MASON CITY — Over the summer, North Iowa coach Todd Sanden sent out a number of text messages to his incoming players asking what their goals were.
A few months prior, the Bulls had been knocked out of the pool-play round of the Silver Cup tournament and the players were left with a bad taste in their mouths. The response to Sanden was almost in unison: Silver Cup (now the Fraser Cup) or bust.
The Bulls will begin their march toward that goal Friday night as the divisional round of the playoffs opens with North Iowa meeting Wausau for a best-of-three series.
“We weren’t happy with the way last year ended,” North Iowa forward Mitch Dolter said. “This year, we’re definitely playing for everything. That’s the only option.”
As the puck drops on the NA3HL’s postseason, the difference this year revolves around guys like Dolter, who were there last year and learned from it.
A year ago, Dolter, who was in his first season with the Bulls, was a role player. He finished with 14 goals and 18 assists as he was buried down a few lines from the Bulls’ top players. This season, Sanden has seen Dolter take the jump that he expects all his second-year guys to make.
“I think we expected him to be this good,” Sanden said. “I don’t think he’s surprising us, per se, but we appreciate what he’s getting done for us. We play him in all situations and we put him in situations where we’re looking for him to carry a line.”
Dolter has bumped his point total up to 72 this season (36 goals and 36 assists), which has him second on the team behind Tyler Bump’s 85. He’s also proven this year the Bulls can match him with any line and the production is still there.
“I’ve gotten really comfortable playing with my linemates,” Dolter said. “Early in the season I was playing with Josh Arnold and Brendan Studioso and we were sharing the puck really well and finding the open guys. Lately, I’ve been playing with a couple different guys, but you know what? It’s the same thing. We’re sharing the puck and finding some open net.”
Behind Dolter’s production is a list of Bulls who have all shined at various times this season. Sanden glows about his team when talking about the depth they possess every year, and this year they’ve got guys all over the place scoring.
It took a bit to get here, but over the past few weeks the Bulls feel like they’re playing their best hockey because of everything coming together. They’ve won each of their past seven games, including a 15-0 drubbing vs. Wausau, their first-round opponent, this past Sunday.
Now that their goal is getting closer to reality, the only thing left to do is execute.
“We’re finally playing for something,” Dolter said. “Every game matters, every game moves you forward, so we need to come every day ready to play.”
Added Sanden, “Of course crazy stuff can happen this time of year, but if we’re able to control our own destiny, I really like our chances.”