Two days after making franchise history with its first-ever playoff series victory, the Willmar WarHawks found out their next opponent in the Fraser Cup playoffs.
Third-seeded Willmar begins the West Division Finals on the road against top-seeded North Iowa. The best-of-three series begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday from the Mason City Arena.
Following their two-game sweep over No. 2 Granite City last Friday, WarHawks head coach Kirk Olimb immediately faced a problem: where was the team supposed to start its preparations for the next round?
Willmar’s home rink, the Willmar Civic Center, is unavailable. The venue is host to the Home & Outdoor Living Expo set for Friday. The scheduling conflict emerged when the WarHawks’ season was extended due to the COVID pandemic.
Olimb had to scramble for a solution.
“It was really fun to win of course. But from there, we had to start making arrangements on where we're going to skate and practice and have the game,” Olimb said. “It’s been stressful at times, but it's good that we have to be stressed out, right? That means that we’re still playing.”
The team held practice Monday and Tuesday in Alexandria and Wednesday in St. Cloud. Willmar “hosts” Game Two of the series at 7:30 p.m. Saturday from the St. Cloud Municipal Athletic Complex. Game Three if necessary is 5:30 p.m. Sunday in North Iowa.
By his team completing its semifinal series in a sweep, Olimb and his coaching staff were able to scout the Bulls during Game Two of their semifinal series in Alexandria. The next day, they watched on a stream as North Iowa closed out the Blizzard.
“We’ve seen them play so many times this year,” Olimb said of the Bulls. “We played them 10 times like everyone else in the league and the division. So we’re definitely familiar with them and know they are going to be a very tough team to beat.”
North Iowa won the regular-season series 7-3. The Bulls won the first four meetings by a combined margin of 29-11. However, all of those games occured prior to when the WarHawks’ season was stopped and all of the acquisitions the team made during that break. The teams split the final six games with the margin being 19-19.
Forwards Isaiah Thomas and Dylan Gajewski are two of a number of newcomers who have been impactful.
Thomas leads Willmar with four points this season and scored the game-winner in the series clincher against the Lumberjacks. Dylan Gajewski has put up three points in the playoffs. He finished the regular season tied with Michael Sweetland for tops on the team with 14 goals.
“We expect a fast and physical series versus the WarHawks,” North Iowa head coach Todd Sanden said. “Both teams have players that are dangerous when provided time and space. It's obvious that Willmar's late-season player additions have bolstered their output and opportunity.”
Sweetland returned to action on March 24 after missing six weeks with a broken collarbone. He has a pair of assists this postseason.
The Bulls hope they have turned things around after a mini, late-season slide. They dropped two of their final three regular-season games before falling at home 2-1 in overtime to Alex in their playoff series opener.
“The West division is a very tough division,” Sanden said. “With how competitive the season was, especially late season, we are happy with the outcome of our first-round series against Alexandria. They were a formidable foe that pushed us to the third and deciding game.”
A big reason why North Iowa came back in its previous series is because of the play of Carsen Stokes. The goaltender allowed one goal in each of the two victories. He also had 51 total saves in the stretch.
Lukas Haugen is projected to be in net for Willmar on Friday. The 6-foot-5 goalie from Excelsior relinquished one goal and had 32 saves in the series finale against Granite City.
Willmar and North Iowa play for the NA3HL’s Western Division championship
Game 1: Willmar vs. North Iowa, 7:30 p.m. at Mason City Arena
Game 2: North Iowa vs. Willmar, 7:30 p.m. at St. Cloud Municipal Athletic Complex
Game 3: If necessary, Willmar vs. North Iowa, 5:30 p.m. at Mason City Arena