SATURDAY, MAR. 5 – 7:30 P.M., NORTH IOWA ICE ARENA (MASON CITY, IOWA)
WISCONSIN WHALERS (28-14-0, 56 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
@ NORTH IOWA BULLS (38-2-3, 79 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
IN A NUTSHELL: Wisconsin looks to gain a foothold in their quest for home-ice advantage in the first round of the Central Division playoffs, and finish a near-season split against the Bulls.
ALL-TIME SERIES: North Iowa leads, 13-2-2 (Wisconsin is 2-5 against the Bulls this year).
LAST WEEKEND'S RECAP: Todd Sanden's team finished off its regular-season sweep of the Rochester Ice Hawks with just a first-round postseason series remaining, and did so in dominant fashion. Two first-period shorthanded goals on Friday night from Kohei Sato highlighted his first hat trick of the year in an 11-2 romp – Brett Gravelle and Rochester's Nick Paulson each took home a pair of goals, and Jake Garvey played most of the third period in his NA3HL debut as the Ice Hawks' emergency backup goaltender. The Bulls ran off eight straight goals in Saturday's game and kept the shutout alive until Griffen Buck's goal at the 10:35 mark of the final stanza. The third period was anything but uneventful, with 18 penalties doled out for a total of 96 minutes.
COVERAGE: All North Iowa Bulls games, home and away, are streamed live at FASTHockey.com. Saturday night's game will also audio-stream live for free on NorthIowaBulls.com, with Austin Draude on the call starting at 7:15 p.m.
PERFECT 10: Marshall Barnes's six points (including two goals) last Saturday night, and his three assists in Friday's game against Rochester, were more than enough to earn him a nod as the Central Division's Easton Hockey Star of the Week. For the Bulls, it was the 10th such honor of the season, and the first for Barnes. His 60 points rank second on the Bulls roster this season, and his 48 assists are second in the entire NA3HL.
ROLL A SIX: Brett Gravelle put two pucks in the net in each of last weekend's games, giving him 49 goals with four games remaining. Following this weekend's game against the Whalers, he'll have three games left against the Chicago Jr. Bulldogs, who come into the weekend at 2-42 for the year.
PUTTING UP A STOUT CHALLENGE: Veteran forward and Iowa native Austin Jackson is the latest Bull to announce his commitment for next season. Jackson announced this week he will attend the University of Wisconsin-Stout, continuing his hockey career in Menomonie, Wisconsin. The Blue Devils aren't exactly an unfamiliar program in the home locker room at the Barn – four former Bulls (Dylan Zins, Sam Naegele, Joe Kleven, Trey Gardner) are on the roster at Stout, and current assistant coach Casey Kirley is a UW-Stout alumnus. Kirley's younger brother, Nolan is also a junior forward in Terry Watkins's program.
WON AND DONE: It'll only take one playoff weekend to get the Bulls into the NA3HL Silver Cup championship tournament at the end of the month – last week, North Iowa took care of business over the weekend with its sweep of Rochester, and Wisconsin took care of its end of the bargain with a Saturday night win over the third-place St. Louis Jr. Blues. Those two results guarantee the Bulls a spot in the tournament with a first-round playoff series win against the Ice Hawks. Now the focus is on the 3HL regular-season crown – once again, North Iowa needs to win this weekend and get a bit of help to finish it off. This time, the help they seek would come from the Southern Tier Xpress, who travel to face the Jets this Saturday and Sunday.
HOME-ICE ADVANTAGE: Tonight is the eighth meeting of the season between the Whalers and Bulls, the most of any team on North Iowa's schedule. The home team has had a decided advantage in the series, with both teams evenly splitting the four games at the Oregon Ice Arena. The Bulls are 3-0 in their home games against WIsconsin, outscoring their visitors 17-3 in those three games.
POINTED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: With 43 games under North Iowa's belt and 42 finished for Wisconsin, Brett Gravelle and Peter Henderson remain in a pitched battle for the NA3HL points championship. Gravelle has 85 points, including 49 goals, going into the final two weekends of the year. Henderson has 83 points (36 goals, 47 assists) but has a game in hand with Friday's game at Rochester. Point Mallard's Justin Dunn has 73 points, leaving the points championship to the two Central Division scoring dynamoes. The two have also combined for 40 points in their last 10 games apiece.
GIVE ME A SECOND: Wisconsin has spread the scoring pretty evenly from start to finish in their home games, but their road games have been anything but: of the Whalers' 107 goals away from home, nearly half – 51 – have come in the second period. Just the same, their power play away from home is hitting on 29.6 percent of their chances, the league's second-best road mark and noticeably higher than their home rate of 24.1 percent.
GET SHORTY: Kohei Sato's two shorthanded goals last weekend against Rochester highlighted just how dangerous the Bulls' penalty kill can be on the offensive end of the ice – North Iowa has tallied 10 goals against the man-advantage this year, good for a tie for sixth. Wisconsin has done their hosts one better this season – exactly one better. Their 11 shorthanded goals puts them in a tie for fourth place in the NA3HL.