MASON CITY, Iowa – There may be no tighter “pennant race” right now than the one in Mason City and Sauk Rapids, Minnesota.
One of the great rivalries in all of Tier III junior hockey will come down to the final weekend as the North Iowa Bulls and Granite City Lumberjacks decide the NA3HL’s West Division championship. For North Iowa, it would be the eighth division crown in 10 years, while in Granite City’s case, it would be their sixth. (The teams were in separate divisions from 2015 to 2018, and both teams claimed their respective division’s championships in those seasons.)
We know you have questions, and we have fewer answers than we’d like. Some things may not be determined until Sunday evening, when the NA3HL’s regular season wraps up.
What’s the situation?
North Iowa’s “magic number” for a division championship is 6. That means the number of points that the Bulls earn, plus the number of points that Granite City does not earn must equal at least 6. Because North Iowa’s final two games are against the Lumberjacks, each of those is worth four off the magic number, not two. Granite City’s magic number is currently 8.
It sure is. Let’s hope none of the games go to overtime. That would make it more confusing.
For North Iowa, just Friday and Saturday’s games at Granite City. However, the Lumberjacks also host Willmar on Wednesday, and Alexandria on Sunday.
What will it take?
If either team sweeps this weekend’s series at Granite City, that team wins the division title. If the teams split, then the Lumberjacks would need to lose one of their two remaining games against Alexandria and Willmar. If Granite City loses in regulation on Wednesday, all North Iowa would need is one win this weekend to claim the division championship.
How long could we be waiting?
Granite City’s final regular-season game on Sunday starts at 5 p.m. It’s possible the West Division title race will not be decided until after 7:00 on Sunday evening.
Has this ever happened before?
Not like this. North Iowa and Granite City did come down to the final weekend in 2014-15, when the Bulls finished with 75 points and Granite City finished with 71. This is almost sure to be the tightest finish to a division race in Bulls history. Granite City had three super-close races when the Bulls were in the Central Division, though – in fact, the 2018 title race saw Granite City tie with New Ulm, with Alexandria just two points behind.
What if it’s tied?
Good question. These are the four tie-breakers, in order:
A. Most wins during the regular season.
B. Head to head competition during the regular season.
C. Goal differential in head to head competition during the regular season.
D. Total goal differential during the regular season.
So, who will the Bulls play in the playoffs?
Not sure yet. The Willmar WarHawks are on track to finish in third place, with four more points than the Alexandria Blizzard, and the Blizzard have only one game in hand on Willmar. However, one of those games is against the WarHawks, meaning the race for third is still fairly wide-open as well. The first-place and fourth-place teams will play each other, and the second-place and third-place teams will play each other.
What’s the first-round schedule?
Not sure on that one either – we can tell you that three games will be scheduled between Thursday, April 1 and Sunday, April 4, and the Bulls will play two of them at home. It’s a best-two-of-three series, so whichever team gets to two wins first moves on. If one team is up 2-0 in the series, the third game won’t be played. Keep in mind, April 4 is Easter Sunday – that could cause some schedule rearranging across the league.
And what about the second-round schedule?
Again, three games will be scheduled between Thursday, April 8 and Sunday, April 11 – whoever is seeded higher between the two remaining teams will host two of those games. It’s another best-two-of-three series, so once again, if one team wins the first two, there won’t be a Game 3.
NORTH IOWA REMAINING SCHEDULE (26-10-1-1, 58 PTS)
GRANITE CITY REMAINING SCHEDULE (25-10-0-1, 56 PTS)
WEDNESDAY, MAR. 24 – vs. Willmar, 7:30 p.m. (WATCH | LIVE STATS)
FRIDAY, MAR. 26 – vs. North Iowa, 7:30 p.m. (WATCH | LIVE STATS)
SATURDAY, MAR. 27 – vs. North Iowa, 7:30 p.m. (WATCH | LIVE STATS)
SUNDAY, MAR. 28 – vs. Alexandria, 5:00 p.m. (WATCH | LIVE STATS)