MASON CITY, Iowa – Saturday’s game between the Central Division and Midwest Division leaders unfolded like the climactic scene in a well-written movie script. The atmosphere was raucous, the officiating was staunchly questioned by both sides, injuries forced both teams to change up their personnel early on, and the scoring itself led to several key twists and turns as the plot thickened.
The action reached its crescendo with a fight scene halfway through the third period and a resounding comeback in the final minutes, allowing the “good guy” from North Iowa to prevail against the “villain” St. Louis Jr. Blues by a 4-3 margin.
The scoring started with an own-goal at 12:52 of the first period, with goaltender Connor Poczos (Austin, Minn./Minnesota Wilderness) making his Bulls debut. Halfway through a penalty-kill on a Mark Capkovic cross-checking minor, St. Louis iced the puck and Poczos attempted to clear it out of the North Iowa zone. A collision and an unlucky bounce in front of the net ricocheted the puck right back past him, giving St. Louis the early lead. Dante Jones, the last Jr. Blues player to touch the puck, was credited with his 11th goal of the season.
Poczos didn’t just get dinged for the goal, though – an apparent hamstring injury forced the new Bulls netminder to be helped off the ice immediately after surrendering the opening goal. His injury was one of three in the first period, along with two close calls as pucks were cleared out of the St. Louis zone over the glass, nearly entering the media loft at center ice.
“That’s been a recurring injury for him this year,” said North Iowa head coach Todd Sanden. “He is definitely a North American Hockey League-caliber goaltender, he just needs to get healed and strengthened. He’s super-athletic, he’s super-competitive, and he’s great at practice. To see him go down like that so early in his first game, you want to root for a kid like that. We’re hoping this one won’t be as long but a couple of them have kept him out for extended periods.”
Colin Cain (Hummelstown, Pa./N.J. Junior Titans U18) allowed the first offensive goal of the night with just under four minutes remaining in the first period, leaving a rebound on the doorstep on an initial shot from Capkovic. Jones was ready again, tapping in the second chance for a 2-0 lead.
After being out-shot 14-6 in the first period, the Bulls offense got to work. A slashing infraction on Ethan Dabbs gave North Iowa the extra man, and John Studioso (Edmonds, Wash./Everett Jr. Silvertips) ripped one past Hunter Smith from the right point at 7:10 of the second period, pushing the lead back to 2-1.
Most of the drama, though, was saved for the final period. With the Bulls set up at St. Louis’s end of the ice, Matt Dahlseide (Maplewood, Minn./Alexandria Blizzard) settled a pass from Dayton Honkanen (New Brighton, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) in front, turning the opportunity into a tying goal at the 7:36 mark of the final stanza.
St. Louis didn’t wait long to get it back – after stopping a North Iowa shot with the chin of his mask, Smith and the Jr. Blues were able to move quickly the other way, and Will Baginski deposited a goal of his own from deep in the right faceoff circle just 54 seconds later to get the lead right back.
Just three minutes later, a cross-check from Jett Larson (Rancho Mirage, Calif./Shattuck-St. Mary’s U18) led to another two-minute chance for St. Louis. The check also nearly led to a full line-brawl at center ice, leading to a smattering of penalties and a pair of ejections.
With the temperature turned down a bit on the ice, the Bulls got back to work, killing off Larson’s penalty before Jarod Blackowiak‘s (Eden Prairie, Minn./Austin Bruins) pass from the right wing caught Daniel Sandvig (Burnsville, Minn./Burnsville H.S.) at mid-slot. One 270-degree pivot later, Sandvig burned one past Smith to tie the game at 3-3 with 6:06 remaining.
A pass to the weak-side of the net found Mitch Dolter (Faribault, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) ready to slap in the game-winner with less than three minutes remaining, giving the Bulls the 4-3 lead, their only advantage of the night. In all St. Louis led for more than 40 minutes of the contest, but departed from Mason City without a single standings point on the weekend.
“We always ask our kids to play a full 60 minutes,” said Sanden. “The first period wasn’t the best start for us and we got a bit behind the eight-ball there. At Granite City last weekend we scored three goals in a span of 3:46, and between the first and second periods, I told the boys, ‘You’ve got 40 minutes to do 3:46.’ We had three grade-A chances in the first three or four shifts. I really have to hand it to our guys for just gutting it out and playing the game until the final buzzer.”
Saturday night’s game wasn’t just about the boys on the ice, it was also about some VIPs – very important people, and very important pets. North Iowa marked its Billet Appreciation Night on Saturday, honoring the team’s local host families. Another successful postgame jersey auction also helped the team donate more than $6,000 to the Humane Society of North Iowa.
Cain made 23 stops on 25 chances for his 24th win of the season, putting him within a victory of the Bulls’ single-season franchise record. He’ll have a chance to go for the tie next Saturday night, when North Iowa hosts the West Division-leading New Ulm Steel. The opening faceoff at the North Iowa Ice Arena is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., with live streaming coverage on HockeyTV. For advance tickets to that game or any upcoming North Iowa Bulls home game, click here.