Denver and North Dakota Renew Acquaintances
by Virg Foss/Staff Writer
GRAND FORKS, N.D. Simply put, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association opening series for both Denver and North Dakota carried all the hype and hoopla one could hope to find in a college hockey series so early in the season.
There was the fact that it was rematch of last year's NCAA championship game in Columbus, Ohio, where the Denver Pioneers skated away with a 4-1 victory for their second straight NCAA crown.
There was the fact that Denver had upset the Fighting Sioux 1-0 in the West Regional championship game in Colorado Springs in 2004 on its way to consecutive NCAA titles.
And there was the Geoff Paukovich factor as well, a storyline that threaded its way through both nights of this series, which saw the Sioux win the opening game 3-1 and Denver rebound with a convincing 7-2 triumph in the rematch.
It was Paukovich, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound forward from Engelwood, Colo., and a freshman at the time, who broke the C-7 neck vertebrae of UND's 5-foot-8, 180-pound Robbie Bina with an illegal hit from behind into the side boards during the 2005 WCHA Final Five championship game in St. Paul.
Though Paukovich was given just a 2-minute minor penalty at the time, he later was handed an additional one-game suspension by the WCHA and a two-game rest by Denver coach George Gwozdecky.
Bina needed surgery to fuse the shattered vertebrae in his neck and is taking a medical hardship year this season, with hopes of finishing his final two years of eligibility, starting next season.
In his first appearance in Grand Forks since that incident, Paukovich was roundly booed by the 11,000-plus fans who showed up at Ralph Engelstad Arena each night to watch these two college heavyweights do battle.
For his part, Paukovich stayed out of of the penalty box both nights and collected an assist in each game, his first points since his hit on Bina.
Paukovich said he came to Grand Forks with mixed emotions.
"I think North Dakota is notorious league-wide for being one of the most hostile places to play regardless of the situation," Paukovich said. "With my situation and the history we've had against them the last two years, of course the fans are going to be emotional and throw out stuff."
Paukovich seemed to set the stage for an emotional eruption with his comments to the Denver Post earlier in the week. Rather than calm the waters, he roiled them with his tongue.
"I've talked to the coaches about it, and if that situation (a fight) were to arise, (it's OK). If it happens Friday, they're fine with me settling it, because I'd just be out for Saturday," Paukovich told Mike Chambers of the Denver Post. "But as the series goes into Saturday, the coaches would be more concerned because I'd be out the first game next week. Either way, the only way they'd let me handle it that way was if something happens to me first, like if I get jumped."
The Sioux did try to stir Paukovich into something at time, especially Sioux tough-guy Mike Perpich.
But nothing major erupted on the ice involving Paukovich.
And one of the loudest cheers of the weekend came Saturday night when the cameras showed a picture on the huge, four-sided Daktronics scoreboard above the rink of Bina sitting in the stands watching the game in street clothes.
The Sioux outhustled and outworked Denver in Friday's victory with three first-period goals, but gave up three power-play goals and saw sophomore goalie Philippe Lamoureux make just 18 saves in the 7-2 loss in the rematch.
That Paukovich chose the word hostile to describe the setting in Engelstad Arena was interesting. The NCAA, in its efforts to get UND to stop using the Fighting Sioux name, used the term "hostile and abusive" in relation to the name and the use of it in listing North Dakota as one of the schools it is trying to force to stop using Indian-related nicknames or mascots. UND has appealed that NCAA ruling for the second time.
Paukovich explained his use of the term "hostile" had nothing to do with the NCAA.
"This is a great place to play and their fans are always into the game," Paukovich said. "It's a loud barn, and their team feeds off that. Their crowd got them going in the first period Friday and that was basically the difference in the game."
Ironically, for the second time in the last three games between these two teams, a player was carted off the ice on a stretcher.
Just two minutes into Friday's game, Denver freshman forward Brock Trotter, who had three goals in Denver's first four games and was playing left wing on its top line, went into the back wall on a check from North Dakota sophomore defenseman Matt Smaby, who like Paukovich, is a big boy at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds.
As Smaby was finishing a clean hit on the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Trotter, his skate came down across the back of Trotter's right leg, Smabys's skate blade slicing deeply into Trotter's ankle.
He suffered a severed Achilles tendon and two other muscle groups and had two hours of surgery in Grand Forks to repair the damage. He will be out tor the rest of the season and it will be perhaps eight months before he can even skate again, Gwozdecky said.
North Dakota hadn't beaten Denver in the last five meetings between the teams (0-4-1), so the Sioux had a score to settle last Friday, with the Pioneers if not with Paukovich.
"There was a lot riding on this game from the league standpoint, because we obviously want to open up the league season with a win," Paukovich said after Friday's game. "We wanted to come here and have a better showing than we did tonight. But the good thing about this league is that there's always tomorrow night."
Paukovich said he knew it would be emotional for him playing against North Dakota in Grand Forks.
"Their fans know what happened. so it was going to be emotional coming here. But honestly, their fans didn't have an affect on me. I was more comfortable coming into this series than the last couple of times we met them (North Dakota)."
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said he talked to his players all week long before the series of keeping emotions in check.
"Obviously there is some history between these two teams," Hakstol said. "We talked about it all week in that we're getting ready to play a game against a good team and that we want to come out of the dressing room ready to play. We did that Friday, and I give that credit to the leaders coming out of the lockerroom."
And for the sake of the purity of college hockey, any anger lingering from the Paukovich-Bina incident of last March didn't manifest itself into ugliness on the ice in this series.
The Sioux, fired on by their fans, blitzed Denver early Friday to win Round One. Denver, with big games from veteran leaders Matt Carle (two goals) and Gabe Gauthier (1 goal, 2 assists), took Round Two in a series that perhaps fittingly ended in a split, based on the talent level of the two teams.
In a sense, the series was what Hakstol expected it to be, nothing more.
"Good hockey, that's what I expected," Hakstol said after Friday's game. "There's been all kinds of talk and buildup to this series, but I don't think too much of that has come from these two teams."
Instead, the teams did their talking with a split of the WCHA series, settling nothing. They'll play again on Feb. 24-25 in Denver and don't bet against them hooking up once more in postseason play.