MASON CITY, Iowa – Sunday evening’s NA3HL playoff contest at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena was a night of goodbyes for the North Iowa Bulls in a myriad of ways.
The Bulls said goodbye to their home schedule, playing the last of their 24 contests on home ice this season with a West Division playoff championship and a spot in the Fraser Cup national championship tournament on the line.
The team also said goodbye to fellow division finalist Willmar, playing their last game ever against their foes of five years before the Bulls make the move to the North American Hockey League next season.
They said farewell to their fans as well, though they’ll get another chance to say farewell to many of them later this week before heading to Missouri, earning a 4-2 win and locking up a spot in the Fraser Cup tournament for the seventh time in nine years.
The Bulls punched their ticket behind a four-goal scoring barrage that started with Willmar in front, thanks to a rebound goal from Isaiah Thomas less than four minutes into the game. Carsen Stokes (Prior Lake, Minn./Minnesota Wilderness) stopped an initial Jonah Jangula shot from the left wing, but the rebound settled out front for Thomas to push in, and the WarHawks scored first for the only time on the weekend.
The home offense finally came alive with 3:11 left in the period, when Brayden Uttech (Sun Prarie, Wis./Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings) caught Shota Kaneko (Tokyo, Japan/Team Japan U20) on the left wing with a rink-wide pass, and Kaneko quickly found Hutson Collins (Eau Claire, Wis./New Ulm Steel) on the back post for a one-timer and a tying goal, his first tally since a goal in Alexandria nearly two months ago.
Willmar controlled the pace of the game on Saturday, but the Bulls regained the pace on Sunday, putting 10 of the game’s first 15 shots on the net and carrying a 23-11 shots-on-goal advantage out of the second period. The Bulls’ offense roared in the second period, scoring two goals just a minute-and-a-half apart to grab a 3-1 lead at the game’s halfway point.
At 7:31 of the second, Uttech jammed home a chance of his own after a drive down the right wing from Collins, and the Bulls tacked on at the nine-minute mark when Nick Mohs-Messerli (Orono, Minn./Orono H.S.) threaded the puck through the slot for Caden Smith (Lakeville, Minn./Janesville Jets), who moved to his right to beat Lukas Haugen and put his team up by two.
North Iowa’s lead ballooned to three goals with 7:46 remaining, when Garrett Freeman’s (Sartell, Minn./Breezy Point North Stars) shot from the right-wing hash marks was kicked out long to Sota Isogai (Nagano, Japan/North Iowa Bulls), who buried the second chance in front to stretch the advantage to 4-1.
The WarHawks emptied their net with four minutes to go, and the extra pressure yielded one goal with 3:05 to play. A toss from the right point caught Alex Kupka in front of the Bulls net, and after Stokes denied the initial chance, Kupka scraped the puck past on the post to cut the lead to 4-2.
After briefly re-entering the net, Haugen again headed to the bench, but a tripping call against Gavin Wendorf (Richfield, Minn./Dauphin Kings) with 39.8 seconds to play was the only leverage the WarHawks were able to gain as the final seconds ticked away and North Iowa locked in another trip to the season’s final weekend.
“It feels great,” said Collins, a 2000-born forward moving into the final week of his junior hockey career. “I’ve been working toward this for a long time, and it just feels good. I think we’ve got a really good group, and I’m just excited about [the Fraser Cup weekend].”
Uttech and Collins each came up large, with a goal and an assist, while Kaneko notched assists on each of their goals. True to form, Thomas notched a goal and an assist to lead the WarHawks, checking both of the boxes for the fourth time in Willmar’s five-game postseason run.
Stokes made 14 saves to earn his fourth win of the postseason, while Haugen took the loss with 23 saves. Neither side broke through on the power play, with North Iowa coming up empty on four chances. Willmar’s abbreviated power play on Wendorf’s infraction was the only chance they got with the man-advantage.
The loss ends a storybook season for the WarHawks, who advanced to the division finals for the first time in franchise history, and came up just one win short in a bid for the team’s first-ever trip to the Fraser Cup tournament.
It also ends an incredible home history for North Iowa as members of the NA3HL, with 198 wins at home in regular-season and postseason play since entering the league in 2011. An 18-game head-to-head winning streak marked the Bulls’ five-year battle with Willmar, as the teams part ways with the Bulls owning a 24-3-2 edge in the series.
The Bulls will be the sixth and final seed at the Fraser Cup tournament in St. Peters, Missouri, with all seeding done by virtue of regular-season winning percentage. A rematch against the Sheridan Hawks awaits on Friday afternoon following the team’s unofficial get-together at the Bulls Holiday Showcase in December, and the Bulls will lock horns with the fourth-seeded Northeast Generals on Saturday afternoon to close out pool play. All games at the Fraser Cup championship tournament will be streamed exclusively on HockeyTV.
2021-22 season tickets are now on sale as North Iowa makes its move to the North American Hockey League, with a 10-percent early-bird discount in effect until April 30. Updated news and information on the Bulls’ 10th Anniversary season are always available at www.northiowabulls.com, and by following the team’s social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Willmar 1 0 1 – 2
North Iowa 1 2 1 – 4
1st Period-1, Willmar, Thomas 4 (Jangula, Gajewski), 3:53. 2, North Iowa, Collins 1 (Kaneko, Uttech), 16:49. Penalties-Light Wil (boarding-minor), 9:03.
2nd Period-3, North Iowa, Uttech 1 (Kaneko, Collins), 7:31. 4, North Iowa, Smith 2 (Mohs-Messerli, Nauss), 9:10. Penalties-Cox Wil (high sticking-minor), 5:14; Gajewski Wil (head contact-minor), 19:54.
3rd Period-5, North Iowa, Isogai 2 (Freeman, Savaloja), 12:14. 6, Willmar, Kupka 2 (Thomas, Johnson), 16:56. Penalties-Johnson Wil (kneeing-minor), 8:47; Wendorf Nio (tripping-minor), 19:24.
Shots on Goal-Willmar 5-6-5-16. North Iowa 10-13-4-27.
Power Play Opportunities-Willmar 0 / 1; North Iowa 0 / 4.
Goalies-Willmar, Haugen (27 shots-23 saves). North Iowa, Stokes (16 shots-14 saves).
Linesmen-Bryan Gorcoff, Dylan Krikke.