- The Washington Times - Friday, March 27, 2009

Joe Finley’s first thought was a few days off the ice and he would be ready for North Dakota’s two-game weekend series.

In the Fighting Sioux’s season-opener Oct. 10 against Boston University, the 6-foot-7, 245-pound defenseman absorbed a check that left him woozy.

“I’ve been hit that way hundreds of times,” he said. “For whatever reason, that specific hit did it.”

One week became three weeks, and a month became two months. Migraine headaches forced Finley to sit in a room with the lights and television off. He took two weeks off from class to recover at home in Edina, Minn.

But after missing 16 games, Finley - the Washington Capitals’ first-round draft choice in 2005 - was cleared to play and has performed symptom-free, helping the Fighting Sioux climb from ninth place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to the regular-season championship.

A .500 team in early January, North Dakota has reached the NCAA tournament for the seventh consecutive year and plays New Hampshire on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Manchester, N.H. The tournament features 16 teams and requires two victories to secure a spot in the Frozen Four on April 9 and 11 at Verizon Center.

Finley is one of three Capitals draft picks in the tournament. Washington drafted New Hampshire forward Phil DeSimone (third round) and Boston University forward Andrew Glass (seventh) in 2007.

For Finley and the Sioux, there’s business to finish. North Dakota has made the Frozen Four each of the last four years but lost in the title game in 2005 and the semifinals the last three years. North Dakota’s roster boasts seven seniors.

“We’ve only had a cup of coffee, so we want to extend our tournament lives,” Finley said. “I think we know what it takes. … All four teams have had a dramatically different makeup. The biggest thing that has allowed us to win games is we have 20 guys that have identified their role. We don’t have four lines thinking they’re all goal scorers or four lines who are all tough guys.”

North Dakota enjoyed its usual second-half resurgence, but it was even more remarkable this season. The Sioux limped to a 9-10-1 start but finished the regular season 13-2-3. But they were forced to come east after losing twice in last week’s league tournament.

“It’s an accomplishment, but it’s something we had to do because we dug ourselves such a big hole,” junior defenseman Chay Genoway said. “We became a pretty desperate hockey team and worked our way out of it day by day.”

It’s more than just a coincidence that North Dakota started playing better when Finley returned - his presence in front of the Sioux net is menacing, and at the other end of the ice, Genoway can jump into the play knowing Finley has his back.

“Initially, what [Finley’s return] did was give us a chance to let some of the dominoes fall into place and let guys play roles they’re more suited for rather than trying to leap forward in the number of minutes and situations they have to play,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “Joe’s a big presence and a steady influence throughout our lineup.”

Finley said the possibility of not returning at all this season crossed his mind.

“I bought into what the trainers and doctors were saying, and my goal was to stay the course and do everything I possibly could,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was a little longer than I would have liked.”

Finley tried to come back Nov. 7 at Colorado College but experienced vision problems and remained sidelined another six weeks. During the layoff, Hakstol told Finley to stay away from the rink, and with permission from his professors, he left Grand Forks for 10 days.

Finley’s return came in an exhibition Dec. 19 against USA Hockey’s under-18 team. Although bigger and older than his opponents, the game was slightly harrowing.

“Those young kids were buzzing around, and I had my head on a swivel,” he said. “During the Minnesota series [Jan. 9-10], I felt right back at home playing solid, two-way hockey and being physical and doing things to be an effective player.”

Said Genoway, who has been paired with Finley since last year: “He would tell me things were happening pretty quickly, but you wouldn’t have known it by watching him.”

In 26 games, Finley has two goals and eight assists and is a plus-six. For his career, he’s a plus-67.

“I’ve taken hits much harder than the one that got me into trouble and have had absolutely no problems,” he said.

Once his college career ends, Finley looks forward to seeing how his game translates to the pro level, where he can use his size more effectively.

“It’s not going to be like playing patty-cake,” he said. “It’s the big boys, and I’ll have to step up to their level of play. There will obviously be opportunities to step up physically and chances to answer the bell.”

Finley said he hasn’t talked with the Capitals about his future, but it’s conceivable he could sign a contract and go immediately to the minor leagues.

“The best thing they do in Washington is they’ll come out and take a look at you throughout the year but they let you do your thing,” he said. “I think that comes from [general manager George McPhee] playing college hockey and him understanding the pressure and the high level of play. They haven’t put added pressure on me by talking about the future.”

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