NA3HL CENTRAL DIVISION FINALS
La CROSSE FREEZE (32-15-0, 64 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
vs. NORTH IOWA BULLS (42-2-3, 87 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
FRIDAY, MAR. 25- 7:30 P.M., NORTH IOWA ICE ARENA (MASON CITY, IOWA)
SATURDAY, MAR. 26- 7:00 P.M., GREEN ISLAND ICE ARENA (La CROSSE, WIS.)
*SUNDAY, MAR. 27 – 7:30 P.M., NORTH IOWA ICE ARENA (MASON CITY, IOWA) if necessary
IN A NUTSHELL: The battle for the NA3HL's Central Division pits the Bulls against La Crosse in one final weekend series.
ALL-TIME SERIES: North Iowa leads, 8-0-0 (Bulls swept this year's season series, 4-0-0).
LAST WEEKEND'S RECAP: North Iowa made quick work of Rochester in the Ice Hawks' first-ever Silver Cup playoff series, as the Bulls cinched up their spot in the championship tournament with back-to-back 10-1 and 12-3 wins. The offense got its first goal of the playoffs just 5:45 into Game 1 on a tally from Quinn Fuchs. North Iowa went 3-for-9 on the power play in that first game against Rochester, and notched a couple of shorthanded goals from Fuchs and Kohei Sato along the way. Game 2 started out a bit more precariously for the Bulls – after starting off the game with a 2-0 lead (including a power play goal just 41 seconds into the opening man-advantage), back-to-back goals from Spencer Hadacek and Nick Paulson just 55 seconds apart tied the score at 2-2 with 6:29 showing on the first-period clock. After that, it was all North Iowa – seven second-period goals turned a 3-2 nailbiter into a 10-3 rout with 20 minutes to go. Joe Burgmeier, Carmen Dalesandro, Connor Bump and Brett Gravelle each picked up a pair of goals on the night. The 12 goals scored last Saturday against the Ice Hawks was a Bulls playoff record, breaking the old record of 11 in the 2013 Silver Cup championship game against the Peoria Mustangs.
THIS WEEKEND'S SERIES: The NA3HL Central Division Finals are a best-2-of-3 affair, with Friday's game to be played in Mason City and Saturday's game to be played at 7 p.m. at the Green Island Ice Arena in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Should the series require a third game, the clinching contest will be played back at the North Iowa Ice Arena on Easter Sunday at 7:30 p.m. The winner earns the division's playoff championship and advances with a top-six seed to next week's Silver Cup championship tournament in Romeoville, Illinois.
COVERAGE: All North Iowa Bulls games, home and away, are streamed live at FASTHockey.com. All divisional final games will also air live on NorthIowaBulls.com with free audio streams. Austin Draude will have the call of each game, with a pregame show starting 15 minutes before the opening faceoff (Friday: 7:15, Saturday: 6:45).
WHAT'S THE MEANING OF THIS?: Regardless of the outcome of this series, the North Iowa Bulls will be in the Silver Cup tournament next weekend – as one of the top two teams in the NA3HL's regular-season standings, Todd Sanden's team has done its part simply by winning its first-round playoff series. La Crosse will need to win two games this weekend to get in, taking the 13th overall spot on the 34-team list. Along with Twin City, their 64 points in the regular-season standings puts them at the very bottom of the wild-card list. They sit one spot below the Toledo Cherokee, who also have 64 points, due to a costly head-to-head loss at the NA3HL Showcase in December.
LESS BUMPY FOR BUMP: After scoring seven goals last season (not including his opening goal in the Tier III national championship game), Connor Bump has gotten back on track as far as the scoring is concerned. The second-year blueliner went almost 11 full months without a goal following that game, but put goals on the board on back-to-back weekends late in the regular season and scored two in the first period on Saturday. It was his first multi-goal game since December 19, 2014 (a 4-1 win against the Minnesota Flying Aces).
MAX EFFORT FOR MIN: David Min's tally in the third period of last Friday's win was a well-deserved one for the Washington state native, who scored 14 goals going into the Christmas break. At one point, Min had racked up a nine-game point streak during the first half of the season, but after a four-week injury recovery he went 12 straight games without a goal before getting back on the board last weekend.
PART OF A BALANCED DIET (OF SCORING): La Crosse may not be pounding pucks into the net, but the Freeze have a balanced offense on their side – the leading scorer for Ryan Egan's team this season was Daniel Toycen with 48 points (21 goals), but La Crosse has six players on their roster with 30+ points and 13 players with 20+ points this season. That volume hasn't quite kept pace with the Bulls' output, though – during the course of the regular season, North Iowa scored 101 more goals (better than two a game). The Bulls had the #1 offense in the league this season – La Crosse's was #13.
DOUBLE TROUBLE: Adam Orn made a major impact for the Bulls as a top two-way defenseman, tallying 49 points and a league-best +69 plus/minus rating (plus another +5 in the first two games of the playoffs), and was one of only three defensemen to rank among the league's top five in goals and assists at his position. Don't count out Freeze d-man Jared Bromberg, though – he ended the season with 38 points, eighth among NA3HL defensemen, and was a team-best +3 through the opening round of the Central Division playoffs. Connor Bump's 31 points was also among the position's top 20 in the league.
BLACKJACK FOR THE BULLS: During the four regular-season meetings, both North Iowa and La Crosse ended up with 21 power-play opportunities, but the clear advantage went to the Bulls – La Crosse scored on just two of its man-advantages against the Bulls (for a mark of 9.5 percent). The Bulls were successful on eight of those 21 chances, including a 4-for-5 total in their first meeting on November 20.
A LITTLE TIED UP: It's been a bit of a crapshoot determining which way a tie game will go for the Freeze…unless you know where the game is being played. La Crosse is 7-6-0 this season when the game is tied after 20 minutes and 4-4-0 when tied after 40. Put them on their home rink? A tie at the 20-minute mark has led to a win in five of seven games, and a tie with 20 minutes left ended in a Freeze victory four of six times. However, the Freeze were 2-4-0 and 0-2-0 away from home at those same milestones in the game.
TRENDING: The longest goal-scoring streak in the league coming out of the regular season remains intact – Joe Burgmeier has tallied goals in nine straight games, racking up a dozen goals during that same time frame. With a goal in Friday's game, he would tie St. Louis's Zach Mitchell for the longest goal-scoring streak of the season (10 games). Quinn Fuchs now has the longest assist streak in the league this season (12 games; 17 assists) – his 15-game point streak (26 points in that stretch) also stands among the longest in the league this year.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME: As in most years, it's been virtually impossible to knock off the Bulls in their home barn this season. Including last Friday's 10-1 thrashing of Rochester, North Iowa is 21-1-1 at home, with the only missteps coming on Jan. 15 (a 4-2 regulation loss to Breezy Point) and Feb. 5 (a 5-4 overtime loss to Twin City). Both teams will close out their home schedules this weekend, with all Silver Cup tournament games to be played on neutral ice in Chicagoland.