, which should be enough to drive Ukraine away from the medals.

 

Mixed Biathlon Relay

Gold: Germany

Silver: France

Bronze: Norway

Swapping Tora Berger and Bjorndalen for Marte Olsbu (or Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold) and Johannes Thingnes Bø shouldn’t have a major effect on the strength of Norway’s relay compared to Sochi, yet the opposition looks stronger this time and the race difficult to handicap. Provided Martin Fourcade is in the lineup, France will exhibit a formidable unit, and Germany would be a pain to deal with if Dahlmeier checks out in front.

As the reigning World Champions, I’m picking the Germans to outlast a fierce French challenge for the title, with Norway dropping to third. Nonetheless, keep an eye on Italy, a credible threat to replicate the bronze of Sochi if Lukas Hofer and Dominik Windisch manage to keep their erratic shooting in check…

 

Ice Hockey

Canada swept the titles in the two most recent Winter Olympics, but without NHL players, they’ll be in a tough spot to emerge victorious out of the deep pool of candidates on the men’s side. Meanwhile, the women’s event should feature another North American battle between the Americans and the Canadians, and history has proven anything can happen when those two meet.

Canada beat the United States in the women’s ice hockey Final in Sochi 2014. These two teams should reconvene at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Men:

Gold: Sweden

Silver: Olympic Athletes of Russia

Bronze: Canada

Youngster Rasmus Dahlin steals the show and goaltender Viktor Fasth slams the door shut on the high-powered Russians, who leave the tournament disgruntled in spite of managing their best result since 1998. The makeshift Canadian team edges the hard-working Finns in a low-scoring bronze medal game.

 

Women:

Gold: United States

Silver: Canada

Bronze: Finland

The four-time defending World Champions USA finally get the best of Canada, ending their neighbours’ run of four consecutive Olympic gold medals after yet another memorable chapter of one of world sports most underrated rivalries. Before that, Finland’s star goalkeeper Noora Räty almost steals a Final birth, but Canada eventually progresses out of the semi-final in OT, leaving the much-improved Finns to outduel Sweden for third place.

 

Ski Jumping

Kamil Stoch reigned supreme in Sochi four years ago, and the Pole’s name is again at the very top of the shortlist of favourites, but duplicating the achievement won’t be easy as his path to victory is brimming with talented Germans and Norwegians.

Kamil Sotch jumped for imortality at Sochi 2014. He’ll try to reach the same heights in South Korea (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports Eric Bolte )

Men:

Normal Hill

Gold: Kamil Stoch, Poland

Silver: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Bronze: Richard Freitag, Germany

Five weeks after an historical Four Hills Tournament sweep, Kamil Stoch defends his Normal Hill title by upstaging the dynamic German duo of Andreas Wellinger and Richard Freitag. Junshiro Kobayashi falls to fifth after posting the best mark of the first round, and he’s not the only Japanese to miss the mark since 45-year-old Noriaki Kasai also fails to follow up an excellent first attempt.

 

Large Hill

Gold: Andreas Wellinger, Germany

Silver: Stefan Kraft, Austria

Bronze: Daniel-André Tande, Norway

Poland’s Kamil Stoch is pestered by difficult wind conditions on his first jump and he wastes the chance to repeat the double triumph of Sochi. The 22-year-old Andreas Wellinger flies to victory, while reigning World Cup Champion Stefan Kraft finds his stride at the right time after a difficult season start. Daniel-André Tande scores an individual medal to lead a Norwegian team that places 4 men inside the top 10.

 

Team

Gold: Norway

Silver: Germany

Bronze: Poland

The World Cup leaders from Norway extract revenge from the poor showing of Sochi by riding their balanced foursome to the Olympic title. Poland’s Kamil Stoch sets a new hill-record on his final jump to push Germany in the battle for silver, but Richard Freitag answers the call in response to limit the losses for the 2014 Champions.

 

Women:

Normal Hill

Gold: Maren Lundby, Norway

Silver: Sara Takanashi, Japan

Bronze: Katharina Althaus, Germany

Maren Lundby, the runaway World Cup leader, battles the nerves to win the second ever women’s gold medal in ski jumping. After a field-best first attempt, four-time World Cup overall winner Sara Takanashi finds redemption from the fourth-place of Sochi by securing the runner-up spot, while Katharina Althaus, second on the World Cup standings, has to settle for bronze ahead of compatriot – and defending Champion – Carina Vogt.

 

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The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part II)

(Continuation of Part I)

  1. Russia

Medallists in each of the preceding seven tournaments and 14 of the previous 16 editions, the Russians always seem to find a way to crash the podium at the WJC. However, national coach Valeri Bragin started the 2018 event complaining about the lack of international experience on its roster, which, keep in mind, contained only three players yet to complete their 19th birthday, and then things went south for them in a hurry, with a defeat in the tournament opener against the Czech (4-5) leading to a curbed campaign.

Unable to beat the Swedes in the final group game, the Russians were left to slow down the Americans in the QF and succumbed to the task, flying home empty-handed after capturing their last gold medal in the same arena back in 2011.

Russia players and staff look on after a 4-2 quarterfinal round loss to the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Usually a critical part of their most successful teams, goaltending was not a force for the Red Army this time, with Vladislav Sukhachyov, who replaced Alexei Melnichuk in the first game, notching a 2.74 GAA and 0.904 Sv%. Additionally, neither was their defensive unit which, orphan of a stud rear-guard in the same level of Mikhail Sergachev (2017) or Ivan Provorov (2016), had to hack it by commitment. Captain Yegor Zaitsev (NJ) and undrafted Vladislav Syomin, the point man on the man-advantage, shouldered the biggest load, but the true standouts of Team Russia laboured further up the ice, particularly the mightily impressive Klim Kostin (STL).

After a 2016-17 season derailed by injury, the 31st pick of the 2017 draft took advantage of the big stage by posting a team-leading 5 goals and 3 assists in just 5 games, his hands and powerful stride highlights in a forgettable competition for his team. Kostin was one of two under aged forwards on the Russian roster, the other being 2018 top-prospect Andrei Svechnikov (5A), and the pair was followed, in terms of performance, by a duo of Chicago Blackhawks’ picks, Artur Kayumov ( 2nd round, 2016) and Andrei Altybarmakyan (3rd, 2017).

Russia’s Klim Kostin #24 plays the puck while Sweden’s Jacob Moverare #27 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

On the negative side, reference for top center German Rubtsov (PHI), whose 4 pts exceeded his overall contributions on both sides of the puck, and Vitali Abramov (CBJ), who couldn’t replicate his lofty QMJHL point totals (150 in 96 games over the last two seasons) also due to the team’s anemic powerplay, last in the tournament (1/20, 5%) and severely hampered by the lack of right-handed options (17 of 20 skaters shot left).

  1. Czech Republic

It had become routine to see the Czech Republic ranked fifth or sixth and sent packing in the quarter-finals, when their lack of depth gets exposed by one of the big-five of international hockey, but the band sang a different tune in 2018. For just the second time in the last 11 encounters, the Czechs overcame Russia to begin their campaign in style, and after they defeated Belarus and Switzerland, second place and a winnable quarter-final against Finland loomed.

Battling back twice before prevailing in the SO (4-3), the Czechs best classification since 2005 was secured, however they couldn’t repeat the bronze of Grand Forks, ND, because Canada (7-2) and the USA (9-3) obliterated them in the medal round. Nothing that would obscure a stepping-stone event for a country in the upswing, dreaming of even bigger things in 2019 with their 11 possible returnees – including Filip Zadina, Martin Nečas and Filip Chytil – and poised to host the event in 2020.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18, Albert Michnac #29, Martin Necas #8, Martin Kaut #16 and Libor Hajek #3 celebrate at the bench after a second period goal against Sweden during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Until then, the goal has to be the return to the times when significantly more Czech teenagers were selected by NHL teams, since only six of the 23 men that competed in Buffalo have been drafted and two more signed NHL deals after being overlooked. One of latter cases, goaltender Josef Kořenář, is a San Jose Sharks prospect whose numbers (4.49 GAA, 0.879 Sv%) in Buffalo skewed significantly as a result of the two final poundings, which followed a stellar 51-save performance against the Finns.

