The 2015 NA3HL West Division title came down to the final weekend for the North Iowa Bulls and Granite City Lumberjacks, but a four-goal run for the Bulls helped them put away Granite City for their third straight division crown, beating the Lumberjacks 6-4 at the North Iowa Ice Arena on Friday night. Even though the 'Jacks can tie North Iowa in the standings, the head-to-head tiebreaker will go to the Bulls after they moved their record against Granite City to 5-2 for the year. The Bulls came into the weekend two points ahead of the Lumberjacks with two games to go and a game in hand for Granite City, after two Granite City shootout losses to Alexandria last weekend.
"Somebody said to me a couple of days ago here at the rink, 'This is a really big weekend for you,' " said Bulls head coach Todd Sanden. "Every weekend is a big weekend in the West Division. You've got to take care of business to get yourself in this position."
The Lumberjacks asserted themselves with a goal just 98 seconds into the game, when Jared Sprink dug the puck off the end wall off the left goalpost and threw it into the slot for Michael Orke, who slid it in past Chris Amsden (St. Peter, MN) for the opening goal of the game. The Lumberjacks added some insurance six minutes later, with Dallas Marvin's wrist shot out of the right faceoff circle that beat Amsden just above the playing surface. North Iowa got a badly-needed answer from Tyler Johnson (Bloomington, MN) at the 15:18 mark of the period, with a left-wing wrister to beat 'Jacks goalie Jesse Garcia high and bring the Bulls back within one going to the locker room.
North Iowa was on the brink of tying the game until Luke Richardson blasted a high shot that rebounded out for Will Mix to push in at 11:42 of the second period, giving the Lumberjacks their second two-goal lead of the night. The run to the division title started at 14:04 of the second period, though, as Dylan Zins (Prior Lake, MN) pulled down a rebound in the middle of a crowd of Granite City players, dropped the puck to his stick and slid it through Garcia's five-hole to cut the lead back to 3-2. A backhanded chip shot by Johnny Panvica (Bloomington, MN) just 55 seconds later would tie the game and change the dynamic of the contest going into the third.
For the first 40 minutes, the special-teams play remained relatively quiet, with Granite City falling short on all three of its power play chances and North Iowa coming up empty on its only power play in the first period. That all changed with the go-ahead goal and a goal-of-the-year candidate from Jake Mullendore (Amery, WI) on the left doorstep. With time winding down on the penalty clock after a two-minute checking-from-behind call on Tyler Mros, a high-slot slap shot from Joe Kleven (Prior Lake, MN) clanked off the end glass and out to Mullendore on the goalpost, who batted the puck out of mid-air and beat Garcia two feet off the ice to take the lead. The run continued less than 30 seconds later as Ryan Durant (Waupun, WI) got loose on the left wing and raced down the ice after a loose puck on the penalty kill, sniping in a wrist shot from the left wing and making it a 5-3 game. Mitchell Gwost cut the lead to 5-4 with 7:12 to go, giving Granite City a power play goal from the high slot, but Brett Gravelle's (Forest Lake, MN) empty-netter with 11 seconds to go finished off the win and the division championship.
"I think the big one was Durant's shorthanded goal," said Sanden. "That's a huge momentum-changer when you score goals that quickly."
The Bulls sold almost 2,700 tickets for the game, with the players wearing jerseys bearing the logo of the former North Iowa Huskies franchise, which represented the Mason City market in the United States Hockey League from 1983-99 before moving to Cedar Rapids and adopting the Roughriders name. Also hanging from the rafters was the team's Junior "A" national championship banner from 1989, the last national junior hockey title won by a Mason City team until the Bulls' 2013 title. A former USHL coach with the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the late 1990s, Sanden's teams faced the Huskies several times in both the North Iowa facility and Dubuque's Five Flags Arena.
"I love the fact that we can honor a previous team in our community," said Sanden. "To go with the North Iowa Huskies throwback jerseys was a special thing. When you see in the stands and there's all kinds of old Huskies jerseys and Huskies jackets out there, this is something that is important to the people in this community. The Huskies started this – they created the momentum that allowed the Bulls to be what they are."
The Huskies' blue jerseys will be showcased on Saturday night, as North Iowa faces off against Granite City at 7:30 p.m. in the teams' final regular-season meeting of the year. Those jerseys will be auctioned off following the game to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and the team will also host one last Post Game Sk8 With the Bulls, sponsored by Super 8 of Clear Lake.
With the win, the Bulls' first-round postseason matchup has been confirmed as well, as the fourth-seeded Twin City Steel prepare to make the trip to Mason City next Friday night, with a 7:30 p.m. faceoff at the North Iowa Ice Arena.