The North Iowa Bulls have their backs against the wall.
In what has been described as one of the most exciting playoff hockey games in recent memory, North Iowa fell 2-1 to Alexandria in overtime Friday night in the 2021 Fraser Cup West Division playoff debut at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena.
The 982 fans in the building – a near COVID-capacity crowd – saw the Bulls battle the Blizzard to a scoreless tie for nearly 40 minutes despite throwing 42 shots on net in the game.
The Bulls had to tie the game with 3:40 remaining in regulation, but a turnover at the blue line led to an Alexandria victory just 89 seconds into overtime, giving the Blizzard a 2-1 victory.
The loss puts North Iowa in a rare position, trailing the best-of-3 series 1-0 with Saturday's Game 2 set for Alexandria's Runestone Community Center. Meanwhile, it puts the Blizzard on the brink of repeating their 2019 West Division Semifinal series, in which they stunned top-seeded Granite City before being wiped out by the Bulls in the division finals.
An Alexandria win on Saturday would send them on to the Fraser Cup West Division Finals against the Willmar WarHawks, who shocked the Granite City Lumberjacks with a two-game sweep for their first-ever postseason series win. A Bulls victory would send the series back to Mason City on Sunday for a 5:30 p.m. winner-take-all Game 3.
North Iowa controlled the pace early, but neither team found the back of the net in the opening period. The Bulls notched 12 of the game's first 16 shots, but neither team scored until the 17:11 mark of the second period.
North Iowa has out-shot Alexandria in the first period of 10 of their 11 meetings this season, with the shot count tied once after the opening 20 minutes.
With time winding down in the middle stanza, Nikolai Rajala's wraparound chance failed to beat Carsen Stokes (Prior Lake, Minn./Minnesota Wilderness), instead finding Wesley Johnson to Stokes's left – his first chance bounced off of the Bulls netminder, but bounced right back to Johnson, who put away the second chance for the 1-0 lead.
Each team came up short on a power play in the third, with North Iowa pushing for a tying goal through much of the period. A backhand toss over the blue line from Sota Isogai (Nagano, Japan/North Iowa Bulls) caught Garrett Freeman (Sartell, Minn./Breezy Point North Stars) skating into the Blizzard zone, and his wrist shot tipped off of Atticus Kelly's mitt and into the net for the tying goal at 16:20 of the third.
Alexandria grabbed control of the series after Sean Kenny grabbed control of a Kyle Heffron (Rosemount, Minn./Totino-Grace H.S.) clearing attempt at center ice, skating in the puck for a double-deke and a forehand tally just out of the reach of Stokes's skate at 1:29 of the overtime.
Special teams were not a major factor in the contest, with the teams combining to go 0-for-3 on the power play, though North Iowa enjoyed a 42-24 shots-on-goal advantage for the night. Stokes made 22 saves in the loss, while Kelly made 41 stops to give the Blizzard the overtime win.
Saturday's game in Alexandria gets underway at 7:10 p.m., with live streaming coverage on HockeyTV.