FRIDAY, DEC. 30 – 7:30 P.M., NORTH IOWA ICE ARENA (MASON CITY, IOWA)
SATURDAY, DEC. 31 – 7:05 P.M., ROCHESTER RECREATION CENTER (ROCHESTER, MINN.)
NORTH IOWA BULLS (23-4-1, 47 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
vs. ROCHESTER ICE HAWKS (4-21-1, 9 pts) (ROSTER, STATS)
IN A NUTSHELL: The Bulls will look to come out flying to end 2016 and begin the next stretch of the season after Christmas break.
ALL-TIME SERIES: North Iowa leads, 10-0-0 (Rochester’s 4-1 loss at North Iowa on Oct. 29 is the closest game in series history).
LAST WEEKEND’S RECAP: Todd Sanden’s team went up against some of the NA3HL’s best at the league’s Showcase two weeks ago, and they walked away with just three of the six available points in Blaine, Minn. The Bulls dropped a 3-2 decision to the Texas Jr. Brahmas to start the weekend on Friday, Dec. 16 – Melker Kroon single-handedly put the Jr. Brahmas ahead 2-0 before North Iowa made its move in the third period behind goals from Mitch Parsons and Mitch Dolter. Kroon buried Texas’s second chance in the shootout, but Tyler Myers turned aside all three of the Bulls’ chances. Saturday’s highly-anticipated Silver Cup title-game rematch went to the Metro Jets by a 3-1 tally – Owen Larson notched the only goal for North Iowa to tie the game in the second period before two Jets goals in the third put the game away for the team’s 27th consecutive win. Sunday’s game against the New England Stars was a far better turnout for the Central Division leaders, with the Stars falling 8-1 – seven different Bulls players scored in support of R.J. Pluhar and his seventh win of the season.
THIS WEEK’S PROMOTIONS: The Bulls will host their New Year’s party a night early, with the Ice Hawks set to host Saturday’s matchup. The concession stand will be selling $1 hot dogs, and the beer garden will feature $2 beers all night with surprise giveaways. The first 100 fans in the door will receive free Bulls koozies, and look for jersey raffles and Frisbee giveaways from the North Iowa Youth Center through the night.
COVERAGE: All North Iowa Bulls games, home and away, are streamed live at HockeyTV.com. All home games and select road games are also audio-streamed for no charge through Mixlr – click the “Listen Live” link at NorthIowaBulls.com, or click here.
CLINCHED: With such a dominant lead in the Central Division standings, it wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when” North Iowa would officially clinch its playoff spot – the win over New England did the trick, putting the Bulls out of reach of the fifth-place Chicago Bulldogs. Even with an unbeaten finish the rest of the way, the Bulldogs would finish with no more than 45 points in the standings, with the Bulls currently sitting at 47. Last year’s Bulls team also had its playoff spot sewed up at the Christmas break, coming in with 47 points to the Bulldogs’ four (and a maximum of 44).
FIRST CALL TO THE LAST FRONTIER: Former Bulls goalie Josh Benson has company in Fairbanks, Alaska thanks to this week’s NAHL call-up. Brendan Studioso earned his ticket to Tier II hockey this week with a call from the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, the same team that called Benson to the NAHL earlier this month. Studioso leaves the Bulls with 26 points, including 14 goals, and a +20 plus/minus rating for the year. His 14 goals are tied for fourth on the North Iowa roster, but would be the top number on 17 other teams in the 3HL. He’s the fifth Bulls player to be called up to the NAHL this season.
SPENCER’S A STAR: This week, it’s the Ice Hawks who come into weekend play with the reigning Bauer Hockey NA3HL Central Division Star of the Week – Mason City native Spencer Hadacek tallied a pair of goals against the Cape Cod Islanders on Sunday, Dec. 18 in a 7-4 win, and gave his team the lead on two separate occasions in the second period. The win was a wild one, with four ties and a 4-4 score heading to the final five minutes. Two power-play goals in the last five minutes sealed the deal for Rochester to give them their first regulation win of 2016-17, and assists on the game-winner sealed the first multi-point games of Charlie Bill’s and Joe Puglise’s junior careers. It’s the Ice Hawks’ first Divisional Star of the Week award this year. With five points (including two goals against New England), Connor Clemons earned the division’s 2nd Star.
MEET THE NEW BOSS: Tonight’s game will be the first for Eric Hofmann against the Bulls, and in “The Barn” as Rochester’s head coach. Last time the Ice Hawks made the trip south, Nick Fatis was still the team’s bench boss, but he was replaced by Hofmann on November 16, in the midst of his 16th season as the team’s on-ice leader. Since then, Nick has taken over many of the off-ice duties his father, Michael, has handled since founding the team in Le Sueur, Minn. in 1996.
SHOTS, SHOTS, SHOTS, EV’RYBODY: If Rochester wants to have a shot in their first post-Christmas outing, that’s exactly what they’ll need – shots. The 616 shots they’ve gotten off this season (or about 23.6 a game) is the second-lowest total in that category this season, ahead of only Central Division counterpart Chicago. They’ll also need to improve on their play early in the game (having scored first in just three games), and on their power-play mark (which, at 6.7 percent, is at the very bottom of the 48-team circuit). Turning on the power-play magic won’t be easy, either – their Friday hosts have killed off almost 89 percent of their opponents’ power-play chances this year, and that number goes up to a second-best 94.6 percent at home. On only one occasion have the Bulls been out-shot by an opponent (Sept. 24 at St. Louis, a 5-2 Jr. Blues win).