MASON CITY, Iowa – North Iowa has been in need of a fast start for some time now, and as luck would have it, their visitors for the weekend have been especially prone to slow starts on the road. The momentum couldn't have swung much more quickly than it did on Friday night, as the Bulls ran off six first-period goals in an 11-2 victory over the Rochester Ice Hawks. After saying before the game that the power play needed to bear down a bit more against the Hawks, it was the penalty kill that lit the lamp in the opening session, with two late 4-on-5 goals from Kohei Sato (Nishitokio, Japan/North Iowa Bulls).
"It's been no secret that we've struggled in the first period lately," said head coach Todd Sanden. "The kids had a great week of prep, they were flying and their execution was pretty good this week. We weren't surprised [by that production] but it was nice to see that out of the gates."
In the opening minutes of the game, Brett Gravelle (Forest Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) beat goaltender Zach Mains top-shelf on a wrister from the slot, Adam Orn (Ramsey, Minn/North Iowa Bulls) walked one in from the right point to the faceoff circle in front of Mains before zipping one in under the crossbar, and a half-speed slap shot from the point was deflected in from in front of the net. Within the first 4:47 of the game, the Bulls led 3-0, and they quickly rippled the net again following one of the team's best setup passes of the year. Stuck along the end boards with his back to the net, Marshall Barnes (Ramsey, Minn./Academy of Holy Angels) left a blind slide on the doorstep, where Sean Mallonee (Kennewick, Wash./Everett Silvertips) was waiting to put it away at 7:39 of the opening stanza. That's when Sato got into the mix with two shorthanded breakaway tallies at 16:37 and 17:19 of the period. Sato scored the latter after winning a footrace against Rochester's Griffin Buck up the right-wing wall before walking in front and knifing it past Mains. Sato had volunteered to switch to the penalty-kill while the coaching staff tried some new special-teams combinations in practice.
"You look at the dynamic speed of Kohei, and if you put the puck where he can win a race to it, he's not going to lose that race," said Sanden. "There's nobody out there that has the wheels that he has. Here's some more unselfishness by Bulls players and we got rewarded for it tonight."
The scoring slowed down a bit in the second period, but Gravelle did net his 47th goal of the year with 2:57 left in the period, and Sato finished off his hat trick with 1:34 to go before the break, taking a backdoor pass and sticking it into a half-empty net. In the third period, the lead went to 9-0 on the power play after Zach Mains gave up a kick-save rebound to his left – Joe Burgmeier (Mason City, Iowa/North Iowa Bulls) was waiting on the doorstep to shovel it in the net and give North Iowa its only powerplay tally of the night. Tommi Ahlgren's (Tampere, Finland/North Iowa Bulls) bid for a 3HL record-breaking seventh shutout was denied after a top-of-the-slot shot from Hunter Heightland bounced to Nick Paulson on the rebound and got put away with 16:55 left in the game. After all that, the Bulls' defensemen got involved in the scoring, starting with Connor Bump's (Prior Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) bullet from the top of the slot that beat emergency backup Jake Garvey above the shoulder. A long heave down ice from Dominik Bogdzuil led Paulson right in front of Ahlgren on an Ice Hawks man-advantage with 8:45 remaining, and Paulson skittered it in between Ahlgren's legs to trim the lead back to eight goals. The final goal of the night came from another North Iowa defenseman Eric Piatt (Fargo, N.D./South Shanley H.S.) with just 45 seconds on the clock, sending a laser in from the blue line, adjacent to the left boards.
Despite Ahlgren's two goals allowed, the Bulls veteran held 24 other Rochester shots out of the net to pick up his 15th win of the season. The late goal for Bump was a special one, his first of the year, and first since last year's national championship game, to follow 21 assists already on the season. Sato's hat trick was his first of the year, and Gravelle's quest for the NA3HL single-season goals record is down to eight goals with just five games remaining. Former North Iowa star and current Aurora University forward Rihards Marenis scored 55 during the 2013-14 season, when the Bulls wrapped up the year at 45-3-0.
"I thought the guys shared the puck great tonight," said Sanden. "The one thing I'd like to clean up is that late in the game we were pushing to score and we left Tommi out to dry. Our goaltenders have done so much good work for us this year, I'd hate to see us lose focus on protecting them and taking care of them."
North Iowa and Rochester return to the ice at the North Iowa Ice Arena for a grudge match and their final regular-season meeting of the year on Saturday night, starting at 7:30 p.m. Fans are invited to hit the ice following the game for a Postgame Skate with the Bulls.