MASON CITY, Iowa – Kohei Sato (Nishitokio, Japan/North Iowa Bulls) made many Bulls fans' Christmas wishes come true by burying an overtime winner Saturday night, finishing the 2015 portion of North Iowa's home schedule with a 2-1 win over the rival Granite City Lumberjacks at the North Iowa Ice Arena. The Bulls earned a weekend sweep of Granite City in their first meeting since the national tournament in Simsbury, Connecticut this past March, following up their 4-0 victory on Friday.
Just like Friday night's contest, there were plenty of special-teams scoring opportunities to go around, but both teams finished 0-for on the power play for the night. North Iowa narrowly missed an opportunity to score on its first man-advantage of the night – Lumberjack forward Michael Piehler exited the penalty box with 4:23 remaining in the first period following a check from behind, but 12 seconds after the power play ended, a cross-slot pass from Austin Jackson (Waterloo, Iowa/Minnesota Magicians) set Adam Orn (Ramsey, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) up for an open attempt on the right side of the ice, and Orn zipped a wrist shot over the left shoulder of 'Jacks goaltender Mac Berglove to take a 1-0 lead into the locker room for the first intermission.
Each team got a pair of special teams opportunities in the second period, but neither team was able to get on the board with the extra man. Granite City missed their opportunity by 32 seconds, following a turnover in the Bulls' half of the rink. A quick break down the ice got Granite City a 3-on-1 rush against Tom Lindgren (Janesville, Wis./North Iowa Bulls) , and a trailing pass from Andrej Jamnicky set Piehler up for a mid-slot wrister that beat David Johnson (Bloomington, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) at the 13:07 mark of the period.
Third-period opportunities weren't hard to find, especially in the waning minutes, but nine shots from both sides in the period went unrewarded. Nine more between the teams in a frenetic 3-on-3 overtime also went unrewarded, but on the 10th shot of the period (and North Iowa's seventh) Sato put his team back into the win column with a turnaround flip off of a rebound just to Berglove's left. His shot through the five hole and into the bottom of the net came with 1:04 to go in the extra session and gave the Bulls their 20th win in a row and their ninth home win of the season. Johnson's record remains unscathed, going into the final full week of 2015 at 10-0-0.
"Kohei's speed is dynamic in that three-on-three," said head coach Todd Sanden. "We've seen him score overtime winners already this year, and that was a nice play where he pressured low and forced their defensemen to come for him. As far as the game goes, we haven't played a game like that this year, with the drama in the game and the stuff that went on [Friday] night. It was a clean game, a fast game, a physical game."
A three-game swing through the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota awaits next week as Sanden's team, and the other 33 NA3HL member clubs, hit the NA3HL Showcase to wrap up the pre-Christmas portions of their schedules. The Bulls will get their road trip started bright and early Thursday, with a 10:30 a.m. game against the Nashville Jr. Predators, the only team in the league last year to finish with a better point total in the regular-season standings. Games against the Pittsburgh Vengeance (Friday, 12 p.m.) and the Atlanta Capitals (Saturday, 1 p.m.) will send the Bulls into the break with 25 of their 47 games in the books.
"It's a leaguewide event, so it's an opportunity for college scouts in the area to get out and see what the NA3HL has to offer," said Sanden, "and it's an opportunity for our kids to showcase against teams that we don't get a chance to play. We're very excited to be playing Nashville, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. They're all very high-quality teams and great opponents, and we're looking forward to getting out there and seeing how we fare against some of the other really good teams in our league."
North Iowa returns to the "Madhouse in Mason City" on January 2, 2016 for a 7:30 p.m. faceoff against Central Division opponent Rochester. The IceHawks will host the first half of a New Year's weekend home-and-home on New Year's Eve. All Bulls games, including next weekend's contests at the NA3HL Showcase, are streamed live on FastHockey.com. North Iowa's free audio webcast schedule continues with the January 2 game. Austin Draude will have the call on NorthIowaBulls.com, starting at 7:15 p.m.