NA3HL CENTRAL DIVISION SEMIFINALS
ROCHESTER ICE HAWKS (10-36-1, 21 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
vs. NORTH IOWA BULLS (42-2-3, 87 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
FRIDAY, MAR. 18 – 7:30 P.M., NORTH IOWA ICE ARENA (MASON CITY, IOWA)
SATURDAY, MAR. 19 – 7:05 P.M., ROCHESTER RECREATION CENTER (ROCHESTER, MINN.)
*SUNDAY, MAR. 20 – 7:30 P.M., NORTH IOWA ICE ARENA (MASON CITY, IOWA) if necessary
IN A NUTSHELL: The playoffs begin this weekend with the NA3HL Central Division semifinals, as the Bulls square off against a brand-new rival and a newcomer to the league itself.
ALL-TIME SERIES: North Iowa leads, 6-0-0 (total scoring margin this season: 52-6).
LAST WEEK'S RECAP: The focus last weekend was more on looking ahead to the playoffs for the Bulls and looking ahead to next season for the Chicago Jr. Bulldogs – the visitors ended a 2-45-0 season with losses of 14-0, 12-0 and 10-0 on back-to-back-to-back nights. Each Bulls goaltender got a shutout win over the weekend, starting with Tommi Ahlgren's eighth of the season on Friday night. Every single North Iowa skater tallied at least one point in that game, and every Bulls skater besides defenseman Eric Piatt tallied at least a point in Saturday's game, the fourth shutout for David Johnson. Two of Zack St. John's five wins this year have been by shutout, following Sunday's game. That game featured a goals record, a scoring title and a few oddities – namely, the Bulls' scoreless first period (their first since the third period Feb. 20 against Wisconsin) and their 26-0 shots margin in the game. The Bulls eventually won on the shot counter 80-17 and rattled off 36 shots before Chicago registered their first of the game. Brett Gravelle would register a hat trick in Sunday's game, the team's only three-bagger of the weekend.
THIS WEEKEND'S SERIES: The NA3HL Central Division semifinals are a best-2-of-3 affair, starting with Friday's 7:30 p.m. faceoff at the North Iowa Ice Arena in Mason City. Game 2 shifts to the Rochester Recreation Center in Rochester, Minnesota on Saturday for a 7:05 p.m. faceoff. If Game 3 is necessary, the Bulls will host Sunday night at 7:30. The winner faces either second-seeded La Crosse or third-seeded Wisconsin in the divisional finals next weekend.
COVERAGE: All North Iowa Bulls games, home and away, are streamed live at FASTHockey.com. All divisional semifinal 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: 6:50).
LIKE A BROKEN RECORD: North Iowa players broke several NA3HL records this past weekend against Chicago, starting with the one that has received the most attention in league circles – Brett Gravelle's 57 goals. Tommi Ahlgren polished off three more in his Friday night triumph – eight shutouts, a .958 save percentage and a 1.17 goals-against average. The team record for career shutouts, though, belongs to netminding counterpart David Johnson – his six shutouts last year tied what had been the single-season league record, and he finished this year with four more. His 10 career shutouts edged out Ahlgren's nine career goose-eggs (including his lone shutout win a year ago). Gravelle's 99 points was not a league record, but did put him one point ahead of Wisconsin's Peter Henderson for the league scoring title.
NO REPLY AT ALL: The Bulls have not simply racked up goals against Central Division foes recently, they haven't allowed much of a response – North Iowa goaltenders are perfect over their last 249:25, and that stretch includes 38 consecutive goals. In all, North Iowa has racked up 276 shots since allowing their last goal (9:25 remaining, Feb. 27 vs. Rochester, scored by Griffen Buck), and the team's netminders are perfect on their last 101 chances. North Iowa finishes up a seven-game homestand with Friday's game, and every one of the previous six games has featured a double-digit output at the Barn.
CROWDED HOUSE: Of the Bulls' five seasons in the NA3HL, the league attendance title has gone home to Mason City every year. The first season in town saw an average crowd of 469 fans at home games (with a high of 988 in the season finale) – this season's average of 1,019 per game is the third-highest total in league history. Rochester was no slouch at the gate either, averaging 849 per game, the second-highest on the circuit. Seven Ice Hawks home games this year drew 1,000 or better, including a league-high 1,776 against Wisconsin on March 4.
NO FAULT IN THESE STARS: After falling just short twice this season, Adam Orn finally picked up an Easton Hockey Central Division Star of the Week honor this past week. Orn earned 10 points in the three-game sweep over Chicago, including two goals and five helpers in Sunday's win. More incredibly, the first-line defenseman picked up a +7 line in that game, out of a possible +9, and scored the team's lone power play goal, putting him on the ice for eight of the team's 10 goals. His +69 for the season was the league's highest mark in that category, and its second-highest in four years by a defenseman.
LET'S GET IT STARTED IN HERE: Rochester will have to find a way to kick its offense into gear early in a building that has been particularly unfriendly to visiting teams of late: the Ice Hawks finished with just eight first-period goals away from home, and none of those goals came in the Bulls' home building. Fortunately, though, five of the six goals the Ice Hawks tallied this year against North Iowa came away from the home rink.
TOP OF THE HEAP: North Iowa's 42-2-3 record for the season gave them 87 points in the standings, outdistancing the second-place Metro Jets' 82 points. That means that both teams would automatically qualify for the Silver Cup tournament in Romeoville, Ill. simply by winning their first-round playoff series, thanks to the two wild-card slots built into the tournament format.
FIGHT THE POWER: A power play against the Bulls hasn't necessarily spelled an advantage for the team with the extra man this season – not only has Todd Sanden's team successfully killed off almost 91 percent of the man-advantages against them (second in the league, only to Texas), but their 17 shorthanded goals is also second in the NA3HL for the season. In fact, with 16 powerplay goals allowed, the likelihood of seeing the Bulls score on a penalty kill has actually been better than that of seeing them allow a goal while down a man. Almost 10 percent of the Bulls' penalty-kills this season have featured a North Iowa goal.