ROMEOVILLE, Ill. – Especially in overtime, one line change or one bounce can make all the difference. In Saturday afternoon’s NA3HL Silver Cup tournament semifinal against the Twin City Steel, it was a slow line change that allowed Kohei Sato (Nishitokio, Japan/North Iowa Bulls) to blast into the Steel zone, weave to the slot and bury the game-winner less than three minutes into overtime. That goal gave the Bulls a 4-3 win and sent them on to the Silver Cup championship game for the fourth year in a row.
For the fourth game in four days, the Bulls started from behind, as Yannick Zehnder finished a rush up ice started by Nick McKeeby and Jared Erickson. Each of them attempted shots that were blocked, but the puck went to Zehnder in the left faceoff circle, who zapped one past Tommi Ahlgren (Tampere, Finland/North Iowa Bulls) at the 12:39 mark of the game.
A three-goal outburst helped the Bulls take a 3-2 lead at the 40-minute mark, starting with a 1-on-none rush from the North Iowa blue line by Sato, who found himself in front of the Steel net in no time flat and beat Gunnar Howg at 7:51 of the period. After tying the game, it didn’t take long to rip the lead away from their former division rivals, as Joe Burgmeier (Mason City, Iowa/North Iowa Bulls) punched one in just 21 seconds later for a 2-1 lead. A scramble in front of the net helped Zehnder get back on the scoreboard as he pushed one in to tie the game at 15:49 after Ahlgren turned aside a pair of previous scoring opportunities on the same Twin City possession. The lead went back to the Bulls before the second intermission, though, shortly after a James Hale tripping call that went heavily protested by Steel coach Jay Witta. A 4-on-2 break ended with Austin Jackson (Waterloo, Iowa/Minnesota Magicians) walking the puck into the slot, double-clutching and ripping a wrist shot past Howg with just 2:06 on the clock, giving North Iowa a precarious lead with just 20 minutes to go.
That precarious lead disappeared at the 7:17 mark of the third period, when Zak Lambrecht brought the puck up ice on a 2-on-1 odd-man rush, deked a pass to the weak side and wristed one home to tie the game at 3 apiece. With fans of both teams on pins and needles going into the overtime period, all four scoring opportunities went to the Bulls, including Sato’s sweep-and-snipe up the right wing into the Twin City zone.
Sato’s game-winner was his sixth goal of the Silver Cup tournament and second clincher of the postseason. Ahlgren finished the game with 32 saves on 35 shots while Howg ended with just 31 saves on the Bulls’ 35 chances. Connor Bump (Prior Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) and Brett Gravelle (Forest Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) each finished with a couple of assists in the game, including a helper for Bump on the overtime winner. The win gets the Bulls back into the championship game for the fourth year in a row, where they’ll face the number-two team in the tournament, the unbeaten Metro Jets. The opening faceoff at Canlan Ice Sports in Romeoville, is scheduled for 1 p.m, with exclusive streaming coverage on FASTHockey.
– North Iowa improved its record to 7-2-2 when allowing the first goal of the game. During the entire 2015-16 slate, Twin City never lost a game in regulation after scoring the first goal – they finished 21-0-2 in the regular season when scoring first, and 4-0-2 in the postseason with the opening goal in hand.
– The Steel have never won a postseason game against the Bulls in seven chances – the first six came as West Division playoff foes from 2012-15, before North Iowa's move to the Central Division this season.
– Sato's six goals are a tournament-best. Going into the semifinal matchup, nine Steel players had scored a goal in Romeoville, but all of them had scored just one apiece in the three games.