FRIDAY, FEB. 26 – 7:30 P.M., NORTH IOWA ICE ARENA (MASON CITY, IOWA)
SATURDAY, FEB. 27 – 7:30 P.M., NORTH IOWA ICE ARENA (MASON CITY, IOWA)
ROCHESTER ICE HAWKS (10-31-1, 21 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
@ NORTH IOWA BULLS (36-2-3, 75 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
IN A NUTSHELL: North Iowa returns to the Barn for its first home game in three weeks and its first full home weekend since mid-January, against Rochester in an NA3HL first-round playoff preview.
ALL-TIME SERIES: North Iowa leads, 4-0-0 (the Bulls have outscored the Ice Hawks 31-3 in those four games).
LAST WEEKEND'S RECAP: Two-game weekend sweeps have been harder to come by for the Bulls after a red-hot start to the season. Last weekend's visit to the Madison area was much the same, but this time around it was the Wisconsin Whalers trying to haul away the split in the second game. North Iowa ran off 50 shots against Max McConnell in a 5-2 win on Friday night. Quinn Fuchs's opening tally at the 15:53 mark was the only goal of the first period, but the floodgates opened with three goals, including a Brett Gravelle power play tally in the second. The Bulls ended up 2-for-5 on the power play and five different Bulls each tallied a goal in the game. Saturday night's game, though, belonged to Wisconsin's Peter Henderson – the league points leader assisted on Whalers goals in the first and second periods and then buried an empty-netter with 45 seconds remaining to seal a 3-1 Wisconsin victory. Joe Burgmeier's tally with 2:56 left in the second period would cut the home team's lead to 2-1, but remained the visitors' only goal of the night. North Iowa missed on its five power play chances, but the Whalers spent just 1:39 on the power play, thanks to Thomas Hanson's goal in his team's only man-advantage.
THIS WEEKEND'S PROMOTIONS: In addition to Saturday's Post Game Skate with the Bulls, North Iowa season ticket holders can begin picking up their Silver Cup playoff passes at Friday night's game. The weekend series is a certain first-round Central Division playoff preview.
COVERAGE: All North Iowa Bulls games, home and away, are streamed live at FASTHockey.com. Live audio of Friday night's game is also available for free at NorthIowaBulls.com, with Austin Draude on the call starting at 7:15 p.m. Vinnie Perricelli will call Saturday night's game with exclusive coverage on FASTHockey.
BROADCASTER BATTLE RESULTS: Austin Draude and Vinnie Perricelli came within a whisker of a FASTHockey Broadcaster Battle championship in the second year of the contest, falling in the finals to Tony DeGerness of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League's Melfort Mustangs. Almost 3,900 votes were cast for Austin and Vinnie in the finals, good for 46.1 percent of the tally. From the semifinals on, the Bulls' broadcasting duo was the last remaining NA3HL representative in the contest, and the last representative from an American junior hockey league.
MIND THE GAP: While the difference between first and second place in the NA3HL Central Division race continues to grow, the work is not done yet for the Bulls – the Silver Cup Playoff format allows for two Wild Card entries, meaning as long as North Iowa finishes in the top two of the league's overall standings they will automatically earn entry to the Silver Cup tournament with a win in their first-round series. Going into the weekend, the Bulls are eight points ahead of third-place St. Louis. The earliest North Iowa could wrap up that top-two spot is Saturday night, with three points against Rochester and a St. Louis loss to the Wisconsin Whalers.
RECORD WATCH: With six games remaining, Brett Gravelle has 10 goals to go to catch Rihards Marenis's team record of 55 single-season goals – Marenis's record is also the official league mark, dating to the 2010-11 season. So far this season, Gravelle has tallied 17 goals in 12 games against Rochester, Wisconsin and Chicago – the three teams remaining on the Bulls' regular-season schedule.
POWER OUTAGE: Rochester has been near the bottom of the NA3HL on the power play this season (31st of 34, 12.7 percent) but no opponent has held the Ice Hawks power play in check as well as North Iowa – in four meetings this season, the North Iowa penalty kill has wiped out all 12 Rochester chances on the man-advantage. As for the Bulls' league-best power play (29.8 percent), it's somewhat higher against the Ice Hawks – the 8-of-23 mark gives the Bulls a success rate of 34.8 percent against their neighbors to the immediate north, plus a shorthanded tally. Making matters even more difficult for Rochester is their 14 shorthanded goals allowed this season – the third-most in the 3HL.
DEEP THOUGHTS: The Rochester scoring punch hasn't gone terribly deep this season, but there is some formidable scoring punch at the top of the lineup: Dominik Bogdzuil and Nick Paulson are tied for the top spot on Nick Fatis's score sheet with 40 points apiece, and Trey McMillen is right behind at 39. By comparison, the Bulls also have only three players at 39 points or above. The difference lies in how many points those three have scored (Gravelle: 76; Marshall Barnes: 51; Austin Jackson: 50) and how deep the scoring goes. Only two other players on the Ice Hawks roster have at least 15 points, while the Bulls add 14 players to that list.
THE DEFENSE CHANT: McMillen is not simply on Rochester's top line – there are quite a few teams that wish they could put him on their top lines as well. McMillen's 39 points ranks third among defensemen in the league this season, and his 15 goals makes him the league's top two-way defenseman for the season. On the Bulls' side of the ledger, Adam Orn's 34 points have him tied for sixth among 3HL defensemen, and his +50 mark is the best plus-minus tally of any player in the league at his position.
START ME UP: Rochester will need a better start to stay in this weekend's games than they've typically gotten on the road. The Ice Hawks have scored just six first-period goals on the road, and shoot just 3.6 percent on the road in the opening 20 minutes. Regardless, it'll be critical for Rochester to get going early – 24 of the 25 games they've trailed after the first period have ended in losses, including 12 of their 13 on another team's rink.