UMD Hockey Helps March Madness Reach April

John Gilbert

As the Lake Superior ice covering thinned rapidly near Lester River, these ice fishermen were so focused they were unaware that a nearby visitor was breaking a trail through the ice to start the shipping season -- and end the ice fishing season! Photo credit: John Gilbert
As the Lake Superior ice covering thinned rapidly near Lester River, these ice fishermen were so focused they were unaware that a nearby visitor was breaking a trail through the ice to start the shipping season - and end the ice fishing season! Photo credit: John Gilbert

If the UMD hockey team wasn’t commanding most of the sports focus in the Northland, we could find a couple of diversions. There is something called the Final Four going on at the Vikings converted football stadium this weekend, with a series of major upsets bringing a curious mix of survivors to finish off the NCAA basketball tournament. 

The Minnesota Twins started their season, getting an amazing break in the weather and amazing performances by the starting pitching to get off on an inspiring start to the Major League Baseball season.
The Minnesota Wild has skated itself into what looks like a hopeless corner, but they bounced back with a spirited victory over Winnipeg Tuesday night to cling to life support — at least until Thursday night, when they play at Boston.
For those who follow Formula 1 racing, there was a great Bahrain Grand Prix last Sunday, where Lewis Hamilton won, as usual, in his Mercedes, except it was anything but usual. Charles Leclerc, a teenage rookie partner of Sebastian Vettel on the Ferrari team, won the pole, and led almost the entire race after overtaking Vettel in a highly competitive first half of the race. Hamilton had an edge on pit stop timing, and with better tires he overtook Vettel and made a spirited pass, prompting Vettel to spin out 180 degrees and fall off the pace. Leclerc was still 14 seconds ahead of Hamilton, when his intricate hybrid engine faltered, and he was helpless as first Hamilton, and then Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas passed him. 

So the order was Hamilton, Bottas, Leclerc, Max Verstappen, and Vettel in the top five. But with Ferrari, and the two Red Bull Honda cars contending, it should be one of the most exciting Grand Prix seasons in recent memory.
Also, if you take a look at the accompanying photo, you will see my timeline as an indicator of when my ice-fishing season on Lake Superior’s frozen surface had ended. The 50-degree days wiped out the ice in rapid fashion, but before it was all gone, some stubborn late ice fishermen were out there chasing salmon and lake trout. I am not an ice fisherman, mainly because so much hockey doesn’t leave much time for gazing into a watery hole, but if I was, the sight of an ice-breaker cutting a channel for following lake and ocean freighters a couple football fields farther out would be my indication: the season is over!

Back to the Final Four. Minneapolis is going crazy over the huge attraction, and I followed along from a safe distance, as my picks went down, one after the next.
But there were some scintillating games, and some huge upsets. If you haven’t noticed, the Final Four semifinals on Saturday will pit Virginia against Auburn, and Texas Tech against Michigan State.
Think about it…There is no Duke, no Kentucky, no Gonzaga, no Michigan, no Purdue, no Louisville. But there will be no shortage of thrills at the Final Four, and it will be refreshing to see a Final Four without Duke or Kentucky involved.
Michigan State won the East Regional, knocklng off Bradley, then crushing Minnesota 70-50 to pop the bubble of illusion formed when the Gophers beat Louisville to open the tournament. The Spartans continued, beating Louisiana State, and then knocking off Duke 68-67. Duke had survived a narrow battle with Central Florida, which had a final chance, trailing 77-76 on a lob inbounds pass under the basket. Incredibly, Central Florida’s top shooter missed his 2-foot shot and a follow-up at the buzzer and Duke got away. But not for long.

In the Midwest, Auburn caught my attention with a spirited team that beat New Mexico State, Kansas, then North Carolina, and then eliminated Kentucky 77-71 in overtime in the final.
In the South, Virginia was about the only favorie that made it, beating Gardner-Webb, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Purdue in an 80-75 overtime final. Purdue had just won a fantastic 99-94 triumph over Tennessee — my upset pick for that region.
And in the West, Texas Tech beat Northern Kentucky, Buffalo, Michigan — the No., 2 seed, in a 63-44 rout — then No. 1 seed Gonzaga in a 75-69 final.
Now we’re down to the Final Four, and there is something to like about all four teams. I’m guessing the smart money will pick Virginia and Michigan State in the final, so I’m going with my heart instead of somebody else’s head. I like Auburn to continue its great run against Virginia, and I like Texas Tech’s amazing defensive style to take out Michigan State. That would make the Auburn-Texas Tech final a toss-up in my book. I’ll take Texas Tech to win one for defense.

In the closing of a frustrating season for the Wild, we can still hope for a long shot finish. But all the cynics and critics who keep putting down the Wild for failing to score enough, look back at Tuesday’s game. Zach Parise scored the first two goals and the Wild won. Parise is the team’s leading scorer and he’s been out for three weeks; Mikko Koivu, the top line center and the catalyst for many of Parise’s offense, has been out half the year and won’t be back this year; and Matt Dumba, the team’s top-scoring defenseman, has been out most of the season. Pick a team, any team, and take away their top center and captain, their top scorer, and their top-scoring defenseman, and see if they can win. Or score.

Coach Bruce Boudreau has kept them giving all they’ve got in a battle against futility, and maybe they can find the luck to finish with sticks upraised.