BLAINE, Minn. – This time last year, the North Iowa Bulls were the new team in the North American Hockey League, and made a resounding impression with a 5-1 win over the Minnesota Wilderness in their league debut.
This time around, the Wisconsin Windigo were the new team on the block, and the Bulls were the team on the other side looking to spoil the party. North Iowa opened the 2022-23 season with a 5-0 victory, only the second time in team history that the Bulls have shut out an opponent in the opening game of their season.
It took both teams a little time to get their legs underneath them with North Iowa controlling the tempo, but the teams traded shutouts during the opening 20 minutes. The Bulls finally broke through early in the second period, off of a shot from Joe Sweeney (San Jose, Calif./North Iowa Bulls) along the right wing that sneaked through Max Beckford and settled right in front of the goal. Cayden Casey (Elk River, Minn./Andover H.S.) delivered the decisive poke, giving them a 1-0 lead just 1:07 out of the intermission.
Justin Mexico (Madison Heights, Mich./North Iowa Bulls) added on less than four minutes later, rifling a shot off of the crossbar and in from the top of the left-wing faceoff circle to give North Iowa a 2-0 advantage. The game’s first penalty to Drew Fisher gave the Bulls an opening on the power play, and North Iowa capitalized with Hunter Bulger’s (St. Louis, Mo./North Iowa Bulls) tap-in on the doorstep at 8:27 off of a pass from Luke Baker (Dana Point, Calif./Anaheim Jr. Ducks).
The Bulls had the momentum going to the third period, and Sweeney made another appearance at the 6:12 mark, picking up a rebound off of a shot from Casey and blasting it into the net from the right-wing faceoff dot for a 4-0 lead. Byron Hartley (Philadelphia, Pa./North Iowa Bulls) put North Iowa in position to score again at the 8:01 mark, rearing back to fire from the high slot before threading a pass to Max Scott (San Jose, Calif./North Iowa Bulls) for a one-timer at the bottom of the right-wing circle.
Five different North Iowa players finished with multi-point outings, including Sweeney and Casey, who scored their first NAHL goals in the contest. They, along with Scott and Mexico, each tallied a goal and an assist in the game, while Baker posted two assists.
For Sweeney, the game was a confident return to the ice after a 2021-22 season marked by injuries that kept him out of all but 13 games, one of which was spent at the NAHL Showcase with the Chippewa Steel.
“I’ve been waiting a long time, with my injury last year,” said Sweeney. “The boys were supporting me there, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Erik Chaffe (Marion, Iowa/Mason City Toros) made a statement in his first NAHL outing, pitching a 19-save shutout in his first appearance off of a successful Mason City Toros season that saw him post 15 wins and lead the team to within a win of the Fraser Cup tournament. Beckford took the loss in his NAHL opener, making 24 saves on 29 North Iowa shots. Special teams were exceptional for the Bulls in limited opportunities, going 1-for-2 on the power play and wiping away both of Wisconsin’s opportunities.
“Any shutout always feels good, but this was a team effort as well,” said Chaffe. “[Joe] had a couple of blocked shots – it takes a village, so it wasn’t just me. It was a good game for everyone.”
The win continues a torrid September swing into the season for North Iowa, after a pair of wins at the Aberdeen Wings last weekend in preseason play and a strong showing against the Corpus Christi IceRays in a pair of preseason mini-games in Mason City.
The Bulls return for a matinee on the second day of the NAHL Showcase on Thursday, squaring off with the perennial South Division contender Shreveport Mudbugs. The opening puck drop is slated for 2:15 p.m., with live streaming coverage on HockeyTV Presented by Dakota Fix Shelter Insurance and NorthIowaBulls.com.
Wisconsin 0 0 0 – 0
North Iowa 0 3 2 – 5
1st Period- No Scoring.Penalties-No Penalties
2nd Period-1, North Iowa, Casey 1 (Sweeney, Mexico), 1:07. 2, North Iowa, Mexico 1 (Scott, Heckman), 5:03. 3, North Iowa, Bulger 1 (Baker, Dombrowsky), 8:27 (PP). Penalties-Fisher Wis (slashing-minor), 7:03; Scott Nio (holding-minor), 13:48; Berglund Wis (too many men-minor), 15:37; Johnson Nio (cross checking-minor), 19:09.
3rd Period-4, North Iowa, Sweeney 1 (Casey, Dombrowsky), 6:12. 5, North Iowa, Scott 1 (Hartley, Baker), 8:01. Penalties-No Penalties
Shots on Goal-Wisconsin 6-9-4-19. North Iowa 11-5-13-29.
Power Play Opportunities-Wisconsin 0 / 2; North Iowa 1 / 2.
Goalies-Wisconsin, Beckford 0-1-0-0 (29 shots-24 saves). North Iowa, Chaffe 1-0-0-0 (19 shots-19 saves).
Linesmen-Gavin Jocelyn, Jacob Rozenberg.