MASON CITY, Iowa – Games between the North Iowa Bulls and St. Louis Jr. Blues are always close. To win, it’s often not enough to be better. Leaders have to lead, and those leaders have to be timely.
St. Louis redefined “timely” in Friday’s game against the Bulls, scoring the game’s first goal in the waning seconds of the first period, erased a North Iowa lead after just 19 seconds, and scored the eventual winner on a late power play to take a 4-2 win as the Bulls Holiday Classic reaches its halfway point.
Had it been an official game, it would have marked not only the first win for St. Louis on the Bulls’ home ice since March of 2017, it would have given them a pivotal two points in a Central Division race that is already delivering plenty of entertaining twists and turns. Instead, the Jr. Blues will have to settle for an exhibition victory that puts each team back to scratch after two games on the long weekend.
With less than a minute remaining in the opening period, leading St. Louis scorer Joey Solimando skated the puck behind the North Iowa net and turned at the bottom of the faceoff circle, facing and firing against Evan Babekuhl (Long Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) – the puck snuck past the third-year Bull to give St. Louis the 1-0 advantage.
The second period saw more stout defense, but also a Bulls breakthrough at the 8:48 mark. Max Savaloja (Eau Claire, Wis./Memorial H.S.) led Garrett Freeman (Sartell, Minn./Breezy Point North Stars) into the St. Louis zone on the right wing, but Freeman wisely dropped a pass at the point for Savaloja, who skated to the top of the faceoff circle and zipped one past former Bull Owen Carlson to tie the game at 1-1.
The Bulls were within two shots of the Jr. Blues going to the third, but the visitors dominated the final period by a 19-5 count in that department. However, North Iowa gained the lead on a snap from Cal Nauss (Wayzata, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) at the left point, beating Carlson over his left shoulder at 4:13 for the 2-1 lead.
That lead lasted only until the 4:32 mark – Vinny Servizzi’s pass from behind the net rode the wall out to Tommy Ramer at the right point, who lifted his own top-shelf tally over Babekuhl’s right shoulder to tie the game at 2-2.
Much like last Saturday’s overtime loss to Rochester, a late North Iowa penalty opened the door for the visitors – Caleb Huffman’s (Anchorage, Alaska/Meijer AAA) head-contact minor gave St. Louis their third power play of the night, and Solimando lined up a shot from the right wing that beat Babekuhl inside the near post with just 3:34 remaining.
“We’ve got to stay disciplined at the end of the game and take our chances where we can get them,” said Savaloja. “We’ve got to be smarter – it’s not the time to take them later in the game, especially when it’s close. We’ll learn from our mistakes.”
Babekuhl exited the net with a minute to play, but North Iowa was never able to get its offensive machine going with the extra attacker – however, Servizzi forced a Bulls turnover just inside the Jr. Blues blue line and skated it into the empty net with just 26 seconds remaining to give St. Louis some extra cushion in the box score.
Solimando finished the night with the two goals, while Chase Morgan grabbed a couple of assists for the game’s only other multi-point showing. Another late man-advantage gave the Jr. Blues a 1-for-4 finish on the power play, while North Iowa came up short on their only power play in the second period. Carlson earned the win for St. Louis, making 20 saves, while Babekuhl took the loss in a 34-save showing.
Each team sits at 1-1 on the weekend at the Bulls Holiday Classic, as do the Sheridan Hawks, who defeated St. Louis 4-1 in a matinee earlier in the day. Those teams meet up again at noon on Saturday, while the Bulls and Hawks do battle in North Iowa’s annual Teddy Bear Toss night at 7:30 p.m. Live streaming coverage of all six games this weekend is available on HockeyTV, with free audio streaming of all Bulls games this weekend on Mixlr.
Updated news and information on the North Iowa Bulls’ 10th Anniversary season are always available at www.northiowabulls.com, and by following the team’s social media on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.