Team of the Week: North Dakota
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
It's a habit, it would seem, that a team would rather not get into, but it's one that seems to have suited North Dakota well.
Annually, the Sioux have what you could call inconsistent starts — some moreso than others — only to rocket on some ungodly winning streak in the second half of the year, usually straight to the Frozen Four.
But this is not something coaches want to hear. Because you never know which is the year when playing with fire will get you burned.
Nevertheless, at the very least, this season has the potential to shape up this way again. Once again, the Sioux will need to go on a big run to make the NCAAs, but that got off to a great start this past weekend when North Dakota blitzed rival Minnesota in two games at Engelstad Arena.
"I don't compare the histories from one year to the next," North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. "Maybe there's something to it, maybe there's not. I know this, from day one our goal is to develop our players individually and to get better week in and week out. ... This year's team, we played at times poorly in the first six weeks of season, and very inconsistent."
Hakstol said the team has been playing well since before the new year, actually, although with two admittedly poor performances — losses to lower-rung teams Michigan State and Michigan Tech — in the Great Lakes Invitationl.
But the return of senior defenseman Joe Finley has lifted everyone's spirits, least of which Finley's. Finley had missed two months with a concussion that took longer to heal than anyone had expected when he first went out.
"It's nice to have me back on the backend for defense all together, but it also allows some of our 'd' to play with different people they may be [more] comfortable with," Finley said. "For me, to play with Chay (Genoway), we had great chemistry last year. And it allowed other guys to have different roles and find different guys clicking. For instance Brad Miller playing the power play, he has been very dynamic. It's definitely a team effort. And also, Brad Eidsness, our goaltender, is more comfortable tracking pucks, getting up to the speed of college hockey."
Hakstol noticed a difference.
"The real Joe Finley was back, leadership-wise and his presence," Hakstol said.
Finley was around every day in practice, which helped the transition when he came back, because he was familiar with some of the systems tweaks that were made along the way. But he couldn't lead like he wanted to, and like he envisioned when the NHL first-rounder decided to return for his senior year.
"[When dressed] it's not me and them — it's us," Finley said. "And I get the chance to lead by example and not feel like I'm talking down to someone."
Said Haktol, "That's his best leadership style (by example). He has a pretty good perspective on the game. When he looks at himself developmentally to make a mature decision like he did to come back, that's not easy to do."
One thing Finley couldn't do was stay in top condition. A concussion of that nature means not being able to do much at times, including concentrating on school work for lengthy stretches.
"It's unlike anything I've ever experienced. I broke my nose, my hand, but it's a completely different situation , and it's a really helpless one," Finley said. "Every single day I did everything I was asked of by various doctors and trainers, and they can't say, 'If you do this, this is what will happen.' No, it was more like, 'If you continue to do this, we think this will happen.'
"I stayed the course. It took longer than I would've liked, but ultimately it was the best Christmas present."
"When you have guys incur multiple concussions, 99 percent of the time it's because they came back too early. For me, I hope to play hockey for years in the future, and I was given every opportunity by our medical staff and trainers to make sure we took care of it properly."
The son of a successful girls high school basketball coach, Finley clicks well with Genoway in many ways.
"They analyze the game so much together. I'm glad they play togehter — they sit and analyze every part of their game — it's a good thing that they're partners so they can talk to each other," Hakstol said. "They're two very different players, but one complements the others very well. It gives us two 'd' pairings that we feel we can put on the ice against anyone. That's a big difference for our team."
Genoway actually leads the team in points, though with only two goals. It's not the usual powerhouse offensive team for the Sioux, though that has picked up lately.
Hakstol knew this team was going to need to have more balanced offense. And part of that is a guy like freshman forward Brett Hextall. Most people understand his background, from a famous hockey family, but he came right in and has scored eight goals so far, including three game winners.
"He could've came in as a freshman last year," Hakstol saod. "He had an injury towards the end of his (previous) year. He decided to spend another year in the BCHL and I think it's really paid off for him. I don't consider him a freshman. He has the poise and presence of veterans. Brett, particuarly, is fircely competitive. He has a confidence about him that he carries onto the ice with him."
Each year, certainly, North Dakota loses some blue chipper or another, or two. With that, it takes longer, perhaps, for a new group to adjust than it would otherwise, and coaches too have to learn to use what they have.
"There's truth to both of those," Hakstol said. "As a coaching staff, we're trying to get guys into the right roles."
The long climb back into the NCAA picture continues this weekend at Michigan Tech.
"Young guys know now how hard you have to play every shift to beat a team of that caliber," Finley said about the wins over Minnesota. "This week is a long bus trip to Houghton, Michigan. ... They got a lot of confidence after that win. We know we're in for something.
"You don't get 18 game streaks by worrying about Denver two weeks down the road."