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North Iowa Bulls move to within one game of playing for Fraser Cup
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North Iowa Bulls move to within one game of playing for Fraser Cup

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North Iowa Bulls

North Iowa forward Max Savaloja flashes a victory sign to the Bulls crowd after scoring two goals in Friday's 5-2 win over the Willmar WarHawks in the opening game of the NA3HL's Fraser Cup West Division Finals.

Did the North Iowa Bulls give a final sign-off to NA3HL hockey at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena on Friday night?

It's possible. Saturday evening, North Iowa will look to make it a certainty.

The Bulls surged for three goals in the final 12 minutes of Friday's opening game of the West Division Finals, earning a 5-2 win over the Willmar WarHawks in front of a COVID-capacity crowd of 1,100 and taking a one-game-to-none lead in the best-of-3 series.

A victory on Saturday at the Municipal Athletic Complex in St. Cloud would send the Bulls to a seventh Fraser Cup championship tournament and end a historic season for the WarHawks in the process.

North Iowa grabbed the lead at 6:44 of the opening period, when Lucas Jorgenson sent a pass in front of the net for Carson Jones, who tossed a quick forehand to the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.

After a pair of two-point games in the West Division Semifinals against Granite City, Isaiah Thomas dribbled the puck to mid-slot and backhanded one home past Carsen Stokes to tie the game at 15:11 of the first, and the Bulls and WarHawks settled into a 1-1 tie heading to the second period.

North Iowa didn't need long to take command in the second period, with Carter Newpower finding Caden Smith across the ice for a wrister from the right-wing faceoff circle. His shot beat Lukas Haugen just 58 seconds into the second period for the 2-1 lead.

The Bulls added on at 8:06 of the third, when Max Savaloja tossed the puck out of the defensive zone and hit Sota Isogai coming through neutral ice. Isogai found Savaloja on the back door and hit him for a quick pass in front of the net for a 3-1 North Iowa lead.

The game nearly turned in a big way with 8:53 to go, when Thomas hit Dylan Gajewski with a pass down the left-wing faceoff circle and Gajewski hit the top of the North Iowa net with a snipe to make it a 3-2 contest.

The one-goal margin lasted all of 13 seconds - a turnover at the Willmar blue line put the puck back in Savaloja's hands, and after fanning on one chance to beat Haugen high, he slid the puck low through Haugen on the second chance to make it a two-goal game again. The scoring ended with 3:32 remaining, when Isogai picked the puck off of a Willmar stick and tossed it into an empty net as he was being swept off his feet.

Savaloja ended the night with an impressive stat line, to say the least, scoring two goals, including the game-winner. Newpower came up with two assists of his own, while Isogai notched a goal and an assist. Thomas posted a goal and an assist for the WarHawks for the third straight postseason game.

The Bulls' penalty-killers did all that was asked of them, holding off two Willmar power plays, while North Iowa never did enjoy a power play of its own. Stokes put on another outstanding performance, earning his third straight postseason victory with 30 saves, while Haugen took his first loss of the 2020-21 postseason with 26 saves on 30 North Iowa shots.

North Iowa takes its show on the road on Saturday for Game 2 as the Bulls look to clinch the West Division playoff crown - Saturday's game will be played at the Municipal Athletic Complex in St. Cloud, due to a scheduling conflict at the Willmar Civic Center. The opening puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

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