With 34 goals allowed in seven games, defence was far from the Czechs strong suit outside of a few bright individual exceptions – beyond Hájek, we could name Vojtěch Budik (BUF) and Jakub Galvas (CHI) – but, fortunately, they could light some fireworks up front.

The Czech Republic’s Filip Chytil #21 looks for a scoring chance against Russia’s Alexei Melnichuk #1 while Nikita Makeyev #2 defends during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

As referenced before, the duo Martin Nečas (CAR) and Filip Zadina led the way, but Filip Chytil (2+2), the Rangers first round pick, also had his moments, especially in the opener against Russia. Difficult to push off the puck, capable of executing in tight and with an edge to his game, Chytil vanished in the later rounds and took linemate Martin Kaut (2+5), a potential top-50 pick in 2018, with him, eventually leading to the rise of a few unsung heroes, including the undrafted Kristian Reichel (3+1), a heart-and-soul third line center that loves to do the grunt work, LW Daniel Kurovský (2+1), whose hard-nosed game was difficult to ignore, and right-winger Radovan Pavlík (3+3).

Bronze Medal Winners: United States of America

Afforded a golden opportunity to capture back-to-back titles for a first time, the 2018 tournament can’t be considered a success for the Americans because they failed to fulfil the objective on home ice, yet there are still a lot of positives to take from their performance. For instance, their response to the unexpected defeat against Slovakia, regrouping quickly to overcome a two-goal deficit in the outdoor game, or the dominant performance in the bronze medal game less than 24 hours after the disappointing SF loss to the Swedes.

USA players celebrating after a 4-3 shoot-out win over Canada during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

There’s a case to be made that the Americans, who scored 20 goals in the group stage (the same number as Sweden) and 35 in total (one less than Canada), were in equal footing with the two finalists, and ended up in third-place victims of the circumstances and the below-average performance of Joseph Woll (TOR), who guarded the net in every indoor game and was severely outmatched by his counterparts. While Filip Gustavsson and Carter Hart soared, Woll’s ultimate body of work fails the sniff test (0.886, 2.71 GAA) and that proved decisive.

Moreover, on paper, the American defence palled in comparison with their rivals’, but this unheralded group held his ground, with Adam Fox and the steady Dylan Samberg (WIN, 1+3, +10) anchoring the first pair, and U. Minnesota’s mainstay Ryan Lindgren (BOS) doing the heavy lifting in the second unit as 18-year-old Quinn Hughes and his refined offensive skills were increasingly phased out of the rotation as the importance of the games increased.

USA’s Riley Tufte #27 attempts a shot against Denmark’s Kasper Krog #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Still, where the Americans were truly likely to create separation, according to pre-tournament predictions, was on the quality of their offensive group and ability to rotate four lines sprinkled with first round picks. Despite the tall goal totals, that didn’t exactly turned out as expected, since at the same time Brady Tkachuk and Casey Mittelstadt (BUF) thrived on the top-line alongside captain Joey Anderson (NJ, 4+3), and Kieffer Bellows’ (NYI) erupted on Ryan Poehling’s (MTR) right flank, the likes of Riley Tufte (DAL), Max Jones (ANA), Joshua Norris (SJ) and even NHL-tested Kailer Yamamoto (EDM) struggled to put points on the board in critical situations. That would be the major difference for the Swedish and Canadian forward units.

Silver Medal Winners: Sweden

44. That’s the number of consecutive wins the Swedes have amassed in group play since 2007… or 43 more than the amount of World titles they’ve secured in the same period.

Cruising through the group stage as usual (20-7 in goal differential), the Tre Kronor’s pallid exhibition against Slovakia (3-2) in the QF awoke the alarm sirens and elicited thoughts of a fourth consecutive medal-less appearance, however Sweden managed to oust the USA (4-2) for the first time in ten Final Four battles, and then came pretty close to stamp a first gold medal since 2012. Despite being assessed six minor penalties to Canada’s one, the Swedes had the better of play in the Final, and even ringed one off the post minutes before Tyler Steenbergen potted the game-winning-goal with 100 seconds to go in regulation.

Truly a shame for a team brimming with talent way beyond the likes of Rasmus Dahlin or their trio of top-ten picks at the forward ranks: sniper Elias Pettersson (VAN, 5+2), charismatic captain Lias Andersson (NYR, 6+1), whose level of play dropped after dislocating his shoulder against Russia, and the cerebral (and inconsistent) Alexander Nylander (BUF, 1+6), competing at his third WJC.

High-choices at the 2017 draft, defensemen Erik Brännström (LV) and Timothy Liljegren (TOR) are two such cases of blue-chip prospects that enjoyed great tournaments, with the former spending most of the time besides Dahlin and regularly displaying exceptional quickness and agility to skate the puck up the ice, and the latter coupling the willingness to engage opponents physically with slick skating skills and the ability to fire long, on-the tape, stretch passes to feed Sweden’s speedy forward group.

Conversely, despite being passed twice at the draft, rearguard Jesper Sellgreen stood out for combining puck-moving ability and feistiness in a modest frame, earning comparisons with Tobias Ernstrom, while the members of the lower attacking lines proved essential to, repeatedly, tip the balance in favour of Sweden with their mix of speed, forecheking expertise and grit. It was no coincidence that in Sweden’s difficult quarter-final match (3-2), the unit of Isac Lundeström (draft-eligible, 2 G), Oskar Steen (BOS, 2+2) and Tim Söderlund (CHI, 2+3) manufactured all three goals with their boundless energy, and neither was that, alongside fourth-liner Axel Jonsson Fjällby (WSH, 2+2), who dashed around the ice with long locks of air flowing out of his helmet, they proved extremely dangerous shorthanded, a situation that earned Sweden four goals during the tournament.

Sweden’s Axel Jonsson Fjallby #22 skates with the puck as Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 of Team Belarus gives chase during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

World Junior Champions: Canada

Three years without conquering gold at the WJC is too much for an hockey-mad nation like Canada, and to erase the taste of last year’s heartbreaking loss to the USA in Montreal, they could have hardly asked for better than their close to perfect tournament south of the border: best attack (39 goals) and best defense (11), the top powerplay (13 of 29) and penalty kill (22 of 25) and a 6-0-1 record only spoiled by the two-goal lead relinquished against the USA (3-4, SO).

With a roster that contained a single top-ten pick (D Cale Makar) and many feared would struggle in the absence of high-end, game-breaking talents, Team Canada’s preference for a versatile, balanced attack was right on the money, as the team rolled four lines, every forward scored, and the rest went according to expectations, with their mobile, skilled backend pushing the pace to generate scoring chances, and goaltender Carter Hart playing up to his abilities throughout the tournament.

Canadian players and staff celebrate after a 3-1 gold medal game win over Sweden at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

With such an homogeneous roster, Canada didn’t even have to rely too much on their three returning blueliners, Dante Fabbro (NSH), Jake Bean (CAR) and Kale Clague (LA), all-around rearguards that move the puck, as the trio was eventually eclipsed by the sparkling offensive instincts of Cale Makar (COL) and the superb Victor Mete (MTR) / Conor Timmins (COL) pairing, whose combined +- rating was a whopping +26 in 7 games.

