Imposing freshman forward and Edmonton Oilers prospect Geoff Paukovich enjoyed an outstanding season this year with the University of Denver, helping to lead the Pioneers to their second consecutive national championship title. He played in all but two games for this season. The two games he missed came due to a suspension, one by the WCHA and one by Denver head coach George Gwozdecky that stemmed from the hit on North Dakota sophomore defenseman Robbie Bina that resulted in a broken neck to in the WCHA Final Five match back on March 18th.
In 41 games with the Pioneers this season, the Englewood, Colorado native amassed 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists). He also led the Pioneers in penalty minutes with 120.
Paukovich spoke with Hockey’s Future after Denver’s National Championship on Saturday night as well as after the team’s practice on Wednesday at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus.
HF: First off, congratulations on winning the national championship. How are you feeling right now?
GP: Unbelievable! I can’t even put it into words. You think all year and all (this) week about what it would be like to win a national championship and once you win it, the feeling is unreal especially since I grew up watching DU my entire life. Being a freshman here and being a hometown kid, it’s an awesome experience and a pretty special feeling for me. It hasn’t really sunk in yet.
HF: Obviously as a freshman you weren’t here for last year’s championship. So what are you getting from the guys (teammates) who’ve been here and won it before?
GP: Each individual’s reaction is different, because each team was different. It’s great to go back-to-back but it’s two different teams. We’ve been through so much together. Earlier in the year, we got a reality check against BC and Minnesota but we won the WCHA (regular season title), the Final Five and now this, so it’s just unbelievable. We were picked by the (pre-season) polls to finish sixth and no one gave us a chance. We wanted to come out and show everybody that we could play. It’s just unbelievable what we went through to get here.
HF: Being a freshman and knowing that the team had won the championship last season, did you guys feel like there were some expectations put on all of you?
GP: I think the only expectations on us are to just come in and contribute wherever we can as a group and to try and make the transition to the team as quickly as possible. I feel that we’ve all done and that’s been one of our big keys. Our freshman class has played really well this year. Peter (Mannino) has been big in goal and (Paul) Stastny’s been putting up some points for us. I think our freshmen have really blended in well with our team. I don’t see any extra expectations on us.
HF: Recently, you were involved in a situation with Robbie Bina of North Dakota. How have you been dealing with what had happened?
GP: Obviously it’s tough to see that because all of us hockey players are kind of like a family and it doesn’t matter who you play for. To see someone go down like that is hard. It was not my intention to hurt him. Once I found out how serious it was I was pretty emotionally distraught about it. I’ve sort of struggled with it. The situation shouldn’t have happened. He seems to be doing better and hopefully he’ll be back on the ice.
HF: Have you spoken with him since it happened?
GP: We’ve both been so busy, him with his recovery and me with the (tournament) games, so we haven’t been able to talk. Maybe we’ll be able to talk after the season is over.
HF: When the Edmonton Oilers had drafted you, what was your initial reaction?
GP: It was unbelievable. I didn’t expect to be drafted by Edmonton to tell you the truth. I had a really good (pre-draft) interview with them but I didn’t expect to be drafted so early by them. To hear your name called there was such a great experience. Actually, just before they called my name, I was standing up to go get a hot dog or something to eat because I thought the round was going to be over before my name would get called (laughs). I was walking down the aisle and heard my name called, so I turned around, went back and gave my mom a hug. It was awesome.
HF: Did you attend the Oilers prospects camp last summer?
GP: No I did not because it was so late in the summer. It happened when my classes were starting here at Denver. I was planning on attending had it been earlier in the summer. It was so late that I didn’t get a chance to go.
HF: Have you had any contact with the Oilers at all this season?
GP: They’ve come down for a few games and I saw them when we were playing in the WCHA Final Five. They just check on me to see how I’m doing and how I like the University of Denver and basically telling me to stay happy and stay healthy and continue to develop at the University of Denver. Other than that, they really don’t interfere with what’s going on here at Denver with me.
HF: Aside from the physical side of your game, what other areas do you feel are your greatest strengths?
GP: I think that I’m a good, physical two-way player. Obviously being 6’4, I bring some size (laughs). I know the game, can read and feed off of my teammates to help develop plays that way. I feel that I’m good in the defensive zone. I can always improve on my skating and faceoffs and stuff like that.
HF: What do you feel is the weakest part of your game?
