ROCHESTER, Minn. – Just a week into the NA3HL Silver Cup playoffs, the Silver Cup tournament guest list is already beginning to grow. The Metro Jets clinched their slot with an East Division semifinal series sweep against the Wooster Oilers, and the regular-season champion North Iowa Bulls sealed their automatic bid Saturday night by racing out of Rochester with a 12-3 win over the Ice Hawks. Rochester ends its first season in the NA3HL with an overall record (including playoffs) of 10-38-1. Four North Iowa players finished the night with multi-goal games.
Referee Kyle Domin "let the boys play" Saturday night, but the opening power play of the evening for the visitors lasted just 41 seconds, after a pass from the corner found Connor Bump (Prior Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) at the left point. Bump's heave in from the blue line found the back of the net and gave North Iowa the lead just 7:16 into the game. Austin Jackson's (Waterloo, Iowa/Minnesota Magicians) pass from the boards found Brett Gravelle (Forest Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) high in the Ice Hawks slot, and Gravelle wristed one in top-shelf at 9:11 of the period. Goals just 55 seconds apart from Mason City native Spencer Hadacek and Nick Paulson tied things up with 6:29 remaining in the period, but Bump's second goal of the game, a wrist shot from the left faceoff circle, gave Todd Sanden's team a narrow 3-2 lead at the first recess.
The red-clad Bulls went red-hot in the second period with seven goals, starting with Kohei Sato's (Nishitokio, Japan/North Iowa Bulls) tally less than four minutes in – a long pass from Bump found Sato at the Rochester blue line, and the second-year Bulls forward would jog it into the net to get the lead back to a pair. Gravelle's second goal on a tap-in at the doorstep at 5:56 of the period made it a three-goal game, and a malfunctioning goal light would prove to be a good omen for North Iowa on their next two goals. The red beacons in the Rochester end of the ice were on for more than a minute before Carmen Dalesandro's (Cannonsburg, Penn./North Iowa Bulls) wrist-shot goal on the front side at 9:25, and the lights went on a few seconds early for Joe Burgmeier's (Mason City, Iowa/North Iowa Bulls) goal at 10:36 as well. Vladislav Shipota would make quick work of a Bulls turnover at 13:21 of the period, cutting the lead back to 7-3 and giving the home team a brief bump in momentum. That would prove to be Rochester's final goal of the season, though, and the lead would go right back to five goals just 39 seconds later as Gravelle got his own rebound before sliding it to Burgmeier to swipe into the open right side with 6:00 on the second-period clock. Owen Larson's (Minneapolis, Minn./Minnesota Magicians) wrister from the top of the Ice Hawks' faceoff circle (15:10) and Jackson's top-shelf slapper (17:37) brought the lead to 10-3 to finish off the Bulls' second-period firestorm.
A couple of nifty back-and-forth passes between Dalesandro and Quinn Fuchs (Minot, N.D./Minot Minotauros) put Dalesandro right on the edge of the goal crease at 4:42 of the third period, allowing him to softly scoop in his second goal of the game. A simultaneous touch at the blue line between linemates Mitch Parsons (Grandville, Mich./Grandville H.S.) and Riley Meyer (Carver, Minn./Chicago Fury AAA) allowed Meyer to walk the puck into the zone, get off a long-distance shot and put away the long rebound off of Plantz's kick-save to end the scoring at 7:16 of the third period, and end the Ice Hawks' season in front of 668 fans.
The Bulls offense gave Plantz plenty of work, with the Colorado native stopping 48 of the 60 shots he faced in the game. Tommi Ahlgren (Tampere, Finland/North Iowa Bulls), wearing an unnamed #30 jersey in place of his traditional #1, stopped 20 of 23 Rochester shots for his first 3HL playoff win. Up next is the Central Division championship series, another best-of-3 affair against the La Crosse Freeze, who swept Wisconsin 2 games to 0 in their semifinal matchup. North Iowa will host the first game of the series Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the North Iowa Ice Arena before traveling to the Green Island Ice Arena on Saturday for Game 2. If necessary, the clinching Game 3 will be played in Mason City at 7:30 p.m. Easter night.
- The Ice Hawks' three goals was the most Nick Fatis's team has scored in a single game all season against the Bulls. North Iowa allowed a pair of Rochester goals twice this season in six regular-season meetings, and outscored their visitors 21-3 in their two-game set in Mason City over the last weekend of February.
- Also part of the storyline for Rochester this season was their youth – three players on the roster this year are 1999 birth years, giving them four more years of junior eligibility after this season. However, 13 others on the final roster (including emergency backup goaltender Jacob Garvey) are 1995 birth years, making Saturday's game their last in the junior ranks.
- Those 12 goals also set a playoff record for the Bulls – the previous record was 11, set by North Iowa in its 2013 Silver Cup championship game against the Peoria Mustangs.
- Both Ahlgren and David Johnson (Bloomington, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) earned their first playoff wins in Bulls uniforms this weekend. Chris Amsden returned from a half-season stint with the Minnesota Magicians to earn eight regular-season wins and all 10 playoff wins for the Bulls.