MASON CITY, Iowa – With four games in four days, including a Sunday afternoon game, the North Iowa Bulls Holiday Classic was a preview of what it will take to win the North American Tier 3 Hockey League’s Fraser Cup national championship this coming spring.
The Bulls and their two visitors certainly learned this weekend how much parity there is at the top, and that the fight to get to the top will be a hard-won battle.
The St. Louis Jr. Blues turned aside an offensive barrage from North Iowa on Sunday afternoon and came back for a 3-1 win after giving up a third-chance rebound goal during the second period. With the victory, the Jr. Blues finished 2-2 on the weekend, sweeping their hosts but taking a sweep to the Sheridan Hawks, the other team in the showcase. North Iowa swept the Hawks in their two meetings, leaving all three teams on even footing.
The Bulls got shot after shot on net against former North Iowa netminder Owen Carlson, out-gunning St. Louis 14 shots to eight in the first period and 30-12 over the first 40 minutes. Three of those chances came in swift succession at the 4:26 mark of the second period, when Hayden Fox (Anchorage, Alaska/Team Alaska U18) fired home a final rebound after seeing Carlson stop shots from Sota Isogai (Nagano, Japan/North Iowa Bulls) and Nico Aguilera (Lakeville, Minn./North Iowa Bulls).
The teams played the rest of the second period and the opening 90 seconds of the third period with North Iowa on top, but a slashing call against Garrett Freeman (Sartell, Minn./Breezy Point North Stars) put St. Louis on their second power play of the day just 49 seconds out of the break. Max Savaloja’s (Eau Claire, Wis./Memorial H.S.) stick-lift bottled up one scoring chance from Jr. Blues newcomer Riley Howse, but he put his stick back on the puck and wristed it past Caleb Mayer (Lakeville, Minn./Lakeville North H.S.) from the slot for the 1-1 tie.
With 11:07 to go in the period, the visitors made their move – with Caleb Huffman (Anchorage, Alaska/Meijer AAA) moving to escape a St. Louis forecheck, the puck hopped over his stick and found Mike Ivory, who turned and tossed it past Mayer for a glove-side marker and a 2-1 lead.
Mayer made his way to the bench with 1:40 to go, but the Jr. Blues took advantage of a deflection right off of a restart in the St. Louis end 21 seconds later – Matt McGowan won the draw and played it back to Joey Boccardi, whose heave toward the North Iowa end clipped Freeman’s stick and found itself on a track toward the empty net to clinch the Jr. Blues’ second win of the weekend.
North Iowa put 40 shots on the net, with Carlson stopping 39 to pick up his second win in three days. Mayer stopped 19 of the 21 shots against him, the Jr. Blues’ empty-net goal notwithstanding. The Bulls went 2-for-3 on the penalty kill, but were not able to capitalize on their two power-play chances.
The loss virtually ends North Iowa’s 2020 slate – with a four-week pause in West Division activity only set to expire this coming Friday, the Bulls will enjoy some time away from the rink and prepare for a return to the ice December 31 with a New Year’s Eve visit to the Willmar WarHawks. Pending the make-up dates on the Bulls’ four postponed regular-season contests, North Iowa is scheduled to return to home ice on January 22 against the Alexandria Blizzard.