GP: My skating has been an issue since I got here to Denver. Every day it’s a battle with the foot speed and stuff like that. To reach the next level, I’m definitely going to need to improve my skating, my speed and my overall game. I feel that my skating is probably my glaring weakness.
HF: I’ve noticed that you play really well around the net and drive to it well, but it seems like you’re more of the playmaker rather than the goal scorer.
GP: I’ve been in that role my whole life with all the guys that I’ve played with since juniors. I’ve tried to improve on that. I need to be more assertive with the puck and get it to the net. I try to make some plays for myself. I feel like I need to shoot more rather than dishing it off. I think that it’s starting to improve playing here at Denver.
HF: Do you feel that that is the role that you’ve had to take on this season?
GP: Oh definitely. Being so big and playing the college game, I feel that I have to be more assertive with the puck. I feel that I have to shoot it more and take it to the net more rather than just hanging out around the perimeter and passing it off.
HF: Who were some of your influences growing up?
GP: Before the Avs came there was just the Denver Pioneers. Back then I really looked up to those guys. I looked up to guys like Angelo Ricci, who not only used to play for the Pioneers but also coached me. Once the Avs came to town, it was Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. They’re such great icons of the team. I look up to those guys, not necessarily to follow they way they play as much as admire their greatness and to aspire to their level.
HF: There were some people out there who were just writing you guys off this year and here you are the champions once again. How does it feel to prove those people wrong?
GP: Oh, it’s awesome, especially for our freshman class. No one thought that Peter (Mannino) was going to be as good as he was. He held us in for two big games here at the Frozen Four. No one thought that Paul (Stastny) would be as good as was too. They gave us no respect. It’s so awesome to be here, knowing that we could do it and to be number one.
HF: North Dakota really came out banging you guys around tonight, especially early on. Was Coach Gwozdecky saying to you guys “don’t let those guys get into your heads”? What else was he saying throughout the game?
GP: Yeah, he basically said that we needed to play our game. We had a chance to watch North Dakota against Minnesota on Thursday, so we knew what to expect. We knew that they’d be banging us hard throughout the game. We’ve played hard all year long, so he just said to go out and play hard for 60 minutes. We have to capitalize on our opportunities and stay tough. We played our game, stayed tough and hung in there. So we did what coach asked of us.
HF: You guys seemed calm and patient out there. Did you guys take the approach of allowing North Dakota and the play to come at you rather than the other way around?
GP: I think that approach stems from our upperclassmen. I know that I was nervous out there playing in a national championship game on ESPN and all (laughs). They pretty much calmed us down today. They were just as nervous as us freshmen were. They said that we just have to go out there and play our game. I think we were patient, allowed the play to come to us at times and took advantage of that.
HF: How important was Peter Mannino to you guys tonight?
GP: Words can’t describe what he has meant to us. He’s made some big saves in the second half of the year that I still can’t believe he made. I’m so happy for him that he got the opportunity to play in this game. He’s a big game goaltender who loves to play in the big games. I know that he’s going to be doing it for a while for us.
HF: Tonight it seemed like you were relegated to more of a role player type situation. Were you comfortable with that?
GP: Yeah. Anything that I can do to contribute to the team in a national championship game is fine with me. All the egos have to be put aside in a situation like this. We all strive to achieve the same goal and no matter what the coach is telling my line to do, we’re doing it.
HF: What do you personally feel was the hardest part about playing North Dakota tonight?
GP: I would say the very first shift. We didn’t know what to expect right away, I didn’t know what to expect right away. I didn’t even know what to expect of myself coming out. After that first shift, we had calmed down. We’re nervous all day coming into the game tonight, so after that first shift, everything was much calmer.
HF: As the game was winding down and knowing that North Dakota was desperate and was going to throw everything at you guys along with knowing that you guys knew that you had the championship won, what was Coach Gwozdecky saying to you guys at that point?
GP: He told us to keep our composure and keep our head in the game. It was hard not to celebrate too much after Gabe (Gauthier) had scored that empty net goal because we were all hugging each other on the bench, banging on the glass behind us and there was still like 30 seconds left in the game. In hockey, obviously you never know what can happen in 30 seconds and you don’t want to give up a goal in those last 30 seconds.
HF: That had to have been tough for you guys on the bench. I mean those last 30 seconds must’ve seemed like an eternity.
GP: Oh yeah! I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like last year. We’re like counting 1 second…2 second and the puck goes over the glass. It was almost unbearable. If there was like a TV time-out in those last 30 seconds I think I would’ve just lost it (laughs), because it was just unbelievable.
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