As a matter of fact, when Mete was on the ice, the opposition did not score at all, his stick work and ability to drive play suffocating rivals, while Timmins emerged as the revelation of the roster, an unassuming two-way defenseman that could play shutdown hockey, make a crisp first pass, and deliver a sweet feed like the pass-shot Tyler Steenbergen (ARI) tipped to sink Sweden’s hopes in the Final.

Canada’s Tyler Steenbergen #17 scores the championship winning goal against Sweden’s Filip Gustavsson #30 during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Moreover, in attack, the conversation was much of the same, with veterans Taylor Raddysh (TBL, 2+3), Dillon Dubé (CGY, 3+2) and top-center Sam Steel (ANA, 4+5) meshing with newcomers like Jordan Kyrou (STL) and Boris Katchouk (TBL, 3+3) to form two solid, if unspectacular, scoring units and the trios of low-pedigree, mid-round wildcards that followed them out overwhelming the opposition’s depth players with tons of speed and skill. Not incidentally, it was from this bottom-six that arose the inspirational tale of the tournament, 7-goal scorer Drake Batherson (OTT), a player passed once before the Sens snapped him up on the 2017 4th round and someone that would catch fire in the three consecutive blowout victories  (DEN, SWI, CZE) that preceded the final game.

The WJC implications on the 2018 NHL Draft

It’s usually said that a good showing at the WJC can significantly boost the draft value of a prospect and examples lie everywhere – Nico Hischier, just last year, is one – however, in recent seasons, it’s been quite rare to encounter these many U-18 players leaving their mark internationally against players with an extra 2 years of development time. As much as six potential top-10 selections – and, possibly, the entire top-five – competed at the tournament held in Buffalo, many acing the audition, and that has led to a lot of hand-wringing in the wake of the event, with pre-draft rankings revised to account for the latest developments.

Czech Republic’s Filip Zadina #18 lets a shot go while Finland’s Otto Koivula #12 looks on during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Below, I’ll expose how the race for the top-five positions is shaping up, ranking the players in contention based on their most recent accomplishments, but always keeping in mind that a guy like Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist, who couldn’t infiltrate his country’s loaded roster, is still in the running for an early callup come late June in Dallas.

  1. Rasmus Dahlin (D)
  2. Andrei Svechnikov (RW)
  3. Brady Tkachuk (LW)
  4. Filip Zadina (LW)
  5. Quinn Hughes (D)

Since Sidney Crosby back in 2005, we haven’t seen a contest decided as early as this one. Rasmus Dahlin will be No.1 in 2018, having cemented his status as the unquestionable best player available with the performance in Buffalo, and he will also become the second ever Swede to go first overall, succeeding C Mats Sundin in 1989.

On the contrary, the guy that was touted as the main competition to Dahlin over the last while, Russian Andrei Svechnikov, is now worried about the rustle of the footsteps of two of the WJC’s brightest stars, wingers Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina.

Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov was among the top draft-eligible prospects at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship (Photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images)

Svechnikov, a burgeoning power forward, had already endured wrist injury this season, and then had to battle the Russian prejudice against younger players, resulting in limited action early in the tournament. With 5 assists in 5 games, he ended up doing just fine, flashing his rare combination of skill, size and puck protection, but his impact fell way short of Zadina’s, a tournament All-Star for his electrifying offensive skills, and Tkachuk’s, whose all-around influence – on top of the physical attributes – took many observers aback. The final hierarchy of these three will very much depend on the teams holding the picks, but, for now, Svechnikov’s pedigree is still prevailing.

To round out the top-five, Quinn Hughes, a fantastic skater that turns on a dime and flies up the ice in transition, is certainly a possibility, even if the young defenseman was benched for much of the medal round games, barely seeing the ice except for the moments when the USA trailed and needed to amp the offensive pressure. Still, for the record, let’s just add that Rasmus Dahlin filled much of the same role for the Swedes in 2017…

American defenseman Quinn Hughes carries the puck in the bronze medal game against the Czech Republic (Kevin Hoffman /Getty Images)

Ranked outside of the very top of the rankings, but still worthy of attention, we encounter three European prospects that played in Buffalo. Finland’s Rasmus Kupari, a skilled center that was unfortunately casted as the 13th forward on his team and thus failed to stick his claim for a top-ten selection, Sweden’s Isac Lundeström, a lanky, speedy forward that was an integral part of his nation’s most reliable line and may go a few spots above his expected late-first round rank, and Czech Republic’s Martin Kaut, whose point-per-game pace might convince someone to take a flier within the top-30 or right after it.

The NHL pipeline update

As a prime meeting of the brightest youth prospects from around the world, the World Junior Championships are a first peek into what the future might bring for the kids at the professional levels. Therefore, it stands to reason that the tournament is also viewed on a scale that extends beyond national-team concerns and tries to predict the potential ramifications for the teams that hold their NHL rights. Fans and management alike discuss in which line that prospect might be plugged, implications on the organizational depth chart of someone’s emergence, or the best way to maximize the value of an asset, hence it’s just natural that positive exploits on the international arena also serve as a sign of the draft acumen of one’s organization and barometer of the health of its prospect base.

Sweden’s Alexander Nylander #19 fires a shot at USA’s Joseph Woll #31 during the semi-final round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In this sense, the sheer amount of drafted players competing at the tournament is important, but far from the only indicator to take into account. From the entire batch of players that exhibited their qualities in Buffalo, the biggest share belonged to the New Jersey Devils, with 7 players, whereas Arizona, Pittsburgh, Florida and Minnesota loaned a single element, yet the NHL teams that left Buffalo feeling ecstatic about their assembly of talent lie in between the two poles. We’ve identified five NHL organizations that, based on qualitative and quantitative parameters, must be marveling at their craftiness in player evaluation and development.

Buffalo Sabres (5): Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (FIN), Vojtěch Budik (CZE), Casey Mittelstadt (USA), Alexander Nylander and Marcus Davidsson (both SWE)

The Sabres are toiling in the bottom of the NHL standings, but there’s reason for hope in Buffalo based on the group that took part in this “home” tournament. Possessing the rights for Casey Mittelstadt, the tournament MVP, is the chief justification for their nomination in this space, yet the rest of the Sabres prospects also filled significant roles for their respective nations. Particularly Alex Nylander, another former 8th overall pick whose elite creativity and puck skills sooner or later will surface at the professional level, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen,  the uncontested starter for Finland.

Furthermore, despite being longer shots, Budik played some critical minutes for the Czech on their top defensive pair, while Marcus Davidsson thrived on a fourth-line that received limited minutes at five-on-five but contributed greatly for Sweden’s success on the PK.

Tampa Bay Lightning (5): Libor Hájek (CZE), Cal Foote, Brett Howden, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh (all CAN)

One of the savviest organizations breeding NHL-calibre players, the Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly pleased with the progress achieved by Libor Hájek over the last 18 months, the 2016 second rounder maturing into an all-situations blueliner that might slot on their lineup in a couple of seasons.

Drafted last June, Cal Foote played primarily on the third pairing for Canada and stayed out of trouble, while the three forwards proved important components of their well-oiled machine, with Brett Howden centering the productive checking line, and Katchouk and Raddysh flanking Robert Thomas on the team’s second unit.

Canada’s Callan Foote #6 get tangled up with an unknown Switzerland player during quarterfinal round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Chicago Blackhawks (5): Henri Jokiharju (FIN), Jakub Galvas (CZE), Artur Kayumov and Andrei Altibarmakyan (both RUS), Tim Söderlund (SWE)

The only first rounder of the Hawks faction, defenseman Henri Jokiharju, didn’t perform badly but he takes a step back here since each of his lesser-known colleagues improved his inherent value for the organization. Galvas, a diminutive blueliner, battled hard in every shift and showed poise with the puck, Kayumov scored at a point-per-game clip and was always around the net, Altibarmakyan’s constant activity and skill created problems for the opposition, and Söderlund’s jet-like acceleration, high-energy level and PK prowess were second to none.

