AUSTIN, Minn. – It’s still early in the Central Division race, but the stakes are already rising in this year’s North American Hockey League rivalry between the North Iowa Bulls and Austin Bruins.
In fact, Saturday’s home opener for the Bulls will be for sole possession of first place in the Central standings – North Iowa came back from an early second-period goal from Walter Zacher to earn a 3-2 win Friday night at the Riverside Arena, moving into a tie for first place in the division standings following St. Cloud’s loss to Aberdeen.
The first 20 minutes was more a feeling-out period for the teams than anything else – the Bruins took a 10-9 shots-on-goal advantage, turning away both North Iowa power plays. The second period, however, saw the Bruins ramp up the pace in the Bulls’ end of the rink, racking up a 25-5 shots-on-goal count in the middle stanza.
Heavy pressure on the Bruins’ first power play of the night, following a slashing call to North Iowa’s Max Scott (San Jose, Calif./North Iowa Bulls), did not yield a goal to the hosts. Instead, it was a toss from Zacher at the left point that did, on a shot that initially appeared to be under the control of goaltender Mitchell Day (St. Louis, Mo./St. Louis Blues AAA). Instead, the puck sneaked through heavy traffic in front of the net, giving Austin the 1-0 lead just 3:22 into the period.
Just over four minutes later, North Iowa got the goal back when Rasmus Nousiainen (Turku, Finland/ )pulled the puck off the boards in the Bruins’ zone and found Eli Miller (Dundas, Minn./Lakeville South H.S.) streaking into the zone – Miller raced down the slot and snapped a shot off of Ethan Robertson and under the crossbar to tie the game at 1-1. Cayden Casey (Elk River, Minn./Andover H.S.) would pick up an assist on the play thanks to his initial pass to Nousiainen.
“Casey made a good play and got it up the boards to Rasmus,” said Miller. “Rasmus made a sweet behind-the-back pass to me, and I went down on the breakaway and shot it lower right.”
The Bulls’ power play unit struck with 10:50 left in the period, just 16 seconds into a holding call against the Bruins’ Austin Salani. Logan Dombrowsky (Stevens Point, Wis./North Iowa Bulls) lined up a shot from the top of the right-wing circle that took a perfect carom off of Scott’s stick, bounding past Robertson to put North Iowa in front for the first time.
North Iowa defended that same 2-1 lead for much of the third period, but with 4:57 remaining, Justin Mexico (Madison Heights, Mich./North Iowa Bulls) jogged the puck down the right wing and snapped a shot on the net from the faceoff dot. Robertson was not able to control the rebound, allowing Byron Hartley (Philadelphia, Pa./North Iowa Bulls) to sweep in the second chance and bump the lead to 3-1.
Robertson exited the Austin net with just over three minutes remaining, and Dylan Cook landed himself on the scoreboard with just 21.2 seconds remaining thanks to a toss from the left-wing corner that tipped off of a North Iowa skate in front of the net and past Day. That odd carom cut the North Iowa lead to 3-2, and Day made one more save on a Bruins one-timer at the horn to run out the clock and seal the victory.
The Bruins’ second-period surge allowed them to wrap up the night with a 44-23 shots-on-goal advantage, but Day closed out the evening with a remarkable 42 saves to earn his second win of the year. Robertson made 20 saves, taking his first regulation loss of the year.
Miller’s first-period tally marked a personal milestone, picking up his first junior goal after a successful high school career in the Twin Cities.
“It was a good win and a good battle for our team,” said Miller. “It feels good to get that first (goal).”
After totaling 11 power play goals last year against the Bulls, Austin closed out the night with an 0-for-2 mark on the power play, while North Iowa went 1-for-4 after scoring just one power play goal against the Bruins over their 12 meetings a year ago.
Hartley picked up the game-winner in his second outing in a row, after notching both goals in last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Minot. The loss was Austin’s first this year in regulation, ending a six-game point streak, their best ever to open a season.
The teams get together Saturday night at the Mason City Arena for the back end of their home-and-home weekend, marking North Iowa’s 2022-23 home opener as well. The opening puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., with live streaming coverage on HockeyTV Presented by Dakota Fix Shelter Insurance and NorthIowaBulls.com
To purchase advance tickets to any upcoming North Iowa home game, call 641-423-4625 or click here. Updated news and information on North Iowa Bulls hockey are always available at www.northiowabulls.com, and by following the team’s social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
North Iowa 0 2 1 – 3
Austin 0 1 1 – 2
1st Period- No Scoring.Penalties-Zacher Aus (tripping-minor), 2:41; Desiderio Aus (hooking-minor), 12:26.
2nd Period-1, Austin, Zacher 4 (Christiano, Gilman), 3:23. 2, North Iowa, Miller 1 (Casey), 7:32. 3, North Iowa, Scott 2 (Hiltunen, Dombrowsky), 9:11 (PP). Penalties-Scott Nio (slashing-minor), 0:32; Johnson Nio (roughing-minor), 4:04; Looft Aus (roughing-minor), 4:04; Salani Aus (holding-minor), 8:53; Miller Nio (tripping-minor), 10:38.
3rd Period-4, North Iowa, Hartley 3 (Mexico), 15:04. 5, Austin, Cook 3 (Wallace, Goffredo), 19:40. Penalties-Looft Aus (tripping-minor), 9:25.
Shots on Goal-North Iowa 9-5-9-23. Austin 10-25-9-44.
Power Play Opportunities-North Iowa 1 / 4; Austin 0 / 2.
Goalies-North Iowa, Day 2-2-0-0 (44 shots-42 saves). Austin, Robertson 3-1-0-2 (23 shots-20 saves).
Referees-Nate Kozari, Rocco Stachowiak.
Linesmen-Aaron Mostrom, Ben Stark.