Wednesday, March 5, 2008

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — With preseason practice approaching late last summer, Joe Finley experienced pain in the back of his knee following a series of workouts.

But he didn’t become concerned until after he realized there was no structural damage.

“The scary part is that it was growing pains,” Finley said. “I had sprouted up half an inch.”

Already a menacing figure in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the University of North Dakota, Finley — the Washington Capitals’ 2005 first-round draft choice — had grown to 6 feet, 7 inches.

“I hope I don’t grow any more,” he said. “I’m plenty tall.”

And getting plenty ready for the NHL.

As the Caps concentrate on the present and making the playoffs for the first time since 2003, management also has its attention on the future, and a key piece on the blue line figures to be Finley.

A 245-pound junior at North Dakota, the 20-year-old faces a decision following the season, which continues for the top-ranked Fighting Sioux (23-8-2 and unbeaten in their last 15 games) this weekend against St. Cloud State: Play a final year for North Dakota or sign with the Caps.

“We thought he needed to spend at least three years in college, and then it might be time to take him out,” Caps vice president/general manager George McPhee said. “It’s going to be time for him to play pro soon.”

Although it’s likely he will endure at least a year of seasoning in Hershey of the American Hockey League, Finley could follow the path of Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz (6-foot-6), who played only 44 minor league games before being called up.

Finley started his 2007-08 season by impressing players at the Capitals’ development camp in Arlington. Older players challenged him physically, and he passed the test. And he sought additional contact.

“Any confidence that came from that I knew I belonged,” Finley said. “It’s sometimes hard for guys in college hockey to know where you stand because you don’t get to play against major junior players. But it was fun.”

This year for North Dakota, Finley has added power play to his duties. After scoring 10 points in his first two seasons (84 games), he has four goals and nine assists this season in 33 matches. And his plus-24 rating leads the WCHA.

“As he matures and develops, we’re putting more and more things on his plate,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “He’s playing both sides of our special teams plus key minutes five-on-five. It’s small steps, but what I really like is that his development has been steady. That’s a credit to him because he’s worked hard on his game.”

Finley’s ambition has taken him from Edina, Minn., to Sioux Falls, S.D., to Grand Forks, which is 150 miles south of Winnipeg and 310 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

Edina is an affluent Minneapolis suburb, but before his junior year of high school, Finley moved to play for the U.S. Hockey League’s Sioux City Stampede. The USHL has long been a proving ground for American players to earn college scholarships.

On the ice, Finley totaled 13 points and 181 penalty minutes in 55 games. Off the ice, his indoctrination to Roosevelt High School was almost surreal.

“It was a totally different mix of kids than I was used to — it was mostly farm kids,” he said. “The culture shock came on the second day of school when a kid was walking down the hall with a cell phone and the teacher looked back at him as if he had pulled a gun. The teacher grabbed him by the ear — no joke — and took him to the office. That would have been a lawsuit so fast in Edina.”

After the school year in Sioux Falls, Finley crammed his senior course work into three months to earn his diploma, was drafted 27th overall by the Caps and enrolled at North Dakota.

Finley joined a program that has 11 draft picks on the roster, has reached the last two Frozen Fours and plays in the $100 million, 11,406-seat Ralph Engelstad Arena. It’s the only game in town.

Two hours, 15 minutes before a game against Alaska-Anchorage in late January, the line near the student section entrance had already formed. The doors wouldn’t open for another hour.

It was 11 degrees.

In the game against Anchorage, Finley showed he can play all three phases. Because his partner is the offensive-minded Chay Genoway, Finley plays conservatively but isn’t afraid to turn it up ice. For a big player, he moved his feet well in transition, doesn’t panic with the puck in tight quarters and has a huge slap shot.

“Growing up, I was always a point-per-game player, so I think there is some offensive upside,” Finley said. “I feel good with the puck, and I think I make smart passes. And my skating, well, I haven’t been accused of being stiff.”

On the physical side, Finley has adjusted to the referees and vice versa.

“He’s trying to be confident with his physical play,” Hakstol said. “He doesn’t run around forcing himself to be physical. As a big guy, when you get yourself into a mode that you’re chasing and looking for the big hit, you tend to get yourself into trouble. But he’s not passive — when there’s something to be involved with and a big hit is there, he’s taking it.”

In a game at archrival Minnesota last month, Finley tried to take things into his own hands … during the postgame handshake.

Finley challenged Blake Wheeler to drop the gloves, but Wheeler wanted nothing to do with the big fella and hung on until officials arrived (visit to watch video of the scrum).

Finley’s 65 penalty minutes rank second on the team but have dipped from the 96 he received two years ago.

“He’s coming along really well,” McPhee said. “He seems to get more responsibility each year and is making better reads. He certainly has a lot of the right things — size, moves well, good hands. It’s about processing things and making the right decisions. The physical stuff, he’ll be physical enough when the time comes.”

Although the Fighting Sioux schedule doesn’t leave much free time, Finley keeps tabs on the Caps. He and roommate Kyle Radke have the NHL Center Ice package in their off-campus apartment.

“I like sitting there and watching Alex Ovechkin — a lights-out player — and then seeing guys like Mike Green on the power play,” Finley said. “When I see former teammates playing well in the NHL and then see the Capitals improving, it’s pretty exciting that I might be a part of it in the future.”

Today’s game


When: 7:30 p.m.

Where: HSBC Arena, Buffalo, N.Y.

TV/radio: CSN, FM-107.7, AM-1500

Goalies: Capitals — Olie Kolzig (22-20-6, 2.97) or Cristobal Huet (23-12-6, 2.50). Sabres — Ryan Miller (29-22-7, 2.52)

Injuries: Capitals — Out: RW Chris Clark (strained groin tendon), D Brian Pothier (concussion), C Michael Nylander (torn rotator cuff), Questionable: G Cristobal Huet (back spasms). Sabres — Out: D Teppo Numminen (heart surgery).

Outlook: Huet did not practice yesterday, and coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t say who would start against the Sabres. Boudreau said all three goaltenders would travel with the team. Brent Johnson practiced in place of Huet.

Corey Masisak

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