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MASON CITY, Iowa – For a team with seven division championships, three NA3HL titles and three national championships, simply clinching a playoff berth is considered a milestone of the most minor variety.
However, all great runs start with smaller milestones. The North Iowa Bulls reached that first milestone Saturday night at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena, hauling in a 7-0 win over the Alexandria Blizzard, whom the Bulls would meet in the first round of the Fraser Cup playoffs should the standings remain intact over the season’s final five weeks.
The win for North Iowa locks fifth-place New Ulm out from catching the Bulls in the standings, with four teams set to reach the West Division postseason. With 16 games remaining, the Steel would max out at 42 points this season, while the Bulls moved to 43 points with Saturday’s victory.
The Bulls did it in a big way, bookending the first period with a pair of goals from Caden Smith (Lakeville, Minn./Janesville Jets). Just a minute into the contest, Smith went to the back post to beat Joey Greilich for the 1-0 lead. With 24.6 seconds remaining, Smith again went to the glove side, hitting the top corner and sending North Iowa into the intermission with a 2-0 lead.
North Iowa played most of the second period with that two-goal lead, pushing for more – they got more with 4:19 to play, when Nick Mohs-Messerli (Orono, Minn./Orono H.S.) got Greilich to commit to his right before setting Garrett Freeman (Sartell, Minn./Breezy Point North Stars) up for a quick one-timer in front and a 3-0 advantage.
The final period was all North Iowa, with four goals in the final 20 minutes to help the Bulls pull away. Just 1:22 out of the break, a wrist shot from Jac Triemert (Woodbury, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) down the slot beat Greilich high to stretch the lead to 4-0.
An odd-man rush just before the halfway mark of the third period gave Smith his third tally of the night, with Carson Jones (Eden Prairie, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) getting loose on the left wing and finding Smith on the run to rattle one home for a 5-0 lead with 10:25 to go.
“All of the lines were clicking, just as a team,” said Smith. “Plays started from the [defensive] zone and went all the way down. When you’re able to execute stuff you do in practice, it’s always a special thing.”
Jones earned one of his own with a run down the right wing and a quick hop around a defender – his wrist shot hit the back of the net with 6:54 remaining and gave the Bulls a 6-0 lead. Triemert capped the scoring just 1:39 later, after seeing his initial chance on the right wing batted straight up in the air in front of the net. A couple of quick swipes later, Triemert chucked home the rebound to push North Iowa to its final margin of the evening.
Not to be forgotten was Bulls netminder Evan Babekuhl (Long Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) who earned his first shutout of the year and sixth of his career, making 24 saves. It was North Iowa’s first shutout victory since shutting out the Willmar WarHawks 9-0 last February 25 on the WarHawks’ home ice.
“The last quite a few games for me haven’t been in my favor,” said Babekuhl. “It’s good to get back and play well, and get some good numbers.”
Babekuhl bumped his record to 12-2 for the year, winning his 10th straight game, while Greilich fell to 6-9 in a 27-save effort. Smith closed out the night with an assist along with his hat trick, the Bulls’ first since Jordan Roo’s three-goal effort against St. Louis on Valentine’s Day of last year. Jones finished with a goal and two helpers, and three other Bulls ended with two assists apiece.
North Iowa moved to 21-5-1 on the season, while Alexandria dropped to 10-15-1 with the loss. The win pushes the Bulls’ head-to-head home winning streak to 16 games, as the two teams get set to meet again Sunday afternoon in their final regular-season get-together of 2020-21. The “Sunday Funday” matchup gets underway with a 1 p.m. puck drop at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena, with live streaming coverage on HockeyTV and free audio streaming 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 platforms on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Alexandria 0 0 0 – 0
North Iowa 2 1 4 – 7
1st Period-1, North Iowa, Smith 5 (Sofo, Newpower), 1:00. 2, North Iowa, Smith 6 (Jones, Newpower), 19:36. Penalties-Revering Alx (tripping-minor), 8:13.
2nd Period-3, North Iowa, Freeman 13 (Mohs-Messerli, Heffron), 15:41. Penalties-Smith Nio (tripping-minor), 12:04; Mohs-Messerli Nio (tripping-minor), 15:50; McNeil Alx (hooking-minor), 18:34.
3rd Period-4, North Iowa, Triemert 4 (Collins, Nauss), 1:22. 5, North Iowa, Smith 7 (Jones, Nauss), 9:35. 6, North Iowa, Jones 14 (Smith), 13:06. 7, North Iowa, Triemert 5 (Sloth, Collins), 14:45. Penalties-Savaloja Nio (slashing-minor), 7:05.
Shots on Goal-Alexandria 8-8-8-24. North Iowa 14-9-11-34.
Power Play Opportunities-Alexandria 0 / 3; North Iowa 0 / 2.
Goalies-Alexandria, Greilich 6-9-0-0 (34 shots-27 saves). North Iowa, Babekuhl 12-2-0-0 (24 shots-24 saves).
Linesmen-Evan Davis, Reilly Hickey.