WILLMAR, Minn. – Sunday’s game between the North Iowa Bulls and Willmar WarHawks was ripe for the taking. The game was tied 4-4 late in the second period, and again at 5-5 midway through the third.
Leave it to a player who had never scored a goal for the WarHawks to be the difference-maker.
Hunter Bjorge scored twice in the final eight minutes to push Willmar past the Bulls by a 7-5 count, in the sixth straight game between the teams to be decided by two goals or fewer. North Iowa grabbed a tying goal three different times in the game, but was never able to take the lead.
Jack Willis pumped some early air into the building – and into the WarHawks’ goal horn – by walking in front and sliding the opening goal past Carsen Stokes (Prior Lake, Minn./Minnesota Wilderness) just 91 seconds into the contest for the early lead.
North Iowa scoring leader Carson Jones (Eden Prairie, Minn./Kenai River Brown Bears) evened the game at 5:27 of the opening period on a shot from the bottom of the left-wing faceoff circle, sneaking the puck past Will Pinney for the equalizer.
Two WarHawk goals on back-to-back shifts gave them a hold on the momentum, and spelled an early end to the game for Stokes. Dylan Gajewski found a shooting lane at the goal line and caromed one in off the back of Stokes’s pads to take the lead at 7:58, and Lewis Rowan stuffed home a rebound on Ethan Mock’s initial shot just 41 seconds later for a 3-1 WarHawk lead.
Enter Evan Babekuhl (Long Lake, Minn./Orono H.S.), who got some support with 6:36 left in the period on a shot from Garrett Freeman (Sartell, Minn./Breezy Point North Stars) in the slot – the initial wrister went over the goal and off the high glass behind the net, but took a bounce off of a Willmar defender’s skates to beat Pinney and cut the lead to 3-2.
The hosts grabbed plenty of chances in the second period, posting 21 shots on net, but the Bulls were never out of sight. The power play units made their appearances in the second period, starting with Ben Johnson’s wrist shot from just off the right slot at 3:27 of the period, making it a 4-2 game.
After providing the screen that opened the shooting lane for Johnson, Austin Jozwick landed in the penalty box on a slashing call, and Lucas Jorgenson (Orono, Minn./Holy Family H.S.) made the WarHawks pay on a snipe from the right-wing dot at the 5:06 mark.
At 8:53 of the period, the WarHawks’ lead finally evaporated on Freeman’s second goal of the night, a well-screened chance with three Willmar defenders in front of the net. With the win-loss decisions reset, WarHawks head coach Kirk Olimb opted to make a goalie change of his own, sending Cooper Olson out to take over for Pinney.
Olson got his first lead when Willis elevated a wraparound past Babekuhl with 3:13 on the second-period clock, giving the WarHawks a 5-4 advantage through 40 minutes.
Caden Smith (Lakeville, Minn./Janesville Jets) made it a brand-new game again at 4:29 of the third, breaking free down the right wing and banging one in off the roof of the net for a 5-5 score.
Bjorge’s time to shine came soon after, firing a slap shot down the zone on a WarHawks power play for his first goal with 7:24 remaining. He would dial one up from long distance with 41 seconds remaining, sending a second goal into the empty net for the game’s final margin.
“It’s a good battle against a good team,” said Freeman. “It’s probably going to be like that the rest of the year against these guys. We’ve got to be better in the [defensive] zone and they’re a physical team. We’ve got to be just as physical against these guys – that’ll be the story the rest of the year against these guys, those one- and two-goal games.”
Each team got five chances on the power play, with the Bulls capitalizing on one and the WarHawks posting two power play goals. Olson posted 16 saves on 17 North Iowa shots, earning the win in relief and moving to 2-6 for the season, while Babekuhl stopped 31 of the 34 shots that came his way.
The starting goaltenders both took no-decisions, with Pinney posting a 13-for-17 performance for Willmar and Stokes going 4-for-7 in net for the Bulls. Jorgenson posted the big night for North Iowa with a goal and two assists, while Willis’s two goals and an assist ended up as the high-water mark for the WarHawks.
Sunday’s game was the final meeting between the teams, barring a Fraser Cup playoff matchup next month, as the Bulls get set to move to the North American Hockey League next season. The current West Division positioning would force the teams to win their West Division first-round playoff series in order to see each other again.
North Iowa drops to 23-9-1-1 with the defeat, while Willmar climbs back above .500 at 17-16. The loss for North Iowa leaves one final point for the Bulls to pick up before clinching home-ice advantage in the first round of the Fraser Cup West Division playoffs, and they’ll get two chances at that win with a visit to the New Ulm Steel on Friday and Saturday evening. The opening puck drop both nights is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. at the New Ulm Civic Center, with live streaming coverage on HockeyTV.
The Bulls return home Friday and Saturday, March 19 and 20 for a jersey auction weekend to benefit Autism Speaks, with the auction conducted online the week of the game through DASH Auction. To purchase tickets to either of those games, click here.
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.
North Iowa 2 2 1 – 5
Willmar 3 2 2 – 7
1st Period-1, Willmar, Willis 8 (Luedtke, Light), 1:31. 2, North Iowa, Jones 19 (Newpower, Jorgenson), 5:27. 3, Willmar, Gajewski 10 (Rowan, Thomas), 7:58. 4, Willmar, Rowan 12 (Bjorge, Thomas), 8:39. 5, North Iowa, Campion 14 (Smith, Huffman), 13:24 (PP). Penalties-Campion Nio (high sticking-minor), 3:08; Thomas Wil (slashing-minor), 11:24; Willis Wil (tripping-minor), 16:23; Heffron Nio (interference-minor), 19:57.
2nd Period-6, Willmar, Jozwick 5 (Johnson, O’Brien), 3:27 (PP). 7, North Iowa, Jorgenson 8 (Jones), 5:06 (PP). 8, North Iowa, Freeman 14 (Jorgenson), 8:53. 9, Willmar, Willis 9 (Luedtke), 16:47. Penalties-Jorgenson Nio (hooking-minor), 2:31; Jozwick Wil (slashing-minor), 4:13; Wendorf Nio (high sticking-minor), 11:35; Mohs-Messerli Nio (roughing-minor), 17:40; Willis Wil (roughing-minor), 17:40.
3rd Period-10, North Iowa, Smith 9 (Huffman), 4:29. 11, Willmar, Bjorge 1 (Willis, Thomas), 12:36 (PP). 12, Willmar, Bjorge 2 (Gajewski), 19:12 (EN). Penalties-Cox Wil (holding-minor), 8:20; Heffron Nio (roughing-minor), 11:48; Light Wil (interference-minor), 16:49.
Shots on Goal-North Iowa 12-10-12-34. Willmar 11-21-10-42.
Power Play Opportunities-North Iowa 1 / 5; Willmar 2 / 5.
Goalies-North Iowa, Stokes 1-2-0-0 (7 shots-4 saves); Babekuhl 12-4-0-1 (34 shots-31 saves). Willmar, Pinney 6-1-0-0 (17 shots-13 saves); Olson 2-6-0-0 (17 shots-16 saves).
Linesmen-Ben Gawlik, Dylan Krikke.