After a strong showing in Stage 3, the Hangzhou Spark punched in their playoffs ticket with the third seed. They join the ranks of the league’s strongest teams, all itching to prove that they deserve the crown this time around. The last time the Spark made stage playoffs, their run ended with a painfully one-sided loss to the San Francisco Shock in semifinals. This time, however, Hangzhou has the chance to prove that they can stand at the top of the pack.
Stage 3 Review
Though their impressive 6-1 record was not the best of the stage, one could argue that the Spark had the best stage they could have asked for. They dodged the same upset losses that shook up the Titans and the Shock, and only went to fifth maps against the Seoul Dynasty and the Los Angeles Valiant. With a singular loss to Vancouver in week 2, the Spark maintain the impressive feat of not losing to any team but the Titans and the Shock since the middle of Stage 1. Going into playoffs, Hangzhou looks to be in top form. Their Friday night journey into quarterfinals, however, will provide the real test of their progress.
Quarterfinals: Los Angeles Valiant (8-13)
Few teams this season can boast a comeback story quite like the Valiant’s. After their infamous 0-7 record in Stage 1, they reorganized and came back strong, rallying around new pickups Russell “FCTFCTN” Campbell and Johannes “Shax” Nielsen. Making it to stage playoffs is a victory enough for this squad, but there’s no doubt they won’t settle just for making it. The Spark face off against one of the hungriest teams still in the bracket, and they should expect them to play like it.
Still, the budding rivalry between these two teams has yet to play out in Los Angeles’ favor. The two last faced off just two weeks ago, with Hangzhou taking the same 3-2 victory they took in Stage 1. As undeniably impressive as the Valiant’s success story is, the Spark’s slow-burn rise to the top still gives them the edge in this match. Hangzhou hasn’t been at the top of the pack long enough to get comfortable there, so they’ll likely avoid getting caught off guard by the underdog.
Prediction: Hangzhou wins 3-2
Semifinals and Beyond?
After a severe upset by the Shanghai Dragons shook up the bracket on Thursday, the Spark were spared the challenge of facing Vancouver in the semifinals. They’re not out of the woods just yet, however; if they come out on top against the Valiant, they face off against the winner of San Francisco vs. Seoul. With the Shock playing as the clear favorites, Hangzhou should prepare for a rematch of Stage 2 semifinals. Still, the Shock look much more beatable than they have in the past. Though they still had an excellent stage overall, surprise losses to the Houston Outlaws and the Chengdu Hunters during the stage exposed some weaknesses in San Francisco’s response to the meta shift. The Spark will still have their work cut out for them, but no one should expect the stomp that the Shock put them through last time.
If the Spark push through semifinals, they’ll most likely face the Vancouver Titans in finals, which would certainly be both a test of their skill and a fascinating match. After nearly forcing their last showdown to a fifth map, both teams know that the Spark have potential. Though a Vancouver vs. Hangzhou final would likely result in another stage title for the Titans, it could very well be another action-packed match.
Player to Watch: Xu “guxue” Qiulin
As the face of the team, guxue has taken up plenty of well-deserved attention throughout the season. It’s worth returning the focus to him once again for Hangzhou’s playoffs run, primarily due to the way the team has built around him. The Spark’s strong results over the past few weeks can be traced back to the team finally establishing confidence in their star main tank and moving him into a central role. With Hangzhou rallying around guxue and plenty of their opponents knowing that they need to focus on him, how he performs over the next few days will likely be one of the key components for a successful run.
The Hangzhou Spark’s playoffs run begins on July 12, when they take on the Los Angeles Valiant in the quarterfinals. With a very real chance at the title on the line, it’s time to see if the Spark can put a very pink ribbon on top of their successful stage.
Follow Darby on Twitter @soundchecck! She is happy to talk about anything she’s written! You can also get in touch with her on Discord (soundchecck#7242).
Featured image courtesy of Ben Pursell For Blizzard Entertainment.
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