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Going back a couple of months, when the Stanley Cup Playoffs were about to begin, my prediction was that the Nashville Predators would face the Washington Capitols in the final. I was tired of Pittsburgh automatically representing the East, and I genuinely believed that this would be the year the Caps would get past the Penguins.
But nobody could have predicted the Vegas Golden Knights, no matter how great a first season they’d had, would win their way to the West title and a berth in the Cup final. When it got there, I honestly didn’t care which team won, but several things conspired to make me go back to my original pick of the Caps winning the Cup.
First, that weird scene when the officials made a decision to review a play and disallow a Caps goal for a retroactive penalty called by video! Then I started just hoping for the series to go as long as possible, verifying my theory that “there’s no such thing as too much hockey.”
But when the Capitols won Game 2 in Las Vegas, several Knights players lost track of their seeming heritage of a spectacular season, above the norm, and they got cheap, taking some real liberties with the rules and delivering an amazing number of cross-checks in what, an attempt to intimidate the Caps as the series shifted to Washington?
Game 3 was fantastic hockey, and the Caps won again to take a 2-1 lead in games. Then came Game 4, and once again the Capitols came out roaring from the start, getting superb play from Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, and goaltender Braden Holtby. And the supporting cast has been superb, too. That doesn’t mean the Golden Knights have played poorly; they haven’t. Play was back and forth with Vegas dominating for stretches and hitting pipes, while the Caps would respond by getting a chance and scoring, usually on an outstanding play.
And at the end of Game 4, more cheap stuff. After a long season and three playoff rounds of absolute class and discipline, the Golden Knights were tarnished by their own willingness to resort to cross-checks, cheapshots and muggings. I was amazed that certain Caps — mainly Wilson and Ovechkin — held their tempers, but they were penalized just the same. Meanwhile, Kuznetsov, who missed a couple games with an injury, is leading the whole playoffs in scoring.
Now, Game 5 will have been played by the time you read this, althought the series stands 3-1 for the Caps as I write this. In my opinion, Vegas may rise up and play one more perfect game, hustling, passing and skating, and win Game 5. But that will only send it back to Washington for Game 6. If the Caps didn’t win Game 5 in Vegas, they will claim their first Cup in Game 6, before their Washington faithful.
Fantastic softball celebrations
Braun Park in suburban Cloquet is not as slick as the North Mankato setting where the state softball tournaments are held this week, but it’s close. And the games are every bit as dramatic and exciting.
The heartfelt spontaneity of the victory celebrations by Esko, after it beat Virginia for the Section 7AA championship was impressive, as pitcher Emilee Wilson salvaged some tense moments for the Eskomos. They had lost to Virginia 3-1 in the first game of the tournament, which meant Esko would have to go to the losers’ bracket and win and keep winning. They did that, and arrived back at the championship game against unbeaten Virginia.
Both were outstanding teams, and if Virginia won, the Blue Devils would be state tournament bound; if Esko won, they’d have to play again for the title. Esko, and Wilson, won 2-1 for her fourth victory of the week. But she needed a fifth. It came Friday, when Esko won 5-2 to claim the 7AA title.
Meanwhile, on another of Braun’s four-leaf diamonds, Cloquet was unbeaten, but needed to face a North Branch powerhouse that brought a once-beaten Vikings team north for the 7AAA tournament, but they were shocked to lose 7-4 to Cloquet, as the Lumberjacks avenged a late-May loss to North Branch.
Samantha Pederson, a tireless windmiller who has been the pitching and leadoff hitting star for North Branch all season, was at her best. North Branch beat Hermantown 9-2 to advance to the final with one loss. Having never made it to a state softball tournament, North Branch’s players knew what was at stake. Not that it helped.
An error-filled first inning helped Cloquet take a 4-0 lead in the top of the first inning. But the Vikings got one in the first and three in the second to tie it 4-4, then pounded the Lumberjacks for six in the third. That rally was highlighted by a booming three-run home run by pitcher Samantha Pederson. That made it 10-4 North Branch, which won 12-5.
That meant the two teams would take a half-hour off, and come right back and play again. But there was no way to stop Pederson or the Vikings at that point, and they ended Cloquet’s fantastic season with an 11-1 romp. Pederson dominated the deciding game, and when she prompted the final Cloquet out, her teammates mobbed her for an impromptu riot to celebrate North Branch’s first section title, and thus first state tournament trip.
Pederson gives Duluth a connection for not only 7AAA, but for the next four years, because she is coming to UMD to pitch.
The girls fast-pitch tournament is conducted in all classes in North Mankato this week, with Esko and 7A champion Carlton, plus North Branch carrying our colors.