MASON CITY, Iowa – After 39 North Iowa wins this season, the start of the NA3HL Fraser Cup Central Division Playoffs is a fresh start for everyone. It’s a fresh start for the Bulls, who can afford to take nothing for granted despite finishing second on the NA3HL’s overall regular-season leaderboard. It’s a fresh start for the Wausau RiverWolves, after a 15-0 loss to the Bulls this past Sunday. And it’s a fresh start for Connor Clemons (Savage, Minn./Minnesota Magicians), making his first appearance for Todd Sanden’s team in five weeks.
Clemons had an assist in Friday’s game, but the Bulls needed four goals in the final period to put away a 5-0 win over the RiverWolves and grab the lead in their best-of-three Central Division semifinal series.
“I’d have really liked to get into a game this weekend,” said Clemons. “I’m glad I did, because now I know what to expect for the upcoming games, and it’s good to be back in the lineup.”
After a toss from Josh Arnold (Roseville, Minn./North Iowa Bulls) at the right wing, a rebound ended up in front for Jarod Blackowiak (Eden Prairie, Minn./Austin Bruins) to put away in a brief scramble to give the Bulls a 1-0 lead halfway through the first period. That lead remained at a single goal all the way through the second intermission.
North Iowa did not lack for chances, though, racking up a 15-1 shots lead after 20 minutes and a 40-7 margin heading to the third period. Wausau netminder Henry Baribeau had a brilliant first two periods, with 39 saves on those 40 chances.
“They weren’t high-quality [shots],” said Clemons. “We weren’t getting to the net the first two periods, and that showed with only the one goal. The third period, we did a much better job of getting to the front of the net, and we got a bunch of rebound goals.”
Finally, 45 seconds into the third period, the Bulls were able to break through, with Cameron Fagerlee (St. Anthony, Minn./Totino-Grace H.S.) jamming one into the net for the insurance goal and a 2-0 lead. A goal from Fagerlee just past the four-minute mark of the final stanza would be waved off, keeping the lead at 2-0 for the time being.
After that, the special teams got involved – a brief altercation in front of the Wausau net sent the Bulls up a man at the 7:05 mark of the period. Brendan Studioso (Mukilteo, Wash./North Iowa Bulls) set Daniel Sandvig (Burnsville, Minn./Burnsville H.S.) up for a tap-in off of a cross-ice feed just under halfway through the man-advantage, pushing the lead to 3-0.
Ron Rentner’s tripping call at 13:20 of the third period allowed North Iowa another chance with the extra skater – with 5:37 remaining in the game, a John Studioso (Edmonds, Wash./Everett Jr. Silvertips) shot from the top of the slot knuckled its way through traffic and found its way to the back of the net, extending the lead to 4-0.
In a period where the hosts racked up 29 shots, North Iowa wasn’t content to sit on a four-goal lead and run the clock out. Just 90 seconds later, Aaron Swanson (Sun Prairie, Wis./Amarillo Bulls) pushed in a short-distance rebound off of an initial try from Brendan Studioso, and North Iowa was able to cap off the night with a goal from one of its newest members.
“Our defensemen are playing fast, and they’re playing quick,” said head coach Todd Sanden. “They’re transitioning quickly, and they’re not overhandling pucks, which plays into the kind of game we want to play. We’re quick-strike and we’re quick in transition, and we try to put teams on their heels. If our defensemen keep playing the way we are (right now), we should be in the offensive zone most of the time.”
Connor Poczos (Austin, Minn./Minnesota Wilderness) also made a re-appearance after suffering an apparent hamstring injury in North Iowa’s game Feb. 24 against St. Louis, making 16 stops for the shutout and his first win as a Bull. Baribeau was impressive in net for Wausau, making 64 saves despite opening the playoffs with a loss.
With the 5-0 win Friday, Sanden’s team has scored 25 unanswered goals over its last 161 minutes, or just more than eight full periods. The Bulls have also racked up eight straight wins heading into Game 2 of the Central Division semifinals.
North Iowa heads to Wausau now as the RiverWolves host their first-ever home playoff game Saturday night, with a 7:10 p.m. puck drop at the Marathon Park Arena. The Bulls would win the series with a victory, and would host Wausau Sunday evening in a winner-take-all third game should they lose on the RiverWolves’ home ice. Live streaming coverage is available on HockeyTV, with free audio streaming from Wausau on Mixlr.