St. Louis Blues (4): Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas (both CAN), Klim Kostin (RUS), Nikolaj Kragh (DEN)

Portended as the No.1 Danish center, Krag’s tournament came to a premature end due to injury, but the other three Blues’ prospects proved extremely useful for their teams. Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin garnered accolades and were in the running for a place on the All-Star team as two of the most exciting wingers in the competition, while Thomas, an intelligent two-way pivot, kept the puck going in the right direction at all times.

Calgary Flames (6): Adam Fox (USA), Juuso Välimäki and Eeti Tuulola (FIN), Dillon Dubé (CAN), Adam Růžička (SVK), Linus Lindström (SWE)

Forwards Tuulola, Růžička and Lindström failed to hit the twine during the tournament however the other Calgary prospects make up for their futility. Adam Fox led the American blueline, Juuso Välimäki carried the “C” and emerged as a real force for the Finns from the backend, and Dillon Dubé, another player who captained his team, did the dirty work on Canada’s top-line and powerplay.

Canada’s captain Dillon Dube #9 waves the flag following his team’s victory against Sweden during the gold medal game of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Honourable mention: Colorado Avalanche (2): Cale Makar and Conor Timmins (both CAN)

Although the Avs only sent two prospects to Buffalo, the duo reached high-levels of performance, with the roving Makar voted for the tournament’s All-Star team and Timmins’ smart, simple game shining on Canada’s shutdown pair.

The tournament’s Best Goals

A total of 216 goals were scored during the 30 games of the 2018 WJC and I’ll bring this report to its conclusion by presenting the top-three in chronological order.

First, American Casey Mittelstadt making Slovakia’s defence look silly with a neutral-zone takeaway and a finish that evokes memories of Bobby Orr’s airborne 1970 Stanley Cup clincher.

Then, just seconds later, Slovakia’s Samuel Buček returning the favour on the other end, staying with the puck after his audacious wrap-around attempt was denied to claim a famous victory for his country.

Finally, a great individual effort by Sweden’s Elias Pettersson, who deked a poor Swiss defenseman before finishing around the goaltender.

 

The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part I)

For most intents and purposes, the IIHF U-20 World Championship (WJC) is the only best-on-best international hockey tournament on a yearly basis and a tremendous showcase of the sport at its most frantic nature due to its singular blend of unbridled youth passion and devotion to the national cause. For the second time in seven years, the event took place at the turn of the calendar year (December 26th to January 5th) in the gloomy American city of Buffalo, NY, and there is a lot to discuss after the 10 top-division countries duelled for global supremacy in front of large TV audiences*, swaths of empty seats and, in the case of the USA – Canada game, the 44 592 die-hard fans that braved an inclement snowstorm.

While the trophy was eventually handed out to the Canadian team, who beat Sweden in a fantastic Final to secure a 17th U-20 World title (in a total of 42 editions), for a neutral like me the most exciting part of this event is getting familiarized with the players that, one day, will star for the senior national representations and the different NHL teams, and that’s precisely what led me to consolidate the notes and observations gleaned during the event into this report.

USA’s Jake Oettinger #30 watches Canada’s Sam Steel #23 chase the puck during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

This piece is divided into four sections, and in the first I’ll introduce and discuss the best players in the tournament, as selected by the IIHF directorate, the media (All-Star Team I) and …me (All Star Team II). Afterwards, I’ll scan through the ten teams in the competition (from last-place to the gold medal winner) looking to analyse their results and ramble a bit on a few significant players that caught my eye, before pivoting back to the individual sphere as I take stock of the fluctuations experienced at the top of the draft rankings ahead of the upcoming 2018 NHL draft. To cap it off, I’ll appoint the NHL organizations that rejoiced with the encouraging performances of their prospects in Buffalo, and nominate the three best goals of the tournament.

And (somewhere) along the way we’ll split this text in two posts, because I don’t want my reader(s) to get lost while scrolling down. Anyway, on to the cream of this year’s tournament.

* for a competition featuring largely unknown teenagers

 

IIHF Directorate Awards

Top Forward: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

Playing in the arena that he will call home in a near future, Mittelstadt, the Buffalo Sabres 8th overall pick in 2017, put on a show through the 10 days of competition, often times looking like a man amongst boys for his dominance of the puck and ability to control the tempo of the game.

USA’s Casey Mittelstadt #11 scores a third period game-tying goal against Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In fact, at 6’1 and 200 lbs, the Edina, MIN native doesn’t impose fear in the opposition for his physical traits, as he’s neither overly big, powerful, explosive or quick, nonetheless Mittelstadt is really difficult to knock off the puck and possesses creativity and top-end vision in spades, which results in nifty dishes and short passes against the run of play that take defenders by surprise. More of a playmaker than a scorer, Mittelstadt is dangerous off the rush for his ability to change speeds and draw defenders before distributing the puck, and his poise and wizardry in possession reminded many of Clayton Keller, the focal point of the American offense in 2017.

Unlike Keller, though, Mittelstadt’s 4 goals and 7 points weren’t enough to reach the Final – much less lift the trophy – even if his line with Brady Tkachuk and Joey Anderson was the most effective of the tournament, cycling the puck on the boards and driving possession like no other, and the 19-year-old put together, probably, the most exceptional individual performance of the tournament (3A), outdoors, not less, with the blizzard and piles of snow being no match for a star pivot determined to will the USA back from a two-goal deficit to Canada.

The tournament’s point-leader, Mittelstadt relished and demanded the puck in the big-moments, never shying away from the responsibility of leading his team, and that’s something that should excite Sabres fans, poised to have a formidable one-two punch down the middle when Mittelstadt joins forces with compatriot Jack Eichel in Buffalo.

Top Defenseman: Rasmus Dahlin (Sweden)

Talk about living up to the hype.

The putative 1st overall pick in next June’s NHL draft became the first U-18 to deserve top defenseman honours against players up to two years older than him, and such feat was only possible because the HC Frolunda wunderkind is, undoubtedly, the total package.

Most hockey fans had already seen videos of Dahlin’s offensive incursions: chin up, eyes surveying the scene, puck stuck to his blade, a courageous kid evading multiple forecheckers and not afraid to dangle through set defences and create something out of nothing. There was a whole lot of it in Buffalo, but what doesn’t make most highlight-reels is everything else he already does at silly levels. Not only the pinpoint, threading passes in the offensive zone, or his vision and patience as he selects the perfect outlet when skating it out is not the best option, but the effortless skating for a broad-shouldered 6’2’’ (and growing..) man-child that dances on his edges and changes directions with absurd ease.

With 6 assists in the tournament, Dahlin was, as expected, an impact player offensively for the Swedes, however, in the medal round, the defensive side of his game really stood out:  the defensive reads and ability to anticipate where the puck is going, the improved stick work, how he angles before stealing the puck cleanly, the disposition to use the body in the boards or to dish hits on open-ice.

The 17-year-old was entrusted with a lot of ice time against top opposition and thrived, yet, for all the fine-tuning that’s already a hallmark of his game at a tender age, if I’m allowed some nit-picking here…can’t really say I came away impressed with his work on the man-advantage, particularly after the unit set up in the OZ. Although Dahlin manned the top of the umbrella and shot a lot (25 times in 7 games), a few too many attempts were blocked or deflected and, sometimes, he looked tentative about which option to choose. This is not exactly a knock on him but, well…it’s good to know that even a prodigy like Dahlin might still need to polish a part of his game.

Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin in action at ther 2018 World Junior Championships (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

One thing is certain, though. His compatriots Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman weren’t even close to Dahlin’s level at age 17, and the youngster possesses all the tools to become a franchise icon and, maybe, one of the best of all-time.

Top Goaltender: Filip Gustavsson (Sweden)

Separating the goaltenders of the two tournament finalists is not unlike splitting hairs, but since the picks were in before the end of the Final and Gustavsson recorded better numbers than Carter Hart until Canada’s winning goal – in which he was, in no way, at fault – this selection is quite understandable.

Having a difficult time at home this season (3.04 GAA, 0.887 Sv% in 10 games for Lulea HF), the Pittsburgh Penguins second rounder (2016) embraced the challenge of backstopping a stacked Swedish ensemble in Buffalo and finished the tournament with a 0.924 Sv% and 1.81 GAA, performing at the highest level in every critical game for his team. He limited the Czech to a goal in the group stage, shut down the Slovaks late in the QF (3-2), denied the USA’s late flurry in the semi-finals (4-2), and stood tall against Canada in the decider despite facing their red-hot man-advantage in six occasions. Gustavsson’s shakiest start came against Russia (4-3), when he let in the equalizer after coughing up a bad rebound, but he responded to it with a couple of sublime saves in overtime and the shootout to snatch the victory.

The 19-year-old netminder will continue to work on swallowing pucks with his body and challenging opponents more, however his game is already at a good level, as he’s able to seal the ice quite well with his pads, push side-to-side quickly with his strong base, and use his glove effectively. Despite being a couple of years away from pushing for an NHL spot, it’s clear the current Stanley Cup Champions are blessed with a clogged goaltending pipeline since Filip Gustavsson belongs to the same organization that employs fellow youngsters Matt Murray (23 years old) and Tristan Jarry (22).

 

The 2018 All-tournament team (as selected by the media):

G: Filip Gustavsson (SWE)

(see above)

D: LD Rasmus Dahlin (SWE); RD: Cale Makar (CAN)

Despite tying for the tournament lead in goals (3) and points (8) from defensemen, Cale Makar’s selection for the All-Star team took many by surprise because of his highly-specific usage under coach Dominique Ducharme. In fact, on Canada’s two most evenly-matched encounters, versus the USA and Sweden, Makar saw less than 10 minutes of ice time in each and seldom cracked the regular 5-on-5 pairings, eventually finishing the tournament as the least-used blueliner on the winning roster. Still, when he did touch the ice or, more explicitly, hopped the boards to quarterback the powerplay, Makar showed why he was the highest drafted player (4th overall in 2017) in the team.

A special talent selected by the Colorado Avalanche out of Junior A hockey last June, Cale Makar is absolutely electric with the puck on his stick, rushing up the ice at dizzying speeds while constantly assessing his options, using his great stick-handing ability to slither through the neutral zone and gain the blue line, and then distributing the puck with aplomb or wiring it to the net. Due to his propensity to walk the line, Makar’s shots are rarely blocked and usually carry the perfect velocity and weight to be tipped in front or find its way past the maze of defenders, therefore standing as no surprise that he accrues points with such ease.

When the Calgary-native eventually reaches the NHL, he’ll need to be physically and mentally able to withstand the grind of a long season, but there’s no doubt the Avalanche have a gem of a defender on their hands, a supremely-gifted blueliner with shades of Erik Karlsson’s flash.

F: LW Filip Zadina (CZE); C Casey Mittelstadt (USA); RW Kieffer Bellows (USA)

A top-ranked prospect that completed 18 years of age barely a month ago, Filip Zadina’s name gained steam after he burst out of the gate strong (24 G, 46 pts in 32 games) in his rookie season in Halifax (QMJHL), however few expected him to be such a difference-maker at the World Juniors and turn into the first Czech on the All-Star team since Petr Mrázek in 2012. Playing alongside Martin Nečas on one of the Czech’s scoring lines, and on the opposite halfwall on the powerplay set up, the left winger was one of the most dynamic players around, a true force on both ends, always trying to invent, make plays and manufacture scoring changes and never afraid to mix it up with bigger, stronger players.

When Zadina had the puck, you knew he would try something different and due to his speed, skill and offensive flair, opponents soon started respecting his ability to beat them. An adept shooter (37 SOG in 7 games) with a wealth of offensive resources, Zadina scored four of his seven goals on the man-advantage, but his paramount moment came at even strength in the semi-finals, turning Canadian defenseman Kale Clague inside out before rifling one over Carter Hart’s shoulder.

Always active and smelling blood, the man likened to a shark by his coach saw his draft stock explode for his tenacity away from the puck and ability to step up and score on the clutch on the other end, and there remain few doubts he’ll be a top-five pick at the 2018 NHL draft.

The tournament top goal-scorer with 9 tallies (+ 1A), American Kieffer Bellows grabbed a spot on the All-Star team by virtue of his stellar feats in the knockout rounds, where he scored five times in three games, including the corrosive bullet that served as the go-ahead goal in the third period of the quarter-final matchup with Russia. Thickly-built, Bellows maintains his balance as he bulldozes his way to the net, yet he also got the hands to go around the defenders before unleash his devastating shot. Indeed, an NHL- calibre release is the 19-year-old’s calling card, a heavy shot that blasts off his stick and which, naturally, he’s not shy of using constantly, as the tournament-high 38 shots on goal clocked in Buffalo attest.

Smart exploring soft spots in coverage, especially on the PP, and possessing the rare instinct of elite finishers, Bellows surpassed the USA single-tournament record of eight goals set by Jeremy Roenick in 1989, but he still needs to improve his footwork so that he can adjust to the higher pace at the professional ranks. If he can take that next step, the NY Islanders pick (19th overall, 2016) will torment at lot of goalies at the NHL level and, one day, might even approach the 485 goals gobbled by his father, Brian Bellows.

Tournament MVP: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

With no player clearly distancing himself from the rest on Canada’s roster, the Most Valuable Player award, voted by the members of the media, probably came down to Rasmus Dahlin or Casey Mittelstadt.

Had the Swedish star managed to found the back of the net throughout the tournament, or increase his point total in the knockout rounds, we might be having a different conversation, but Dahlin was busy excelling in other areas, and the leading scorer usually has the inside track in these kind of awards… Undeniably the top forward in the competition, Casey Mittelstadt is a worthy recipient of the MVP distinction, succeeding Canada’s Thomas Chabot.

 

Alternative All-Star team

A kind of Second All-Star team composed of the players snubbed by the media in their election.

G: Carter Hart (Canada)

For the first time in many, many years, Canada did not enter the World Junior tournament with question marks hanging over their goaltending as Hart returned for his second appearance supported by a magnificent 0.961 Sv% and 1.31 GAA in 17 WHL games. Actually, a case can be made that the Philadelphia Flyers prospect (2nd round, 2016) was Canada’s trump card in the race for the title, and he justified the lofty credentials by pacing all goaltenders in Buffalo with a 1.81 GAA and 0.930 Sv%.

Canada’s Carter Hart #31 looks on during preliminary round action against the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Calm and seemingly always in control of the situation around, Carter Hart displays above-average athleticism and technical fundaments, yet what really sets him apart is the sound positioning and how he is quick to square to the shooter before every shot. Have the Flyers finally found the answer to their incessant calls for a permanent crease solution? Sure looks like it.

D: LD Libor Hájek (Czech Republic); RD Adam Fox (USA)

The lynchpin of the Czech defence, Libor Hájek, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, was wildly impressive from start to finish in Buffalo. A two-way, minute-munching blueliner without whom the Europeans couldn’t have survived, Hájek played in the top powerplay and penalty killing units, formed the go-to shutdown pair with Vojtěch Budik, and chipped in offensively frequently, tying Canada’s Cale Makar for most points amongst rear guards with 8 (1+7).

