MASON CITY, Iowa – Neither side is finished paring down its roster before the North American Hockey League Showcase begins in Blaine, Minnesota next week. Neither team’s players have made making those decisions any easier, either.
With more than 30 players still on the North Iowa Bulls’ preseason roster and an overflow on the Corpus Christi IceRays’ player list as well, the teams stretched their preseason get-together Wednesday night to four periods, playing two mini-games at the Mason City Arena of 40 minutes apiece.
It turned out to be a good move for all involved – fans got an extra 20 minutes’ worth of bang for their buck, the coaches got an extra look at the players on their roster bubbles, and each team enjoyed a win. The IceRays used a big second period in the opening mini-game to pull away for a 4-2 victory, while North Iowa’s power play marker from Hunter Bulger (St. Louis, Mo./North Iowa Bulls) with 5:20 remaining gave them a 1-0 win in the latter game.
Byron Hartley (Philadelphia, Pa./North Iowa Bulls) brought the crowd to its feet early, scoring just 28 seconds into the opening period on a rebound following an initial shot from Max Scott (San Jose, Calif./North Iowa Bulls) and a momentary scramble in front of the net. Corpus Christi would get that goal back at the 6:16 mark of the period, when Wolfgang Govedaris found space down the left wing and set up Fyodor Nikalayenia for a successful one-timer from the right-wing faceoff dot.
Just 1:45 into the second period, the IceRays picked up their first lead of the night when Hans Martin Ulvebne turned from the left-wing corner and sent the puck to the front of the net, finding Kiernan Gately streaking in for a one-timer and a 2-1 lead.
The Bulls answered with their first power play goal of the night at 4:51 of the period, just seconds after a tripping call against Andy Larsen. Jack Mesic (Plymouth, Mich./North Iowa Bulls) passed the puck down the right-wing wall to Scott at the bottom of the right-wing faceoff circle, and his pass to the left-wing circle found Justin Mexico (Madison Heights, Mich./North Iowa Bulls) for a tying one-timer.
That was the last word for North Iowa’s offense in the opening mini-game – at 7:14 of the period, when Cameron Crolley wrangled the puck away from a Bulls defender at the blue line and raced in for a backhand chip over top of Connor Graham (Fort Wayne, Ind./Indy Fuel 18U), giving the IceRays a 3-2 lead. They added on with 7:16 left, with Oliver Stumpel’s goal off of a setup pass from Ulvebne below the goal line.
The teams battled to a stalemate in the second mini-game before earning another power play on a slashing call to Jackson Beach with 6:59 remaining. Casey Roepke’s (Erin, Wis./North Iowa Bulls) shot from the right point clipped Bulger on its way to the net, earning Bulger the only goal of the contest.
North Iowa controlled the pace, winning the shots-on-goal count 20-12 in the opening mini-game and repeating in the second mini-game, 18-16. Special teams were exceptional for the Bulls, killing all seven power plays against them while going 2-for-4 on the man-advantage. All five power plays for Corpus Christi were unsuccessful in the second mini-game.
Graham took the loss in the opener for the Bulls, making four of seven saves, while Zackary Ortolano (Las Vegas, Nev./Shattuck-St. Mary’s 18U) got the win in the nightcap with nine saves. Mitchell Day (St. Louis, Mo./New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs) and Erik Chaffe (Cedar Rapids, Iowa/Mason City Toros) finished with no-decisions.
The Bulls wrap up a brief preseason slate on Friday and Saturday with a visit to the Odde Ice Center in Aberdeen for a pair of contests against the Wings. The opening puck drop Friday evening is scheduled for 7:15 p.m., followed by Saturday’s tilt at 3 p.m. Live streaming coverage of both games is available on HockeyTV. The regular season begins with a four-game stretch at the NAHL Showcase, starting next Wednesday at 5 p.m. against the Wisconsin Windigo.