Islanders, Lightning enliven Cup chase

John Gilbert

Mark Sertich, the world’s oldest hockey player, died last week at the age of 99.

Sitting down at the keyboard, it is Monday night and I’m watching the satellite feed of a tremendous Stanley Cup Playoff hockey game with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins tied 1-1 in the third period, at the East Division cluster of games at Toronto. There are games – two, three, some-times four a night – and it has become an exciting way to spend this century’s pandemic.

That also means I’m writing this before Tuesday night’s game between the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers, so by the time you read this, we don’t know where that series, or any series, might stand. Or be over.

But it is the New York Islanders who have captured my imagination. I tend to watch the playoffs with overall interest but it’s sort of a general interest, rather than the intense form if it happened to be the Wild playing. But the Islanders have the masterful Barry Trotz as coach, and he has transformed this youthful but erratic Islanders team into a smart, quick and skillful team that also plays with exceptional discipline. When I do find a team that catches my attention, I find myself then pulling for them to win, and might even predict they’ll win.

I’ve done that with the Islanders, and they have rewarded my whim by playing at a championship pace.

Think about this: If the Islanders beat Philadelphia one more time, or have beaten them once more since Monday, they will have have eliminated the favored Flyers, because they were up three games to one going into Tuesday night’s action.

That’s the same position Tampa Bay held over the Bruins on Monday, a three games to one lead in their 1-1 third-period tie. (Oops! Tampa Bay just scored, to take a 2-1 lead, and only five minutes remain between the Bruins and elimination.)

Going into this cocoon-like Stanley Cup, with the East all in Toronto and the West all in Edmonton, the certainty was that Washington, Boston and Philadelphia were the Eastern giants.

Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and maybe Columbus were a shade behind them, and the Islanders were lurking there, just above the middle of the pack.
But everything fell into place for the Islanders, who have been led by Minnesotans Brock Nelson on one line and Anders Lee on another, with Nick Leddy showing increased performance on defense by the game.

Nelson is from Warroad, grandson of Billy Christian and nephew of David Christian, if you like Olympic connections. Leddy is from Eden Prairie, and he spent one year with the Gophers before signing with the Chicago Blackhawks.

But the amazing part of the Islanders success is that if and when they finish off Philadelphia, they will have eliminated Washington and Philadelphia, two of the Big Three in the East. That would leave only Boston of the Big Three, and if Boston were to come back and beat Tampa Bay, the Islanders would get their chance to finish off all three of them!(Oops again! With 2:33 to go, Boston tied Tampa Bay 2-2.)

(Oops still again! Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay’s superlative defenseman, who might be the best defenseman in the entire NHL right now, just went off for a penalty with 1:56 remaining. That could be a killer for the Lightning in this game. But no, they made it to 0:00, and the teams will come back for sudden-death overtime, where Tampa Bay seems comfortable. Remember that playoff-opening 5-overtime epic?)

(The Bruins are finished, eliminated four games to one when Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman moved in from the left point, shot between a defenseman’s legs and scored at 14:10 of the second overtime for a 3-2 victory in Game Five.)

Twins stretched

The tense part of every season has become known as the “stretch drive,” named after the closing sprint out of the fourth turn in any horse race. But in this abbreviated pandemic-stifled season, the stretch drive is not only upon us, it has a new and expanded meaning.

The Minnesota Twins have been leading the league all season, and they’ve been able to boast about their depth all the way. But we have now passed the halfway point in this 60-game season, and depth or not, the Twins hit a wall last week on their disastrous road trip that saw a five-game losing streak that, on the final day of the trip, knocked them from first to third in their division.

There is no need for panic yet, but it might be time to start pulling for good health. The Twins have had several injuries to the pitching staff, but they’ve been patching it together with a strong bullpen and maybe a little duct tape.

But when they are at their best, the Twins are slugging home runs and playing airtight defense. It is an imposing roster, with Mitch Garver catching, Miguel Sano at first base, Luis Arraez at second, Jorge Polanco at shortstop and Josh Donaldson at third, and an unbeatable outfield of Eddie Rosario in left, Byron Buxton in center and Max Kepler in right. A powerful lineup both offensively and defensively, made all the stronger with the ageless Nelson Cruz swatting home runs and hitting solidly over .300.

The Twins depth has been stretched by injuries that have knocked out Donaldson Garver and Buxton for lengthy stretches of the first half, and Polanco, Rosario and Kepler also have spent some time on the sidelines.

No team could succeed, or even stay close, without their starting catcher, third baseman and center-fielder, and when you add temporary absences for Kepler, Rosario and Polanco that means you’re taking on contenders without six of your nine defensive stalwarts.

Add in the occasional starting pitchers and relievers who have needed time off, and the Twins picture needs to get everybody back, with time to get up to peak rhythm. (Oops! Bruins get a well-deserved tripping penalty with 9-plus minutes left in OT. Bruins kill it, though, and the teams absolutely fly to the end of overtime, and prepare for another.)

Emotional tribute

We had our chance to say our final goodbyes and wish Godspeed to Mark Sertich, our beloved hockey phenom who gave a new definition to the term “senior hockey” by playing in weekly games right into his 99th year. Sertich died last week after an amazing life filled with a beloved family and nationwide acclaim as the world’s oldest hockey player.

Sertich was known to all as “Sertie,” the same as Mike Sertich, the former UMD coach who is unrelated, and aside from being a fixture at weekly no-check games with Duluth firemen, he was best known for a perfectly groomed handlebar mustache. Visitors attended a visitation prior to Monday’s burial service, and it was a chance to see and talk to some of his seven children – three daughters and four sons, all of whom followed his example with a love of hockey. The boys played mainly at Duluth Cathedral, where the legendary Del Genereau coached them.

Steve Sertich, one of the boys, recognized me somehow and flattered me by thanking me for stories I’ve written about their dad, and adding that area hockey suffered when I left the News Tribune to go to the Minneapolis Tribune. Wow! That was 53 years ago! But he remembered Genereau finding the state high school ratings I would put together every week, and Del would peruse them to select teams that were strong enough to be worthy enough for the Hilltoppers to play.

Mark was born in Ashland, Wis., and when the family moved to Duluth he attended Denfeld and the Duluth Business School. During World War II, and shortly after he married his wife, Virginia, Sertich served three years as a radio technician under General George Patton’s armored division.

He returned home after the war and he and Virginia raised their seven children. He retired from Peavey at age 62, which only meant that he could find new ways to stay active, such as running seven Grandma’s Marathons.

He continued to play hockey at an advanced age, and when he played at the Snoopy senior tournament in the Santa Rosa, Calif., arena built by Twin Cities native Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip. In fact, Sertich played several times on the same line as Schulz. At age 96, he was declared the world’s oldest hockey player by the Guinness Book of World Records, earning him appearances on various national television shows.

He was inducted into the DECC Hall of Fame in May of last year, and he confided that his major objective was to be playing hockey at age 100. He almost made it. He turned 99 on July 21, and shortly after that he was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Even that didn’t slow him down, but in mid-August he suffered a stroke.

Sertich was buried in Oneota Cemetery, 6403 Highland Street. His spirit can rejoin Virginia, his wife of 62 years, who died in 2004. Everyone who knew Sertich enjoyed every minute spent with him, and the firemen who still gather for their games at Heritage Center will know that one side is shorthanded. But he will always be the World’s Oldest Hockey Player.