Czech Republic defenseman Libor Hajek controls the puck during the second period against Canada in a semifinal in the IIHF world junior hockey championships Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Strapping but not highly physical, Hájek moves well and has the stamina to handle a large workload, takes pride in taking care of business in his own zone, and is then proactive with the puck, making crisp outlet passes and pinching to keep the attack going. He was, arguably, the most influential defender in the entire tournament and, definitely, the best outside of the top-three rosters.

Wearing an “A” on his second participation at the WJC, Harvard’s Adam Fox took the reins of the American defence from Charlie McAvoy, last year’s All-Star, and mustered a hell of an impersonation. With slick puck skills and the eagerness to jump into the rush and follow the action deep into the offensive zone, the Calgary Flames third rounder (2016) was the catalyst of many odd-man rushes and in one of those was rewarded with the game-winning goal that downed Finland.

No slouch in the other side of the puck either, with the mobility, anticipation, quickness and feistiness of Fox and partner Dylan Samberg accelerating interceptions, puck recoveries and the succeeding breakouts, the native of Jericho, NY, might do well, though, to use his remaining two years of college eligibility to bulk up, gain strength and round out his game before turning pro.

Honourable mention: Conor Timmins (Canada)

F: LW Brady Tkachuk (USA); C Martin Nečas (Czech Republic), RW Jordan Kyrou (Canada)

With illustrious bloodlines, Brady Tkachuk’s presence at the 2018 tournament was assumed to be a growing experience before he could dominate in 2019, but there’s a non-negligible chance that he may not be available next year due to NHL duties. Standing at 6’3’’, it’s almost a requirement for a Tkachuk to love throwing the body around and play a menacing, “power-forward“ type game, but Brady doesn’t go out of his way looking for hits and already displays a much-more well-rounded game than expected.

USA’s Brady Tkachuk #7 scores a shootout goal against Canada’s Carter Hart #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Versatile and smart enough to play in all-situations, including critical defensive moments, Tkachuk boasts a heavy shot, a really nice set of hands in tight to pair his big frame, and an attitude that exudes passion and commitment in every shift. The 3 goals and 9 pts obtained at the World Juniors as an 18-year-old are, seemingly, just the tip of his immense potential.

After making the Carolina Hurricanes out of training camp and enjoying a sip of NHL action in anticipation of a loan back to HC Kometa Brno, Martin Nečas featured as one of the must-watch players in the tournament and he didn’t disappoint. It’s not usual that a player from the Czech Republic ties for the tournament lead in scoring, but Nečas’ 11 pts (3 goals) matched Casey Mittelstadt’s total, and he could have racked up even more if not for the need to sacrifice offense to attend other needs, including some penalty killing work and defensive zone assignments.

With the puck on his stick, though, Nečas also excelled, especially off the rush, with the 2017 12th overall pick showing an appetite for dropping deep to gather the puck in full flight, speed through the neutral zone and distribute or fire on goal. Capable of executing at top speed, Nečas high-skill level and creativity jump out, and he’s also an elegant skater with impressive agility and ability to change directions in full stride. The jury is still out on whether he’ll grow into the star center the Canes desperately need but, at worst, he should evolve into an impact top-six middleman.

Rumoured as a potential option for a Canadian Olympic roster that could use high-end skill in the absence of NHL players, Jordan Kyrou made clear at the World Junior Championship why his profile has increased so much since being taken by the St. Louis Blues with the 35th pick of the 2016 NHL draft.

Incredible in transition, jetting away from backcheckers, slipping checks and feathering passes through sticks, Kyrou creates space for himself and teammates when the puck is under his control since he can set up a teammate or fling at goal to catch goalies by surprise, but he also works hard in pursuit of the biscuit and keeps the cycling game going despite his slim figure. The OHL top-point getter when he left for Team Canada’s training camp, Kyrou continued his prolific ways in Buffalo, collecting a team-best 10 pts (3 goals), and with the help of additional muscle, it’s possible to envision him as a right wing on a Blues’ scoring line sometime down the road.

Honourable mentions: Klim Kostin (Russia), Elias Petersson (Sweden)

Team by team analysis

  1. Belarus (relegated)

Newly-promoted from the Division 1, group A, Belarus will be right back to where they came from after a tournament where they lacked a touch of luck and killer instinct to take full advantage of their third-ranked PP and PK units.

The Eastern European side pushed eventual semi-finalists Czech Republic in a narrow 6-5 defeat, and ended the group stage with the same goal differential as Switzerland (10 GF – 20 GA), yet in the decisive encounter with the Swiss they squandered a 2-1 lead in the third and had to settle for the relegation playoff. In the best-of-three series, Belarus once again failed to close the deal in Game 1, allowing Denmark to rally from 4-2 down with three tallies in the last 11 minutes, and their destiny was sealed after a SO loss in Game 2.

Belarus celebrates a second period goal by Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 against Denmark during the relegation round. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Belarussians will be replaced by Kazakhstan next year, but don’t be surprised if both nations trade places again in 2020 since many of Belarus top players can fight for promotion in 2019, including powerplay quarterback Vladislav Yeryomenko, an undrafted defenseman plying his trade for the Calgary Hitmen (WHL), and captain Maxim Sushko (PHI), the only drafted player in the roster and someone who rose to the challenge in Buffalo by tallying 8 pts (2G) in 6 games.

  1. Denmark

Missing blue-chip prospects mirroring the pedigree of Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Danes posted an ugly 2-26 goal differential during a terrible round robin showing that broke a streak of three consecutive QF appearances, but they were still able to redeem themselves by avoiding relegation in the playoff.

Forwards Jonas Røndbjerg (LV) and Joachim Blichfeld (SJ), two of just four drafted players on the roster, inspired their crucial comeback in Game 1 vs Belarus, and the duo also proved a step above the rest of the squad throughout, amassing 7 (2+5) and 6 (3+3) pts, respectively, while none of their teammates could collect more than a pair.

Team Denmark watches the Danish flag being raised during the national anthem following the team’s victory over Belarus in relegation round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Almost half of Denmark’s roster can return in 2019, and every bit of experience will be necessary to extend their unprecedented run of five consecutive presences in the top-division, already three more than they obtained in the three preceding decades.

  1. Switzerland

These days it’s quite unusual for Switzerland to struggle so much in international competition, but the putrid results in Buffalo have an explanation. The Swiss group included a single drafted player, big defenseman Tobias Geisser (WAS), already a fixture of EV Zug’s blueline, and they submitted the youngest roster among the competitors, with 14 players eligible for the 2019 competition.

Switzerland’s Nico Gross #16 controls the puck against the Czech Republic’s Daniel Kurovsky #15 during the preliminary round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Nonetheless, beyond edging Belarus in their must-win round robin encounter, the Swiss competed well against the Swedes and the Czech, keeping the score close until the third period, and revealed a few promising talents that should be taken in the early rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft. Forwards Phillip Kurashev (1+2), a slick playmaker who plays for the Québec Remparts (QMJHL), and powerful winger Nando Eggenberger, a regular for HC Davos, are two good examples, but 17-year-old Nico Gross, an Oshawa Generals (OHL) defenseman, was the player that had scouts raving on his second appearance at the U-20 level.

  1. Slovakia

The Slovaks authored the shock of the tournament in day 3, upsetting the title-favourites USA in front of the home crowd, however they wouldn’t go on to repeat the heroics of 2015, when a fabulous performance by goaltender Denis Godla netted a bronze medal.

Clobbered by Canada in the opening session, the Slovaks also fell to Finland and thrashed Denmark before putting a scare (2-3) on the rampant Swedes in the quarter-finals. All in all, a respectable performance for a country that selected only two players with NHL-ties, top-center Adam Růžička (CGY) and RW Marian Studenič (NJ), but was still able to bother the favourites with their aggressive style supported by good goaltending.

Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 makes a pad save against USA during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Roman Durný, their 19-year-old goalie, stopped 43 of 45 shots against the US to prop a 0.928 Sv%, while left winger Samuel Buček had an amazing tournament, picking up 3 goals and 7 pts in five games, including a memorable three-point night versus the Americans that comprised two primary assists for linemate Filip Krivošík and a spectacular individual effort on the GWG. Ignored at the 2017 draft, Buček, who plays for the USHL’s Chicago Steel, may well hear his name called next summer alongside the draft-eligible Adam Liška (LW, Kitchener Rangers) and Miloš Roman (C, Vancouver Giants).

  1. Finland

Determined to put to bed the disastrous performance of 2017 (9th place), the Finns were hailed as a darkhorse for the title due to the amount of talent at their disposal this season. Counting on 15 players that won the 2016 U-18 World Championships, Finland’s roster was stock full of top-prospects, especially on defence, but, strangely, things never clicked into gear, with their usual conservative and deliberate approach clashing with the need to hit higher notes against top opposition.

Canada’s Sam Steel #23 scores a first period goal against Finland’s Ukko-Pekka Luukonen #1 while Urho Vaakanainen #23 and Miro Heiskanen #2 battle with Taylor Raddysh #16 during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Finns shrugged away Slovakia (5-2) and Denmark (4-1), and couldn’t be faulted for their competitive performances against the USA (4-5) and Canada (2-4), yet the expectations called for, at least, a semi-final appearance and they would be denied that by the Czech (3-4), ultimately falling in the shootout despite holding a lead deep into the third period.

With 16 goals allowed in five games (3.13 GAA), part of the responsibility falls into the less-than-stellar performance of goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF), who carried the load start to finish and only notched a 0.879 Sv%, yet their illustrious defence, which encompassed five first round picks, also underperformed as a unit.

Olli Juolevi (VAN), competing in his third straight tournament, bounced back from a poor 2017 showing with 4 pts and 21 shots, looking active and transitioning up the ice alongside the offensive-oriented Henri Jokiharju (CHI), but more was expected of Miro Heiskanen (DAL), whose eye-popping offensive totals at home (9 G, 14 pts in 20 games for HIFK) didn’t translate internationally. The 2017 3rd overall pick was still noticeable on his ability to skate out of trouble and break plays in his own zone, and formed a steady top pair with captain Juuso Välimäki (CGY), whose reach, maturity and NHL-size stood out.

Finland’s Kristian Vesalainen #13 skates with the puck while USA’s Andrew Peeke #20 chases him down during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Meanwhile, up front, Finland was betrayed by its lack of depth, particularly down the middle. Janne Kuokkanen (CAR) didn’t nail the top-line assignment, and despite the best efforts of Aapeli Räsänen (EDM), a pass-first center who stumbled into 4 goals, the Finns relied too much on their two top-end forwards, Eeli Tolvanen (NAS) and Kristian Vesalainen (WIN). Tolvanen, who has been ripping up the KHL (17 goals in 40 games), is characterized as a gifted goal-scorer with an accurate, varied shot and deadly release, but he could only net once (5 assists) in 30 shots directed on goal and a few more that clank off the iron. For his part, Vesalainen, a burly power-forward, was never afraid to fight through the opposition or command the puck, and ended up rewarded with 2 goals and 6 pts.

This duo will seize important roles in the NHL sooner than later, but questions remain of their cohort of attackers, including Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA), the speedy WHL point-machine (71 in 29 games) who started the tournament well (2 G) before fading out.

(Continues in the next post)

What I’m thankful for in 2017

I closed the books in 2016 with a piece on the sports-related items that enhanced my life in some capacity throughout the preceding twelve months, and since the goal was always to circle back to it at every calendar turn, here I am again.

Obviously, there’s no fun in rehashing the same subjects over and over again, therefore, with full admission that living in the same age of Lionel Messi or being able to enjoy the tail end of Jaromír Jágr’s career (just to name two examples from last year’s list) is still an absolute pleasure, this time I had to tweak my approach to capture more of the year in hand and what has brought a smile to my face. This was much easier starting from a clean slate, but after a lot of indecision I eventually decided to go way overboard on a handful of paramount choices and then rattle off a few more, leaving the door open to explore the latter on another opportunity if justified.

All right, that’s more than enough talk, time to say graces before welcoming 2018:

Sports activism

Although the blend of politics and sports has been a perennial point of contention for decades, it’s fair to say that in few instances have we seen so many sports figures join the public discourse, advocate for what they believe and express strong personal views on complex, troublesome subjects.

In a time of societal unrest and with social media serving as a powerful amplifier, it was inspiring and, more notably, extremely important that NFL players stood (or knelt) together, in a peaceful manner, to bring attention to racial inequality and brutality against minorities. But also that basketball superstars with worldwide followings like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry took the lead to confront bigotry and social injustice, risking the ire of fans, their reputations, marketing opportunities and, ultimately, a lot of money. Or “rich, white male dudes”, such as prominent NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, eloquently expressed their opposition to the causes supported by their right-wing employers. That a behemoth like the NBA delivered a loud statement against discriminatory legislation by pulling its All-Star Game from the state of North Carolina. That hundreds of athletes, including those that have to battle every day to make ends meet in “niche” sports, weren’t shy about sticking their neck out and showing disgust for the buffoon inhabiting the White House and his ilk.

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans in September (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The USA and civil rights issues, for the reasons we all know, proved the rallying center for the most high-profile demonstrations of 2017, yet it would be foolish not to prolong this point to include another bubbling matter which surfaced under much dimmer lights as athletes came together to demand change. We’re talking about gender discrimination, with women’s sports’ increasing status and relevance fuelling significant breakthroughs, especially in team sports, which historically have lagged behind individual disciplines in such issues.

Building on the US Women’s football (soccer) team’s suit against wage prejudice that gave way to an improved collective bargaining agreement, their ice hockey counterparts threatened to boycott the 2017 World Championship if demands for a fairer pay scale, and equitable support on wide-ranging matters such as youth development, equipment, travel accommodations, and marketing weren’t met. Standing together and supported by the unwillingness of professional, amateur and youth players to break rank, they succeeded in the boardrooms (and later on the ice) and inspired football teams throughout the world to fight for better conditions. The results were significantly improved working and financial pacts for players in countries such as Argentina, Sweden, Brazil, Nigeria, Denmark, Ghana, Ireland and New Zealand, and a ground-breaking deal in Norway, where the national federation devised a deal that’s (essentially) equal for the men’s and women’s national teams.

The USA ice hockey women’s national team triumphed on and off the ice in 2017.

More examples of sports figures making a difference could be cited, including the athletes, Olympic Champions et all, that jumped out of the shadows and to the forefront of the on-going movement against sexual assault and sexual harassment, nonetheless, as a sports aficionado and fan of many referenced above, the bottom line is my appreciation for all the men and women who decided to wield their (enormous) influence and lay so much on the line so that future generations could benefit from a fairer, inclusive, united and more generous sports world and society. May more join them in 2018, when a major event such as the FIFA World Cup will be contested in a country known for dubious human rights practices….

2017 UEFA Women’s European Championship

As a sports fan, few things give me more pleasure than following a major event from start to finish, taking note of the trends emerging over the weeks of competition, the ups-and-down in performance, who rises and falls along the way, which teams burn under the pressure or defy expectations. At the women’s Euro 2017, I could do it all and beyond. Prepare diligently and grow excited as the tournament kick-off drew closer, sit back and watch every minute of action in the Netherlands building up to a riveting Final, and revel in the aftermath as conclusions were drawn and the best of the best celebrated.

