The St. Cloud Norsemen are at a critical juncture of the season and find themselves heading into a three-game series this weekend with the North Iowa Bulls, the team currently occupying the last NAHL Central Division playoff spot. North Iowa sits with a record of 17-15-2, good for 36 points in the standings. But the Norsemen at 15-16-4 are just two points behind the Bulls, so winning two out of three games in regulation would catch North Iowa in the standings, and winning all three in regulation would have St. Cloud pass them.
St. Cloud Norsemen Assistant Coach Brock Kautz is well aware of the implications playing three games versus a team just ahead of the Norsemen in the standings. “Knowing that there’s a team that’s within reach, it’s very important that you earn those points and try not to give them any to separate from us,” Kautz says frankly. “We’re excited and we know it’s going to be a challenge but we’re ready for it.”
The Bulls and Norsemen have played just two games so far on the season and both have gone the Norsemen’s way, with St. Cloud winning on the road on October 22nd by a score of 3-1 and winning at home 4-3 on December 17th. The December game was supposed to be a three-game series but the first two games were postponed due to poor travel conditions, with one of those games being made up this Sunday in Mason City, the second being made up in St. Cloud on Sunday, March 5th.
Thinking back to those victories over North Iowa, Kautz feels like the reason St. Cloud won both was that they put in great efforts. “We try to push the pace. Looking back at those games I feel like those were some of the more complete games we put together,” reflects Kautz. “We know it’s going to be tough, three in three is a lot of hockey, and they (North Iowa) were off last weekend, so I know they’re gonna be ready to play and excited to get back on the ice so we gotta be ready to play a full 60-minute game.”
Kautz feels that there isn’t too much of a difference in preparation for a three-game series vs. the usual two games on a weekend. “The biggest thing is the understanding that you do have three games so maybe you do have to manage things a little bit as far as ice time. I think it’s just understanding there’s a lot of hockey to be played, there’s a lot of guys who’ll have to eat a lot of minutes,” Kautz acknowledges. “But the kids are young, the best part is you just get another opportunity to play a game and I think they all enjoy games more than practice so I don’t think they’ll complain too much.”
St. Cloud has the edge in special teams both on power play (St. Cloud’s 21.5% power play rate is 7th of the 29 NAHL teams, North Iowa’s 19.8% is 12th) and penalty kill (the Norsemen rank 5th with an 85.0% kill rate while the Bulls’ 83.0% ranks 9th). The Norsemen also are scoring more often as they put up 2.74 goals per game to the Bulls’ 2.56 but North Iowa holds the advantage on the defensive side as they surrender 2.74 goals per game compared to St. Cloud giving up 3.14.
Given that they’re a low scoring team and a team that is solid defensively, the thought may be to expect goals to be at a minimum this weekend. But Kautz doesn’t necessarily buy into that theory. “There’s a lot of talent on that team, so if you’re not disciplined and careful in what you’re doing, they have guys that can make you pay,” explains Kautz. “I’d like to think it’s the same for us too; we have a lot of talent in our locker room. When teams aren’t disciplined and give up lots of chances you give up goals as a result.”
Byron Hartley (12-15-27) leads the Bulls in points but they have four guys with over 20 points, including Justin Mexico (9-16-25), Logan Dombrowsky (6-19-25) and Max Scott (14-9-23); all forwards and all returning to North Iowa from last season. On the goaltending side Mitch Day has played in 21 of North Iowa’s 34 games with a 9-10-2 record, 2.78 goals against average and .910 save percentage.
The Norsemen get at it Friday night with the home game beginning at 7:00 and you can get tickets online at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com.
Saturday’s game in Mason City will have the puck drop at 7:10 and Sunday afternoon’s game starts at 3:10 and both games in Iowa can be watched online at hockeytv.com.