MASON CITY — The Granite City Lumberjacks posted a 15-3-1-1 record at Sports Arena East in Sauk Rapids, Minn., during the regular season.
Add in two home playoff victories and the North Iowa Bulls face an uphill battle on the road in the best-of-three series against Granite City that begins with Game 1 tonight at 7:30.
North Iowa coach Todd Sanden, whose team is 3-5 against Granite City this season — including 1-3 at Sports Arena East — knows that to be the best you have to beat the best.
“You always want to play the best teams at this point of the year, want the pinnacle of competition,” Sanden said. “I think you are looking at the two best teams in the division right now based on how the teams are playing”
While the Lumberjacks have been dominant at home and sport a veteran roster, North Iowa knows it can compete against Granite City despite being in its inaugural season.
In the eight games the teams have played this season, four have been decided by one goal with each team collecting two victories.
That alone brings Sanden hope in the series where the winner moves on to the round-robin NA3HL Championship tournament March 30-April 2 at Fox Valley Sports Arena in Geneva, Ill.
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While the Bulls won’t be intimidated, Sanden said his team will need to stay out of the penalty box against a much more physical team.
“We have to stay with our pattern of discipline like our last four games,” the coach said. “In back-to-back weekends we have not been taking undisciplined penalties and have been minimizing power-play opportunities.
“If we do that and play at our pace, we can beat them in their barn.”
Steve Heller and Nick Marsh lead the Bulls with two goals and an assist apiece in the postseason while Zac Sikich has a goal and two assists and Trevor Ness three assists to lead the Lumberjacks.
During the regular season, Peter Lindblad led Granite City with 67 points (28 goals, 39 assists) while Matt Kroska led North Iowa with 51 points (13 goals, 38 assists).
Despite both teams having shown they have the ability to put the puck in the net with a combined 371 regular-season goals, Sanden believes the series will be won between the pipes.
Granite City possesses the top goaltender in the league in Matt Grove, who notched 29 wins in the regular season with five shutouts, a 1.66 goals against average and a .922 save percentage while North Iowa will counter with Matt Bartels.
“I’m guessing with their goaltender and the way Bartels has been for us, if we can get their goalie a bit unbalanced, get to them early, I honestly think we can take them,” Sanden said. “The key is the goaltending in this series.
“It comes down to goaltending, discipline and bearing down on offensive chances.”