FRIDAY, FEB. 19 – 7:30 P.M., OREGON ICE ARENA (OREGON, WIS.)
SATURDAY, FEB. 20 – 7:00 P.M., OREGON ICE ARENA (OREGON, WIS.)
NORTH IOWA BULLS (35-1-3, 73 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
@ WISCONSIN WHALERS (25-12-0, 50 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
IN A NUTSHELL: Fresh off a clinching weekend in the NA3HL Central Division championship race, the Bulls head on the road to Madison to begin the "home stretch" of the season. It's their first visit to the Oregon Ice Arena since the first weekend of the season.
ALL-TIME SERIES: Bulls lead, 12-1-1 (8-1-1 vs. Quad City prior to the 2013-14 season).
LAST WEEKEND'S RECAP: Thanks to a scheduled make-up date against the La Crosse Freeze, Todd Sanden's team got a day off between convincing wins and celebrated the Valentine's Day weekend with yet another regular-season division championship. The magic number dropped to a single point Thursday with a 6-2 win at La Crosse, and after giving up a Sam Wenner goal with 5:19 left in the first period, the offense went to work starting with Joe Burgmeier's powerplay tally just 3:36 into the second period. By the time the second period was history, the 1-0 deficit had morphed into a 4-2 lead – the Freeze weren't able to pull themselves back into it after a second goal from Burgmeier just 13 seconds into the third stanza. Two days later, the Bulls wrapped up the conference crown with an 11-0 demolition of the Rochester Ice Hawks. Carmen Dalesandro racked up his second hat trick of the year, finishing off the triple with a powerplay tally at 9:35 of the final period. North Iowa fired off 60 shots against Kyle Plantz, a new high for the calendar year.
NEXT HOME GAME: The wait is nearly over for Bulls fans as a long road trip concludes – a swing of six road games in a seven-game stretch concludes on Saturday. A seven-game homestand (including the Bulls' first-round playoff opener against Rochester) begins next Friday night with a Friday/Saturday set against the Ice Hawks.
COVERAGE: All Bulls games, home and away, are streamed live at fasthockey.com. The free audio webcast schedule on NorthIowaBulls.com resumes with North Iowa's home game Friday, February 26 against the Rochester Ice Hawks.
TOP TIER TALENT: 10 Bulls players have been getting some extra hockey in this week at the NA3HL Top Prospects tournament in Plymouth, Michigan, home of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program. Each of the teams the Bulls had players on (Central, Midwest, 18U Selects Black) finished 1-2 for the tournament, with Austin Jackson's four points leading the way for the Central Division team. David Johnson got the lone win for the Midwest Division team, splitting time in net with Peoria Mustangs goalie Ross Lipic. Tommy Stang and Sean Mallonee each registered a pair of points for the 18U Selects Black team as well.
FOLLOW THE LEADER: That hat trick against the Rochester Ice Hawks was a big factor in Carmen Dalesandro's nomination as the league's Easton Hockey Central Division Star of the Week. The Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania native was +4 in that game against the Ice Hawks, tallying three assists to go along with his trio of goals. One of each came on the power play. He's the Bulls' first Star of the Week in six weeks, and the club's ninth of the year.
YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE: Goaltender David Johnson made a major announcement this week, declaring on Thursday his commitment to the Wisconsin-Eau Claire Blugolds' NCAA Division III hockey program. Matt Loen has built the Blugolds into a top-eight program in his eighth season at UWEC, due partially to a roster that includes three United States Hockey League alumni and numerous other North American Hockey League veterans.
MARGIN OF VICTORY: With the Central Division championship in hand, the Bulls could finish with the most lopsided division championship in the club's five-year history. North Iowa finished second to Granite City by an eight-point margin in their first year as an NA3HL member club. Since then, North Iowa has won division titles by nine, 18 and four points, with each putting the Lumberjacks in the runner-up position. Second-place La Crosse is 21 points behind with 10 games to play, and will not face the Bulls again this regular season. Wisconsin has three games left against North Iowa and is 23 points back.
PULLED UP BY THE BOOTSTRAPS: Wisconsin has rebounded rather nicely from a middling 6-8 start to the year. Since the end of October (and a sweep at the hands of North Iowa in the Bulls' first home weekend of the season), the Whalers have rattled off 19 wins in 23 games, and part of that comes with the goaltending. Max McConnell has been nothing if not consistent in net with a 15-8 record, tying the NA3HL record with his sixth shutout of the year at Rochester on January 30. The other netminder for Tom McDermott's team is Roni Sener, who has not been beaten in seven decisions this season.
RUNNING THE SCOREBOARD: As for the Whalers' offense, five different players have scored at least seven goals apiece over the last 10 games (8-2-0) – leading the way in that category is Peter Henderson, who has tallied 30 points, including 11 goals, in that stretch. Henderson currently leads North Iowa's Brett Gravelle in the league points race, 76 to 75, going into this weekend's series. In the team department, North Iowa stands atop the league in power play conversions (30.3 percent) and goals per game (5.85). Wisconsin isn't far behind on either count, with the third-best power play unit in the 3HL (27.5 percent) and the fourth-most prolific offense (5.35 goals per game).
FAVORABLE MATCHUP: As Gravelle chases the team record (and the NA3HL record) for most goals in a season, he faces a team whose number he has grasped firmly this season. Gravelle has scored seven goals in just three appearances against Wisconsin, including a hat trick in the last contest against the Whalers on November 21. By comparison, in the teams' five meetings this season, the entire Whalers team has scored six times against North Iowa netminders.
BROADCASTER BATTLE: Austin Draude and Vinnie Perricelli are still alive in FASTHockey's second annual Broadcaster Battle, after an epic comeback against Granite City Lumberjacks broadcaster Joe Clemence in the quarterfinals late Wednesday evening. Austin and Vinnie were behind 2,124 votes to 1,558 with just eight hours remaining in the quarterfinal round – 2,200 votes were cast in the final hour alone, with more than 1,250 going to the Bulls broadcasting duo to finish off the final charge. They are the last remaining NA3HL broadcasters, and the last ones to represent an American junior hockey league. Semifinal voting runs through 11 p.m. Central time Friday – click HERE to vote for Austin and Vinnie against Christian Laughland of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League's Dauphin Kings.