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NEW ULM, Minn. – North Iowa took care of one major milestone on Friday night, wrapping up home-ice advantage in the first round of the Fraser Cup Playoffs. Saturday’s win gave them some much-needed progress toward their other goal, an eighth division title in 10 years.
After a 3-2 win in the previous game, the Bulls turned to Max Gutjahr (Appleton, Wis./Amarillo Bulls) in net once again, and Gutjahr one-upped his own performance from Friday’s outing with a 4-0 win, pitching his first North Iowa shutout with 23 saves.
Caden Smith (Lakeville, Minn./Janesville Jets) put North Iowa on the board first, just 7:55 into the contest, chasing down a loose puck at the New Ulm goal line and throwing it toward the net – the puck squirted through Griffin Foster and into the net for a 1-0 North Iowa lead.
A dominant first period ended with a very similar goal from defenseman Jase Sofo (Sylvania, Ohio/Amarillo Bulls) with 6:42 remaining, when he also slid one toward the net along the goal line from Foster’s left. The puck took a bounce off of Foster’s pads and eked into the net for a 2-0 North Iowa lead.
The Bulls closed out the period without a power play goal, leaving a couple of chances unaccounted for in front of the New Ulm net after a tripping penalty against Ethan McDonald. However, North Iowa took a commanding 18-3 shots-on-goal margin into the first intermission.
Griffin Foster exited the game in favor of Zach Foster after Sofo’s goal, but the visitors were able to add on in the second period. Jack Campion (Crystal, Minn./Armstrong-Cooper H.S.) slid one toward the net that Zach Foster jousted out front, but Garrett Freeman (Sartell, Minn./Breezy Point North Stars) was waiting to bat home the extra chance for a 3-0 lead with 2:22 remaining in the period.
North Iowa battled to add onto the lead throughout the third, but needed an empty net to put an exclamation mark on the contest. With 1:23 remaining, Hutson Collins (Eau Claire, Wis./New Ulm Steel) slid the puck ahead to Sota Isogai (Nagano, Japan/North Iowa Bulls) coming into the Steel half of the rink, before Isogai made a move around a defender at the blue line and skated to the top of the slot to backhand home the game’s final tally.
“It’s really big for us to get these points, and get these wins as we carry the momentum into next weekend, and hopefully the playoffs,” said Sofo. “We really needed these wins. We’ve been in a slump these last 11 games, and coming out of the weekend with these two wins is really important for us.”
Griffin Foster took the loss, dropping back to 4-7-1 on the season with five saves on the game’s first seven shots. Zach Foster faced 43 saves, stopping 42 of them in relief for the no-decision. Gutjahr moved his record to 6-1-1 on the year, with 42 saves over the 44 shots he faced on the weekend. He pitched three shutouts last season in a 20-win campaign with the North American Hockey League’s Amarillo Bulls, but had not yet done so in six previous North Iowa starts.
“It was good to get back into a rhythm,” said Gutjahr. “I’ve been struggling the past few weeks. Tonight, I just caught a groove early and kept on track.
New Ulm dropped to 5-24-3, while the Bulls bumped their record to 25-9-1-1 heading into two pivotal weekends with the Granite City Lumberjacks. The magic number for a division title for North Iowa is down to 12 points, meaning three head-to-head wins in the four games against Granite City would seal one more division title before the team’s move to the North American Hockey League next season.
With the victory, North Iowa also sealed the final spot in the Fraser Cup West Division Playoffs for the Alexandria Blizzard, locking the Steel out of playoff contention. New Ulm can close the season with no more than 29 points, while the idle Blizzard have already posted 30 points with seven games to go in their regular season.
The all-time series between the North Iowa Bulls and the New Ulm Steel ends with the Bulls posting a 56-12-4 record in the head-to-head series, including the team’s five seasons in the Twin Cities from 2011 to 2016. The teams entered the NA3HL together in 2011, and were first-round playoff opponents in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
North Iowa returns home to face Granite City on Friday and Saturday – the Bulls will wear special jerseys to benefit Autism Speaks, with the jersey auction to take place online through DASH Auction the week of the games. The opening puck drop each night against the Lumberjacks is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena, with live streaming coverage available on HockeyTV and free audio streaming on Mixlr.
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 1 1 – 4
New Ulm 0 0 0 – 0
1st Period-1, North Iowa, Smith 11 (Sullivan), 7:55. 2, North Iowa, Sofo 2 (Isogai, Mohs-Messerli), 13:18. Penalties-Mcdonald Num (tripping-minor), 17:33.
2nd Period-3, North Iowa, Freeman 15 (Campion, Sofo), 17:38. Penalties-Freeman Nio (roughing-minor), 11:39; Lillico Num (roughing-minor), 11:39.
3rd Period-4, North Iowa, Isogai 17 (Collins, Mohs-Messerli), 18:37 (EN). Penalties-Jones Nio (tripping-minor), 14:49.
Shots on Goal-North Iowa 19-15-17-51. New Ulm 3-9-11-23.
Power Play Opportunities-North Iowa 0 / 1; New Ulm 0 / 1.
Goalies-North Iowa, Gutjahr 6-1-1-0 (23 shots-23 saves). New Ulm, Foster 4-7-1-0 (7 shots-5 saves); Foster 3-6-1-0 (43 shots-42 saves).
Linesmen-Ben Gawlik, Michael Hughes.