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Thousands celebrated the Dutch Women’s National Team in Utrecht after victory at the Euro 2017.

A three week period I will cherish because it represented the first international appearance for my nation, and the chance to experience the pulsating orange throngs that lifted Lieke Martens, Jackie Groenen, Vivianne Miedema and alike to victory, however my investment was rewarded by so much more. The unflinching self-belief of Pernille Harder as she hauled the Danes to the Final. The dogged determination of underdogs Austria. The Dutch footballing lecture instructed on favourites England in Enschede. The Earth-shattering end of Germany’s titanic reign. The decline of Sweden, a reality-check for the ambitious Spain and yet another French fiasco. The reunion with Icelandic fans. Barbara Bonansea (Italy), Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland), Tessa Wullaert (Belgium) and Caroline Weir (Scotland) waving goodbye too early, and the acrid tears exuded by Caroline Graham Hansen, Ada Hederberg and Norway.

Truth be told, there was no team that failed to struck a chord (even you, Russia), no game I desired to shut down or moment I preferred to skip. Gosh, I’ll say it: the 2019 World Cup can’t come soon enough.

The 2017 WTA Tour season

On a year that, for many tennis fans, was all about the return of Rafa and Roger to the top of the game, the female Tour quietly produced a remarkable season that oozed unpredictability, upsets and compelling narratives.

Back in January, the fact that Serena Williams collected an Open era, record-breaking 23rd career Grand Slam in Melbourne hardly caught anyone by surprise, but that would soon change with news of her on-going pregnancy, and as the Queen left the stage to join the onlookers, the windfall of remarkable incidents started to transpire on a weekly basis.

The swift eclipse of Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitová’s incredible recovery after the gruesome attack that damaged the tendons in her left hand. The perplexing hiccups of Simona Halep with the World No.1 on the line and the brief stints on-the job for Karolína Plíšková and Garbiñe Muguruza. The teenage naivety of Jeļena Ostapenko en route to the title at Roland Garros, and Sloane Stephens’ lightning journey from foot rehab to the US Open throne. Johanna Konta’s journey in front of her compatriots in Wimbledon, Elina Svitolina’s breakthrough season capped with a WTA-best five titles, and Caroline Wozniacki’s successive slips at the final hurdle until she found redemption in Singapore. The late season explosion of Caroline Garcia at the same time compatriot (and recent foe) Kiki Mladenovic crumbled to pieces. The universal reverence of Venus Williams, a stunning two-time Grand Slam Finalist and WTA Finals’ runner-up at age 37.

Sloane Stephens surprising triumph at the US Open was just one of the many great stories of the WTA Tour in 2017 (Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Through four contrasting Grand Slam winners and seven major finalists, five different World leaders, and plenty of movement in and out of the top-ten, it was a banner campaign for the WTA Tour which few cared to enjoy. I sure did.

The IIHF World Junior Championships

It’s closing on a decade that my holiday season is engrossed by the brightest young prospects in hockey and the tournament that matches the U-20 elite of the world never stops to daze. Understandably, many disregard the event as just another youth tournament packed with kids that won’t ever reach the highest ranks of the sport, but I prefer to look at it as a great opportunity to fill some dark, winter hours with fast, electric hockey played by talented individuals whose inexperience leads to action-packed, captivating encounters spiced up by national pride.

Moreover, simply by taking the plunge, I improve my personal hockey database and, with every passing edition, get to engrave some instant classics in it, most courtesy of the NHL superstars of tomorrow.

American John Carlson beats Canadian goaltender Martin Jones for the overtime game winning goal at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championships Final (REUTERS/Shaun Best)

Don’t believe me? Take a gander at this collection, just off the top of my head: the heroics of John Tavares and Jordan Eberle in Ottawa 2009; the overtime snipe of John Carlson in Saskatoon 2010; Evgeni Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko leading Russia’s stunning comeback from a three-goal disadvantage to Canada in Buffalo 2011; Mika Zibanejad breaking the deadlock in OT in Calgary 2012; the impervious John Gibson stealing the show in Ufa 2013; Rasmus Ristolainen shocking a loaded Swedish team in Malmo 2014; Connor McDavid erupting late in Montreal 2015 to power Canada to a first title in six years; Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine and Sebastian Aho running circles around the opposition in Helsinki 2016; Thomas Chabot and Charlie McAvoy going head to head in Toronto 2017 as the Americans stole gold north of the border once again. Not bad, eh? I recommend you jump on the fun ahead of the 2018 knockout rounds scheduled for Buffalo in a few days.

Sports writing

I enjoy reading and it’s only natural that I also derive major satisfaction from dipping into thoughtful, insightful, well-written sports pieces. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that around the World Wide Web, and since I intend to compile a list of the best sports reads of 2018 to pluck in here, might as well just mention a few personal favourites (English, only).

Due to its global reach, the football writing community is one of the most diverse and prolific, but I’m still to find a better place than These Football Times for long-form articles on the beautiful game from an historical and/or modern perspective. Additionally, In Bed with Maradona (IBWM), on the interception of football and culture, and Outside the Boot, with excellent youth prospects and tactical analysis, are great resources to tap on, while staying updated on Gabriele Marcotti’s musings on international football is something I try to do.

In hockey media, few write better features than Alex Prewitt at Sports Illustrated, but Kristina Rutherford and her Sportsnet colleagues come close. Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column is an essential weekly read for any NHL fan, Sean McIndoe (Down Goes Brown) cracks me up time and time again, and Dimitri Filipovic is my favourite among the analytics-inclined gang (also, his work is not behind The Athletic’s paywall, like so many of his counterparts, which is nice).

For all-things tennis, Jon Wertheim (SI) is my go-to-guy, especially his weekly mailbag write-up, and I’ll invariably make the time when Louisa Thomas dabbles into the sport. Finally, Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur always strikes the nail whatever is the subject of his daily column, and you can’t go wrong with anything published at The Players Tribune.

Rapid Fire

The (Winter) Olympics to come; Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and his midfield maestro, Kevin de Bruyne; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić, the new kings of European Basketball; Tom Dumoulin, shaking cycling’s World Tour one step at a time; Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel, the present and future of swimming; PK Subban and Nashville’s flourishing hockey scene; Two-time Stanley Cup Champion Phil Kessel (sorry, not sorry); Juan Martin Del Potro and his flair for the dramatic; Karsten Warholm, Europe’s new track star; Jackie Groenen, the Dutch “Ant”; the half-pirouettes and no-look passes of Isabelle Gulldén (recency bias, wee).

Tom Dumoulin, of the Netherlands, holds up the trophy after winning the Giro d’Italia. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

My teams

What’s better than hitting the jackpot once? Doing it twice. In consecutive years. Even if, as privileged as I feel for what happened over the last two seasons, the taste of the latest months is one I want to eschew. Quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Victor Mete (D, Montreal Canadiens)

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Iaffallo (LW, Los Angeles Kings)

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

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

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

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

Robert Hagg (D, Philadelphia Flyers)

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

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

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

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

Anders Bjork (RW, Boston Bruins)

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

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

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

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

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

Jesper Bratt (LW, New Jersey Devils)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

Series Results:

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

Game 2: Nashville Predators 3 @ 5 Anaheim Ducks

Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 1 @ 2 Nashville Predators

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

Game 5: Nashville Predators 3 @ 1 Anaheim Ducks

Game 6: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 6 Nashville Predators

 

Ducks’ shutdown line wore down in the third round

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

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

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

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

Nashville’s depth steps up following Johansen’s injury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anaheim gets ransacked in third periods

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

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

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

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

Best players in the series

John Gibson (Anaheim Ducks)

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

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

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

Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators)

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

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

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

Will the Anaheim Ducks return to the playoffs next year? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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