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The ongoing drama of the Stanley Cup Playoff conference championships prove that in hockey, great defensive play can still beat explosive offenses. The same doesn’t seem to work in baseball, where every level seems vulnerable to wild and crazy run-scoring outbursts.
In the Stanley Cup, the four teams that have reached the conference finals are all modern, high-tech outfits that spell out what it takes to win at the ultimate level. It wasn’t long ago that the great offenses of teams like the Guy Lafleur-era Montreal Canadiens dominated the NHL and the Stanley Cups. Then the rugged, in-your-face style of the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers took over, bumping the high-skilled guys into the cheap seats in the early 1970s.
The New York Islanders brought reason back, and Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers put skill back on top. Most recently, the game has evolved to the point where every team seemed to believe that it needed a couple of tough guys to force the openings for the more skilled players to score and win. The Detroit Red Wings were over-balanced toward skill with the Steve Yzerman-Sergei Fedorov-Pavel Datsyuk teams that were finally eclipsed by the Chicago Blackhawks who could play it any way you wanted but eventually won because of the skill of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
But this year is different. In the East, Pittsburgh has its Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but it also has obtained a couple high-speed young guys to help push the Penguins back toward the top. It tells you how good the Penguins are when Crosby can go eight games without a goal and the team still wins. They are opposed by the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that plays with great speed and balance both offensively and defensively, and keeps on winning even when missing top forwards, defensemen and even its goaltender.
In the West, the St. Louis Blues nearly had to mug the Blackhawks to get past the first round, but since then, they have played with speed and talent too – anchored by the brilliant Brian Elliott in goal and David Backes up front. The San Jose Sharks, meanwhile, are making a fantastic run behind the offensive spark of Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, and the unmatched defensive tandem of Brent Burns and Paul Martin.
What these four teams have in common is they have no room for goons. There are tough guys on both teams, but none who can’t play a speedy, high-skilled style. Great goaltending, mercurial speed and puck-moving by the defense, and creative, smart forwards populate all four lines of all four teams. There is no strategy in using a third or fourth line to slow down the opposing top line, because anyone on any line can score the big goals.
I started out the playoffs picking Chicago to face Washington in the final. So much for that. At this point, my favorite team to watch is the San Jose Sharks, marveling at Thornton’s passing wizardry, and Pavelski’s unmatched skill at the goal-mouth for tips and playmaking, and their power play. Never mind having the explosive gun of an Alex Ovechkin, the Sharks can all shoot, but they all move in concert, and pass the puck so unselfishly that every time anyone gets open for a good shot, the puck magically appears on his stick.
Because all four teams are so quick and so balanced, they all are dazzling on offense and in counter-attacking – transition, they call it nowadays – but they also use that speed and tenacity and hockey sense to play stifling defense. You find yourself concentrating on watching a game, and while it appears you see promising chances every shift, they close up before they can be executed. And all of a sudden the period ends and the shots are something like 7-5. The same skills that are required for brilliant offense are being used every shift for smothering defense, too.
Meanwhile, in baseball, we see scoring outbursts overwhelming pitching and defense. At the Major League level, we have the Minnesota Twins spotting Detroit eight runs in the first inning, then, remarkably, battling back to gain an improbable 8-8 deadlock. At the end, the Twins gave up a couple of home runs and lost 10-8. That’s the way it’s been going for the Twins; if they score 8, they give up 10. And isn’t it time to end the Joe Mauer as leadoff man experiment? Until he homered Tuesday, I think he was something like 2-for-24 as a leadoff man, meaning the Twins have negated the only legitimate .300 hitter they had!
At the college level, St. Scholastica might have faced a major challenge in the UMAC baseball tournament at Wade Stadium last weekend, but the Saints simply wouldn’t allow it. They started off with an intriguing game against Minnesota-Morris, battling scorelessly through three innings. Oops! Then came the last of the fourth, and the Saints erupted for eight runs, adding three more in the fifth, and winning 11-0 in a game shortened to seven innings.
After a tough, and fairly conventional 6-3 victory over Northwestern of Roseville, the Saints faced Northwestern, and jumped ahead with two in the first and one in the second. But the Golden Eagles rallied for three to tie it 3-3 in the third. It was a tight 4-3 lead for the Saints until the seventh, then they erupted for five and won going away at 10-3 to claim the title undefeated.
And it seemed that the offense came all down the lineup. In the fateful seventh, with one out, Al Marolt singled, Brian Minks singled, and after a walk, Conor Wollenzien singled, and a walk loaded the bases. Jake Kuschke worked the count to 2-2, then whacked one to left. Realizing the chance for victory might be slipping away, the Northwestern left fielder made a dive for the hit, but missed it, and all three runs scored to make it 9-3.
It’s the same in high school, where Duluth East might be the shining example of big innings. Frequently, the Greyhounds seem to be embroiled in tough games, then they explode and win convincingly. But on Tuesday, the Hounds, who lost their first game of the season in the second game of a doubleheader against Anoka last week, almost met their match.
Denfeld scored in the last of the second, and held the 1-0 lead until the top of the fourth. Sure enough, East started hitting shots all over the field, and when the dust settled – if there can be dust on artificial turf – East had scored eight runs. At 8-1, it looked like business as usual for the Greyhounds -- but Denfeld came storming back for five runs in the last of the fourth. It finished with East winning 10-7, but once again baseball proved that whether you’re watching pros, college or high school – don’t leave early.