Stanley Cup opening celebrates winter's return

John Gilbert

Junior left-hander Lauren Dixon blanked Upper Iowa 9-0 Saturday for her third victory in UMD's pair of home-field sweeps. Photo by John Gilbert.

Ah, springtime in Duluth! 

The great thing about a late-season snowfall is that it reminds us that just because we can plow off our baseball fields and play a few games, it’s still hockey season!

When the NHL season boiled down to its final week, I had mixed feelings about the Wild holding out some key players to get them rested and ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. My thought was that they had spent so little time getting players back in the lineup that we hadn’t seen the team approach full rhythm, and kissing off a couple of games might prevent that from happening.

When it became obvious the Wild would face either Colorado or Dallas, I figured they matched up much better to take on Dallas than Colorado. While they played one of their best games to beat the Avalanche in Denver a couple weeks ago, Nathan McKinnon and the Avs were the more formidable, even with injury problems of their own.

Dallas is a very strong team, with no weaknesses, but the Wild can rise up to sting the Stars — the former North Stars, that is — but only if they can get back in rhythm.

After opening in Dallas Monday and Wednesday, the Wild will come home to a massive turnout at Xcel Energy Center for games Friday and Sunday, and we can only hope that top gun Kirill Kaprizov and top 2-way standout Joel Eriksson Ek are flying high to make a serious run at it, and that Matt Boldy can prove he has reached that plateau that elite players attain by proving themselves at playoff time.

I think both Filip Gustavsson and Marc Andre Fleury can do the job in goal, and coach Dean Evason should plan to use both.

Whiners in the Twin Cities media are complaining about the NHL scheduling the first three games of the series to start at 8:30 pm because the games won’t end until nearly midnight. But look at the other side: ESPN is doing a fantastic job of covering every one of the eight Cup opening series, and to show doubleheaders they have to move one game up to 6 or 6:30 Central time, and start the nightcaps at 8:30 or 9 pm Central time.

I prefer to stay up late with the option of seeing parts of all the games to having them skip a few games each night so Twin Cities whiners can get a full night’s sleep. The Timberwolves made an NBA playoff bid, too, so they will also play at home opposite the Wild games on Friday and Sunday.

The Wolves put on one of the more exciting finishes in league history in their one-game play-in game at Los Angeles — leading Lebron James & Co. by 16 in the third quarter, and by 10 after three quarters, but then blowing the lead with a monumental collapse by missing all their shots (0-for-8) in the last six minutes.

That let the Lakers come back and wrench the lead away, going up by three with 1.5 seconds left, then with 0:00.1 remaining when Anthony Davis landed short of blocking a right corner 3-point try by Mike Conley, which also fell short, but Conley made all three free throws to tie the game and force overtime.

The Wolves never threatened in OT and lost 108-102, but that only sent them to another play-in game, which they won at home, 120-95 over Oklahoma City, to become the final seed in the playoffs. Once there, the T-Wolves lost the opener 109-80 at Denver, so we don’t like their chances.

Meanwhile, back home, a brief glimpse of summer last week got the high school and college baseball and softball teams out to play, which was before this week’s final gasp at reaching Duluth’s all-time record snowfall covered up those fields again. The most remarkable feat of our local teams is that the UMD softball team’s field is not yet playable, but they again set up shop with a temporary field and fences on the artificial turf of Malosky Stadium.

The Bulldogs had been doing pretty well, splitting at Bemidji State where they lost 1-0 then won 4-2, to bring them “home” for two doubleheaders. The spotlight shone mostly on Lauren Dixon, a lanky left-handed pitcher who has learned to put some movement on her formidable fastball.

The Bulldogs last Friday beat Winona State 10-0 in the first game, with Dixon hurling a 5-inning shutout, then coming in for the seventh inning of the much closer nightcap and pitching four innings before Kat Burkhardt’s walk-off home run in the last of the 10th won it 6-5.

That meant Dixon was the winning pitcher in both games, going nine innings in all and giving up four hits and no runs. Back out to play between the snow piles on Saturday, Dixon was back in the circle to beat Upper Iowa 9-0, before turning pitching duties over to Mady Stariha from Superior for a 10-4 victory that was called after five innings by worsening weather.

That sent the Bulldogs sailing into this week with a 5-game winning streak, a 15-3 record in Northern Sun play, and a 29-8 record overall this season. Dixon’s pitching is only part of the reason UMD is flying high.

Hitting balls over the temporary outfield fences is just as big a reason why observers can be excused for seeing a team that might be following the course of UMD’s great women’s basketball season, which reached the NCAA Division II final.

Against Upper Iowa, Kendal Jenkins homered for a 1-0 start in the first inning, then third baseman  Elle Potts hit a 2-run shot  In Game 2, Potts broke a 2-2 tie with a blast over the left field fence that might still be flying, somewhere, another 2-run home run that brought her teammates off the bench to watch the projectile. Potts then came back for a 2-run double during a 6-run third inning that settled the issue.

A day earlier, against Winona, Sidney Zavoral, Nicole Schmitt and Carrie Weise homered in the first game, with Schmitt’s blow a grand slam, and then in the nightcap, Kat Burkhardt’s home run won the game in the 10th.

The Bulldog men’s baseball team has had a decidedly different bit of fortune this spring, dropping a doubleheader at Wayne State 22-2 and 9-7, then falling 4-3 and 13-3 at MSU Mankato, and coming back the following day to lose again, 13-5.

That five-game losing skid in NSIC play brought them home to Wade Stadium, if not their own Bulldog Park, to face Concordia of St. PaD scored six in the fourth inning to take  7-0 lead, but gave up eight in the fifth and three more in the seventh to lose 11-7.

In the nightcap,  Concordia bombed the Bulldogs for a 7-spot in the first, 3 more in the second and 2 more in the third for a 12-0 head start. UMD got one back in the fourth and made a spirited 5-run rally in the fifth, but lost 18-6 while being outhit 24-7. A

rea high schools are benefiting by Wade Stadium and its artificial turf, with games and practices going on almost all the way through every day. The vagaries of Duluth weather take their toll and mean area teams start late and may take awhile to find any consistency.

Take Cloquet and Denfeld, for two examples. Both have some promise on returning players from last year, and they had a doubleheader last Friday night at Wade.

In the first game, the teams were in a tight match — for three innings. Cloquet trailed 2-1 in the top of the fourth, then suddenly erupted for six runs and a 7-2 lead en route to an 20-6 victory. Seems a bit intimidating, but in the second game of the doubleheader, Denfeld got it together and beat the Lumberjacks 9-4.

We’ll wait for the next dose of summer-like temperature to give the high schools a chance to really show their stuff. But a team like the UMD women’s softball outfit will still be sailing along regardless.