After a crazy day of intense matchups, upsets and poor internet connections, the first qualifier of the Caps esports Face-off is over. After being bounced from the tournament in Round 5 of the losers bracket, I was lucky enough to do commentary for many of the heavy-weight matchups that went down after my exit, culminating in one of the best competitive NHL 1v1 games ever played (in my opinion). Let’s start at the beginning though.
261 players from around the world were randomly seeded into 8 separate double elimination, Best-of-1 format brackets. Only four players from each of those brackets would be moving on to the Top 32.
Some brackets were definitely more of a nightmare than others – specifically, the A8 bracket that was full of great players. Not only did it have elite talent, but it also had a mix of Europeans and North Americans that were forced to play through lagging connections in these huge early matchups.
Some of these big names included Finland’s ‘xDoumi’, ‘SUPERVIRTA’, and the reigning NHL Gaming World Champion, ‘Eki’. From the North American side, it had ‘Gwan’, ‘Joshfearless’ and two regional finalists of the 2018 NHL GWC: ‘JerDubz’ and ‘Odiee’. This bracket culminated with xDuomi taking down Joshfearless to move on to the Top 32, along with Eki who took down fellow Finn ‘Kaneyh’. Meanwhile, Joshfearless and Kaneyh would both shake off their losses and pushed through to the Top 32 via the losers bracket, with wins over Gwan and SUPERVIRTA, respectively.
The first set of brackets also featured some notable upsets. ‘NugeTV’ was knocked into the A3 losers bracket early in the second round, and then fell to ‘WayUpGaming‘ in a very close game he controlled throughout, but ultimately could not tie up late in the game. Leafs Gaming League runner-up ‘DaddyPadre’ also failed to make the Top 32 after facing several European players. He noted that his laggy connection to his opponents during these cross-continental games definitely had an impact on his disappointing result. Unfortunately, this is something that all players have to deal with when playing opponents on different continents.
The Top 32
The upper half of the Top 32 had a mix of EU and NA talent, and unsurprisingly, a lot of the top players in the world who had gone undefeated thus far. On the list were the 1st and 2nd place players from the 2018 NHL GWC (‘Eki’ and ‘JrPens‘), along with Lazarus’ ‘Bouch’, Simplicity’s ‘Regs’, and Mirage’s ‘Miviens‘.
The bottom half also featured plenty of big names like NHL GWC 3rd place finisher ‘Johnwaynee‘, Lazarus’ Joshfearless and free agent ‘Rehanek’, along with many great European players in ‘attee‘, ‘Veikkonator’ and ‘MrNipsuli‘.
The action started to heat up in the second round when Bouch fell to Eki and Regs routed Miviens in the first of two victories he would have over his countryman in the tournament. The big story today though, was the relatively unknown, ‘EkenJr’, who silently made his way into the Top 32, and then walked over JrPens in the quarter-finals. It was this game where EkenJr would start to make his mark on the tournament. He repeatedly danced around JrPens’ defense using skating techniques that few have seen, and even fewer have mastered in NHL 19.
The semi-final of the winner’s bracket saw one of the best games of the tournament. Regs put on a fantastic performance against Eki, clamping him up for most of the tilt, but ultimately losing in an insanely close game. Eki moved on to the winner’s bracket final where he faced off against the underdog, EkenJr.
I covered this game with a full video recap earlier in the week, stating that it might be the best game of NHL 19 to-date when you consider the stakes. You can watch the video recap below:
EkenJr put on a performance for the ages, with half-spin zone entries unlike we have ever seen, culminating in an insane half-spin wrap-around combo that put him up 2-0 early against Eki.
Then came the adjustments. Eki changed his defensive strategy by completely taking away the lower boards where EkenJr was beginning his spins. Things got nuts early in the third period when Eki finally broke into the offensive zone and sniped a far-side wrister to make it 2-1 just 30 seconds in. He would then go on to tie it with about seven minutes left, only to take a penalty right after, putting EkenJr and his dangerous puck possession game on the powerplay. However, Eki proved yet again why he is the best in the world, scoring a beautiful shorthanded one-timer giving him his first lead in the game with just five minutes left to play. EkenJr refused to go quietly though, and his spin-zone entries helped him create a 2-on-1 and he tied things up with 45 seconds to go. This game was fittingly going to overtime.
Through 15 minutes that featured some crazy saves and astounding misses, Eki finally broke EkenJr’s neutral zone trap and scored on a breakaway. After sweating out an incredible game, Eki celebrated accordingly (RIP headphone users):
EkenJr then proceeded to the losers bracket, which also had a few great games in it.
The Loser Bracket
Lazarus teammates JrPens and Joshfearless went head-to-head in a fantastic battle. JrPens led for most of the game, but Joshfearless wasn’t going out easy, tying it up at 4 with five minutes left, and ending the game with his patented ‘quick-wrap’ in overtime.
In the other quarter-finals we saw Bouch go up against Miviens, and after a very strong run by Bouch, it ended in a Miviens rout. This set up the final four loser bracket finalists: Miviens vs Kriketski, and Regs vs Joshfearless.
Regs vs Josh was yet another close back-and-forth game. Regs took out Josh in overtime on a dynamite cross-ice tap in, sending him to the semi-finals of the losers bracket where he would play Miviens for the second time. Regs dominated Miviens once again, scoring a whopping 12 goals over their two games. The losers bracket finals were now set between Regs and EkenJr.
This was another epic game. By this point in the tournament everyone had seen EkenJr and his half-spin offense, and Regs took note. Defensively he was almost flawless, pinning him on the boards every chance he got, making sure EkenJr could not pull off his spin-wrap. Regs controlled play most of the game, but could not buy a goal. The scoreless 0-0 stalemate headed into overtime.
The winner would head to Washington, the loser would be left with nothing, and having to try and qualify again. In a sequence of craziness that saw Regs get absolutely robbed, then missing the net on a wide-open one-timer, EkenJr was sent on a rush the other way. With a pass back to a trailing teammate in the slot, he buried a far-side wrister worth a two-way plane ticket from Sweden to Washington, D.C.
This event took a ton of heat when the Caps announced that they were allowing Europeans to enter, as it meant some games would be played on extremely high ping. But when all was said and done, the community got to see some of the best gameplay in recent memory, with many of the top players leaving it all on the line. With a largely identical field playing in this weekend’s qualifier, we can expect it to be just as insane. There are six finalist spots still up for grabs and three qualifiers to go. I’ve got a funny feeling that we’re going to see the North Americans get some revenge after the Europeans dominated this one.