Upstart freshmen set for cross-state series

by Sarah Mitchell

A measuring stick weekend lies ahead for Minnesota men’s hockey player Jeff Taffe.
Given runner-up honors in the WCHA’s preseason vote for rookie of the year, Taffe faces off against preseason favorite Dany Heatley this weekend when Minnesota (2-5-1, 1-2-1 WCHA) travels to face seventh-ranked Wisconsin (7-1-0, 5-1-0).
“They’re both tall and rangy kids,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “The difference I think in Heatley is that he came out of the Alberta Junior League. Jeff’s still adjusting from high school.”
Hailing from Calgary, Alberta, Heatley spent last year playing with the Calgary Canucks of the grueling Alberta Junior League. On the ice, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound winger matured quickly.
Taffe, on the other hand, graduated from Hastings High School in Minnesota and faced softer competition. Earning more and more ice time this season, the 6-3, 176-pound center has five points from one goal and four assists.
Taffe ranks fourth on the Gophers’ scoring leaderboard, a position Lucia said he could improve on.
“He’s getting better every week, but I don’t think he’s where he probably hopes he’d be or where I know he’s going to be two months from now,” Lucia said. “I don’t think any freshman, for the most part, walks in the first month of college hockey and tears it up.”
Then Heatley’s an exception.
The lefty is tied for third amongst WCHA players for overall scoring. In his debut season, Heatley has 11 points on six goals and five assists.
“He’s one special player at this level, a really gifted goal-scorer,” Badgers coach Jeff Sauer said. “I wouldn’t say he’s quick, but he gets there. Speed and footwork is something we’re working on.”
Heatley is only a part of his team’s well-oiled offense, which is averaging almost five goals a game. Wisconsin’s ability to find the back of the net has landed it in sole possession of first place in the WCHA. The Badgers hold a two-point advantage over the rest of the conference.
The Badgers are coming off different results from a week ago than the Gophers. A veteran Wisconsin team swept Denver while Minnesota split with Colorado College.
“If we show up and play hard and create scoring chances through hard work, then we have a chance to win,” Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel said. “We’re not so gifted to overcome lack of work. Hard work beats talent when talent won’t work hard.”
If Taffe follows the second half of Guentzel’s advice, he could beat out the more honored Heatley.

Sarah Mitchell covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]