Days before the Alexandria Blizzard was supposed to leave for Mason City, Iowa, the COVID-19 pandemic forced an abrupt cancellation last year. The Blizzard was playing some of its best hockey of the season while looking forward to the opportunity of upsetting top-seeded North Iowa.

After finishing the 2020-21 season 17-20-1-2 and in fourth place in the West Division with 37 points, the Blizzard will get to cash in on that chance a year later. On Friday night, top-seeded North Iowa (21-11-1-1, 56 points) will host Alexandria in the first of a best-of-three series.

“We were disappointed we didn’t get to play them last year because we were playing well,” Blizzard assistant coach Jon Crouse said. “We were coming off the year before where they beat us in the division finals. We are looking back at those two missed opportunities as motivation. Despite our record being what it is this year, we know if we play the game the way that I know our guys can play for 60 minutes, it’s going to be whoever capitalizes on their chances. We are not afraid of any team in the division.”

The Blizzard went 4-6 against North Iowa this season, which is tied for the best record against North Iowa by any team. Second-seeded Granite City (12-12-0-1, 55 points), which will take on third-seeded Willmar (22-18-0-0, 44 points), also had a 4-6 record against the Bulls.

“We’ve had success against North Iowa more than most teams in our division,” Crouse said. “We won a game down there the last time we played them on the road and we beat them a couple of times at home. Other than the first game of the season where they beat us 9-1, all of the games have been pretty close. I think our guys are feeling good going into this series, especially knowing that we did win going down there once before.”

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Due to the NA3HL’s talent pool being better than year’s past, Crouse feels his guys are more battle tested than they’ve been in previous seasons.

“Aside from New Ulm’s (7-29-4-0, 18 points) record, they gave everybody good games, and they’re the only team that didn't get into the playoffs,” Crouse said. "You look at the teams above us and all of those teams are good teams. You never had nights against Breezy Point or Milwaukee where you're winning easy. It takes a toll on the guys, so your preparation has to be that much sharper.”

North Iowa’s second straight regular season division crown is in large part due to its ability to make teams suffer from mistakes.

“They’ll make you pay,” Crouse said. “You make a turnover in the neutral zone or something where they can come back the other way they usually do a good job of capitalizing on those opportunities. If we can play a simple, tight game where we limit the high-quality scoring chances, I think it’s going to be a pretty tight series.”

Alexandria will host game two at the Runestone Community Center on April 3 at 7:10 p.m. A game three, if necessary, is back in Mason City on April 4 at 5:30 p.m.