MASON CITY, Iowa – Matt Dahlseide (Maplewood, Minn./Alexandria Blizzard) put the Bulls off to a good start in their Central Division Finals opener Friday night against the La Crosse Freeze. Thomas Magnavite had the last word with back-to-back goals for La Crosse, though, and it was the Freeze who got the division finals started with a bang, besting the Bulls by a 3-2 count.
The game marked a milestone loss for the regular-season division champs, but not the kind of milestones they were hoping for. The loss was the first in franchise history on home ice during the postseason, and the first time since the 2012 West Division Finals that North Iowa has dropped the first game of a postseason series.
Broken plays happened too often in Friday’s game for the Bulls, but one of the most memorable broken plays was one that Dahlseide was able to patch up quite nicely. A handoff pass from Jarod Blackowiak (Eden Prairie, Minn./Austin Bruins) off of a rush up the right wing was left unclaimed as it skittered toward the slot, and Dahlseide was able to reach back to gather the puck before pivoting and backhanding it into the net at 7:59 of the first period.
The Bulls nearly scored again with less than a minute to go in the first period, but after a collision at center ice and a couple of stick-checks to and fro, Lucas McKinnon (Chapin, Iowa/North Iowa Bulls) dropped the gloves with Jacob Garman at 19:19 of the opening period. The brief bout in front of the penalty boxes led to a pair of five-minute fighting majors and the end of the night for both players.
The game turned in La Crosse’s favor for good in the second period – with several players converging at the net after a setup from Brady Lindauer, Clayton Lackey was able to push one past Colin Cain (Hummelstown, Pa./N.J. Junior Titans U18) at 4:23 of the second period to tie up the contest.
At 7:37, Magnavite got his first goal of the night on a one-timer from Alec Seeger, and the Freeze extended the lead to 2-1. That score would hold steady heading into the third period, and the shots-on-goal gap in La Crosse’s favor grew from 13-10 after one period to 24-20 after two.
After 40 minutes with no power-play chances for either side, La Crosse buried one on the man-advantage with 7:34 to go. Magnavite grabbed a quick turnover as the Bulls tried to escape their zone, and fired one top-shelf past Cain to stretch the lead to 3-1.
The Bulls played the final 1:50 with Cain on the bench, and the hosts were finally able to push one through with Tyler Bump (Prior Lake, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) taking control of a scramble in front of the net with 16 seconds remaining. Bump won the ensuing faceoff and swatted it to the front of the La Crosse net, but the Bulls were not able to put away a tying goal in the final seconds.
“It was nice to get that first goal, but I’m going to give La Crosse all the credit,” said head coach Todd Sanden. “They had a desperation and an urgency that we never did match until about the last three minutes of the game. If they come out that way again tomorrow and we come out the same way, the result is going to be the same.”
Each team had a couple of power-play chances in the game, but only La Crosse was able to capitalize with the extra man, on Magnavite’s second goal. Cain took the loss with 29 saves on 32 shots in his playoff debut. Graves scored his third win all-time against the Bulls, notching 31 saves on the Bulls’ 33 tries.
The Bulls are headed back on the road Saturday night, facing a must-win situation in Game 2 of their best-of-three set against the Freeze. If La Crosse wins at home on Saturday or in Mason City on Sunday evening, the Freeze will oust North Iowa and advance to the Fraser Cup championship tournament in North Iowa’s place.
Saturday’s puck drop at the Green Island Ice Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m. with live streaming coverage on HockeyTV. Saturday night’s game will also be audio-streamed on Mixlr, with Austin Draude on the call. The warmup show in La Crosse gets underway at 6:45.
Should the Bulls win Saturday night’s game, the teams would meet back in Mason City for a winner-take-all third game on Sunday evening, with a 7:30 p.m. opening faceoff.