Twins can take inspiration from Predators Cup run

John Gilbert

The transition couldn’t be smoother and more effective as we embrace both the Minnesota Twins making a surprisingly strong bid in the American League Central Division baseball race, just as the Nashville Predators give us some final winter thrills in the Stanley Cup Playoff finals of the National Hockey League.

There are some compelling parallels between the two teams, who are worlds apart in their different sports, but have a couple of surprising similarities too.

The Nashville Predators were the lowest seeded team in the 16-team NHL playoff picture, ranked eighth in the West, while the Chicago Blackhawks were No. 1 and the Minnesota Wild — remember them? — No. 2. Everybody gave St. Louis a strong chance against the Wild in the first round, even though they were seeded No. 7, and sure enough the Blues beat the Wild in five games in the first round.

Bot nobody gave Nashville a chance against reigning power Chicago in the first round, but a Pekka Rinne was flat brilliant and the Predators swept the Blackhawks in four straight. Then they beat St. Louis in five, and overcame an all-out physical battering from Anaheim to press the Ducks in six. Still, that gave them little hope from the smart observers against the potent Pittsburgh Penguins in the current Stanley Cup finals.

When Nashville went into Pittsburgh and outplayed the Penguins for large swatches of Games 1 and 2 but Pittsburgh found a way to win both games, the “experts” were already puffing their chests into “I told you so” mode. The games swung to Nashville, and again the Predators came at the Penguins hard and swift, and this time their incredible pace and pressure paid off richly.

 Nashville won 5-1 on Sunday, after rookie Jake Guentzel scored one for Minnesota to put the Penguins up 1-0 with his third goal in as many names, and record-setting 13th of the playoffs. That one came at 2:46, but the Predators once again persisted in their amazing pressure, generated by all-out hustle to beat Penguins to loose pucks and to prevent them from getting into the Nashville zone for many — any? —  chances.

Still trailing 1-0 as the second period started, Nashville arose. Sure, Rinne was brilliant again, but it was those amazing anonymous guys,  named Josi, Gaudreau, Neal, Smith and Ekholm in this case, who each scored a goal and the Penguins thrilled the best fans in the NHL.

But this was the Penguins, so Game 4 was ultra-critical. A Nashville guy named Jarnkrok gave Nashville a 1-0 lead at 14:51 of the first, but the redoubtable Sidney Crosby countered with a goal at 15:57. In the second period, Gaudreau and Arvidsson scored to claim a 2-1 lead for the Predators, and Forsberg hit an empty net at 16:37 to give the Predators a remarkable extension of hope with a 4-1 triumph.

The analysts, who are so quick to point out all the wonderful scoring tricks Sidney Crosby does game after game, have forgotten completely about even mentioning Ryan Johansen, who never missed any of the 82 regular-season Predator games and led them ibn scoring with 14 goals, 47 points and 61 assists as first-line center. He got his leg seriously injured by the overly-rough Anaheim pounding in the conference final playoffs, and after surgery hasn’t played since. If Crosby was out, the analysts would rationalize every Pittsburgh failure by mentioning it; Nashville’s top scoring first line center IS out for the entire series, and nobody says a word.

OK, so they go back to Pittsburgh for Game 5, but the Predators have finally been rewarded for their incredible work-ethic attack. The Penguins haven’t been able to take a free breath in this series, even though looking at the playoff statistics would make it seem a runaway was in order. After four games, the top scorers in the playoffs are Sidney Crosby with 24 points, Jake Guentzel with 20, and Phil Kessel with 20. Filip Forsberg, Nashville’s most skilled forward-nobody-ever-heard-of, has 16 points as the Predators leader, and he ranks seventh in league playoff scoring. But even the greatest scorers can be stopped by stringent team defense and great goaltending. And that’s what Rinne and his boys have done.

Game 5 is in Pittsburgh, but we are assured of a Game 6, back in Nashville.

The parallel with the Minnesota Twins comes when you evaluate talent. The Twins, who seemed to be in a perpetual rebuilding state as they finished dead last in 2016, have gotten surprisingly good pitching, led by Ervin Santana, pretty good bullpen relief, and otherwise, they are succeeding with a total team effort that is gratifying to see.

This is a team that ended May by falling from grace, as well as first place, by losing five of their last six games in the month — including the final four, while giving up football-like scores, such as 8, 16, 7, and 17. That’s 48 runs in four games. Bad vibes of last year returned, and should prevent any Twins fan, or player, from every feeling secure.

But then June started with the Twins going on the road, where they beat Anaheim 4-2, 11-5, and after a 7-2 loss, finished the series with a 3-2 victory. That boosted the Twins back into first place at 29-24 as they headed to Seattle for more of this wacky road trip.

In their final game at Anaheim, the Twins not only won 11-5, they got a strong starting pitcher performance from Kyle Gibson, and their hitting was through the roof.

Joe Mauer was 4-for-5 in that game, and is now up to .294 for the season. Let that roll around in your head for a moment, including those who love to suggest that Mauer is stealing his money and should be encouraged to quit. He is stroking the ball with authority now, the way he did as batting leader and MVP a few years back.

Otherwise, Miguel Sano is right at .300, with home runs flying off is bat in tape-measure doses. Robbie Grossman is up to .279 as DH and occasional outfielder. Max Kepler continues to look like a star in the making, and he’s hitting a credible .264, followed by Eduardo Rosario at .268, Jorge Polanco at .257, and Brian Dozier at a paltry .242.

Nothing like league leaders at the plate, the Twins nonetheless are getting chip-in production from virtually everybody in the lineup. Even Dozier, whose batting average defies logic, comes through with huge home runs and hits as leadoff hitter. Sano is praised too much for his prodigious home runs, and we look the other way as he strikes out nine consecutive times over three games, because, thankfully, he snaps out of it after short spells.

Brian Buxton remains a major problem, because while he and Rosario form a strong left-center combination in the defensive outfield, center-fielder Buxton is hitting an atrocious .199, which is only less atrocious when compared to what he HAD been hitting.

As the Stanley Cup ends by this weekend, we can focus more on the Twins and baseball. At the same time, we can encourage the Twins to watch the Cup finals and find the easy inspiration of the Nashville Predators and how much can be accomplished by complete team dedication.