THURSDAY, DEC. 31 – 7:05 P.M., ROCHESTER RECREATION CENTER (ROCHESTER, MINN.)
SATURDAY, JAN. 2 – 7:30 P.M., NORTH IOWA ICE ARENA (MASON CITY, IOWA)
NORTH IOWA BULLS (24-0-1, 49 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
VS. ROCHESTER ICE HAWKS (7-16-0, 14 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
IN A NUTSHELL: North Iowa and Rochester rekindle their budding rivalry with a three-day home-and-home set, starting with a New Year's Eve contest in Minnesota and ending on Saturday with the first Ice Hawks road game ever at the Bulls' home rink.
ALL-TIME SERIES: North Iowa leads 1-0-0 in series (only meeting: October 24 at Rochester, a 7-0 Bulls win)
LAST WEEKEND'S RECAP: Lots of family time, gift unwrapping, and perhaps a bit of mistletoe for Christmas weekend.
PREVIOUS WEEKEND'S RECAP: The Bulls went 3-for-3 at the annual NA3HL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota from December 17-19, knocking off a pair of division contenders and the Pittsburgh Vengeance to extend their winning streak to 23 games. After going down 2-1 following the first 20 minutes, the Bulls ripped off four straight goals to defeat the Nashville Jr. Predators 5-2 in the Showcase opener, upending the 3HL's defending regular-season champ. North Iowa newcomer Zack St. John earned his first junior shutout in a 6-0 win against Pittsburgh, behind the second of Brett Gravelle's back-to-back hat tricks. A 6-1 win over a hot-scoring Atlanta Capitals team, featuring three players with 40+ points for the season, finished off an unbeaten weekend.
THIS WEEKEND'S PROMOTIONS: The Madhouse in Mason City will be rocking Saturday night, thanks to Dollar Beer Night in the Barn. It's the first home game for the Bulls in three weeks, and kicks off a six-game homestand in Mason City.
COVERAGE: All Bulls games, home and away, are streamed live at fasthockey.com. Saturday's game will also feature a free audio webcast, live on northiowabulls.com. Austin Draude will have the play-by-play Saturday night, starting at 7:15 p.m.
RECORD KEEPING: The December 19 win against the Atlanta Capitals pushed the Bulls to 23 straight wins, the longest such streak in North American Tier 3 Hockey League history. The Nashville Jr. Predators won 22 straight last year on their way to a 42-4-1 record and NA3HL regular-season crown. Though the 3HL does not recognize records from the Central States Hockey League's history, the Bulls do have a few games left to catch the St. Louis Jr. Blues' 26-game win streak to start the league's final campaign in 2009-10. The Jr. Blues also won their final nine regular-season games in 2008-09.
ANCIENT HISTORY: The Bulls and Ice Hawks don't have a longstanding rivalry within the confines of the NA3HL's history, but Mason City and Rochester have plenty of history as junior hockey rivals. Both the North Iowa Ice Arena and Rochester Recreation Center saw plenty of visits from the other cities' home teams after the USHL's Austin Mavericks became the Rochester Mustangs in 1985. The North Iowa Huskies' move to Cedar Rapids ended the rivalry in 1999, and the Mustangs would follow suit by folding in 2002. Three straight Junior "A" national championships came to the area in the late 1980s (Rochester: 1987 and '88; North Iowa: 1989).
HATS OFF: Brett Gravelle's back-to-back hat tricks against Nashville and Pittsburgh propelled him to a seven-goal, 10-point Showcase and yet another 3HL Easton Hockey Central Division Star of the Week award. Gravelle already completed the Star of the Week hat trick with his third such award just prior to the Thanksgiving break. Those 10 points put him back atop the league's overall scoring leaderboard, and his 30 goals are within one of St. Louis's Frankie Melton for the league lead.
HELPING OUT: Gravelle isn't the only player at or near the top of the NA3HL's scoring leaderboards – Marshall Barnes is tied with Bozeman's Nicholas Thompson for the most assists in the league this season (31), and his 14 power play assists are fourth in the 3HL going into the new year.
THINK POSITIVE: Every player on North Iowa's roster this season, past or present, has a positive plus-minus rating for the year, save for goaltenders Zack St. John and Tommi Ahlgren (who have not registered points this season; David Johnson has one assist). Adam Orn (+35) and Tom Lindgren (+34) are each right behind the league leaders in that category (Atlanta forwards Kyle Rimbach and Artus Lakaitis, and Knights defenseman Andrew Cooley are each rated at +36). Rochester defenseman Andrew Gates is the only Ice Hawk to date with a positive plus/minus rating (+3).
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX: The Ice Hawks will come in as the second-most-penalized team in the league (31.09 penalty minutes per game), and they'll meet up with one of the league's most potent power play units. Only St. Louis scores goals on the man-advantage more efficiently than Todd Sanden's team, and the Rochester penalty-killing unit was burned once in the first meeting between the teams in October.
'TENDING TANDEM: No other team in the league can boast the goaltending depth the Bulls have had this season with Tommi Ahlgren and David Johnson in net. Each has won 11 games this season, making North Iowa the only team with a pair of 11-win goalies. The Texas Jr. Brahmas would likely be there as well, if not for Brandon Perrone's call-up to the NAHL earlier this month. He won 10 games before moving up to Lone Star on December 11, and Tyler Myers remains on the roster with 11 wins to his name.