For young North Iowa Bulls players such as forward Jordan Roo and defenseman Evan Junker, the postseason is a brand new experience. Both players, one year removed from the high school level, have seen the pressure raised in preparation for this weekend’s playoff series against the Rochester Grizzlies. With nearly seven months of hockey behind them, the Bulls don’t want this weekend to be the end.
"Everything is ramping up," Junker said.
"It’s playoff time, and there is only four teams left in our division. Anyone can win it. Every practice has to be good. Every game has to be almost perfect. The pace is going to be faster in the playoffs than it was in the regular season. Everybody is working hard because it could be the last game."
Forward Brendan Studioso has been with the Bulls since 2016, and knows what it is going to take for him and his young teammates to succeed in the playoffs.
The Bulls have seen the advantages and challenges that come with a fresh-faced team. Thirteen of the players were born in 2000 or later.
According to Studioso, there have been times this season where it was a struggle getting into the games.
"I think there have been games this year where we’ve been better than we were last year, and other times that I think we were worse," Studioso said. "We’ve got to work that much harder this year, just to get where we were last year."
Having a veteran such as Studioso is invaluable to the younger players. The newcomers learn a lot about the rigors of the NA3HL season and the playoffs just by being around the holdovers.
"They challenged a lot of the younger guys," Roo said. "They’ve been here, so they know how to play in the league. The work ethic you’ve got to put in. You’ve got to come in every day ready to play, ready to play for your spot in the lineup."
Even with the surplus of youth on the Bulls roster, they continue to add promising young prospects in Zach Simon and Jack Kubitz, both of Orono High School in Minneapolis.
For Coach Todd Sanden, the chance to add talented young players late in the season is a no-brainer. Simon was on the Bulls roster at the beginning of the season, while Kubitz, a defensive player, played his first game with the Bulls Saturday night. According to Sanden, Kubitz did well to warrant a spot on the playoff roster.
After making it to NA3HL Nationals five out of the past six years, whatever the Bulls are looking for, it seems to be working.
"Our scouting philosophy is the same for everybody,” Sanden said. "We look for kids that get up and down the rink well, good skaters, hockey sense, willing to share the puck, play hard, play fast, play physical. Move pucks to linemates to create group success."
Rochester and North Iowa have a rivalry that goes back years, having played three times in the past four postseasons. But the Grizzlies are a brand new challenge.
After the 2018 season, the franchise was sold to the owners of the Austin Bruins, who changed the teams logo, and name from the Ice Hawks to the Grizzlies.
With new ownership, colors, and players, the Grizzlies look nothing like the Rochester of old.
"In the past, they were a much easier team to play against" Sanden said. "They didn’t have the balance and depth that this team has, and they didn’t have the skill sets either. This team is put together very well."