MASON CITY, Iowa – The North Iowa Bulls knew Thursday night’s game against the Willmar WarHawks was going to be a physical one. The WarHawks were expected to play the body and bring the intensity right from the opening puck drop, and they did.
The WarHawks were not expected to take the air out of the building on the opening rush, however – Dylan Gajewski had a career night with a natural hat trick, firing the opening salvo just 10 seconds into the contest in a 4-2 victory over North Iowa. It was the first time in 24 all-time meetings between Willmar and North Iowa that the WarHawks have earned a victory in regulation.
Lewis Rowan won the opening draw, and within seconds, Isaiah Thomas had broken loose down the right wing and thrown it to the back post for Gajewski to poke in for the first goal of the night.
North Iowa spent much of the first period pushing for the tying goal, but Gajewski struck again to make it 2-0 with 3:22 remaining in the period. A 2-on-1 fell apart on the way into the Bulls’ zone, but Gajewski beat the North Iowa defender before setting up the forehand and beating Evan Babekuhl (Long Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) to double the lead.
Willmar doubled it again with a pair of goals in the second period, and Gajewski would earn the hat trick on a rebound goal at 6:42 of the middle stanza. Hunter Bjorge’s shot from the left-wing circle popped off the top of Babekuhl’s shoulder and settled right behind him, with Gajewski reaching in behind to poke in the loose puck for a 3-0 lead.
Thomas earned his third assist of the night just four minutes later, evading a check on the right wing and finding Rowan for a forehand goal on the run, giving the WarHawks a 4-0 lead.
The Bulls finally found themselves on the comeback trail late in the period, thanks to a run into the Willmar zone from Sota Isogai (Nagano, Japan/North Iowa Bulls). After seeing the post blocked off, Isogai instead swooped around and found Nick Mohs-Messerli (Orono, Minn./Orono H.S.) out front to bang in a one-timer with 3:15 left to cut the lead to 4-1.
The game’s final goal was easily its most exciting – with time running out on a power play thanks to Gajewski’s slashing minor and Garrett Freeman (Sartell, Minn./Breezy Point North Stars trying to jam the puck past Lukas Haugen, the puck squirted loose, and Jack Campion (Crystal, Minn./Armstrong-Cooper H.S.) snuck home the chance with less than a second left in the period to trim the lead to 4-2.
The comeback trail ended there for the Bulls, though – the defenses ruled the roost in the final 20 minutes, with the two teams combining for just nine shots on goal and neither team landing on the scoreboard again.
“That was part of the game plan, was being physical,” said Campion. “It took us a bit to match it, but eventually we got our physicality up. That’s when we started getting our momentum, is when we were playing physical.”
Babekuhl took the loss to fall to 12-3-0-1 for the year, making 12 saves on 16 Willmar chances, while Carsen Stokes (Prior Lake, Minn./Minnesota Wilderness) went 5-for-5 in relief. Haugen climbed back to .500 for the season with his fourth win of the year, earning 30 saves on 32 Bulls shots. Rowan had a goal and an assist in addition to Gajewski and Thomas’s three-point nights.
The WarHawks also climbed back to .500, moving to 15-15 for the year and starting an extremely busy week on a high note. North Iowa, on the other hand, has dropped four of its last five and has not earned a regulation win since sewing up their West Division playoff spot on February 20.
Willmar begins a three-game weekend homestand on Friday as the New Ulm Steel make a quick visit, while the Bulls head to Willmar for a Saturday-Sunday set. Saturday’s game has been pushed back to an 8:10 p.m. start time, while Sunday’s game gets underway at 7:10 p.m. Live streaming coverage of both games is available on HockeyTV.
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.