The only undefeated team left in October, Topeka RoadRunners have rattled off five wins in a row thanks in part to a two-game sweep over the Wichita Falls Wildcats last weekend.
For the RoadRunners, who improved to a South Division-leading 7-2-1 on the young season, balance has dictated the team’s recent success.
“We've been getting consistency from all areas of our game, from goaltending on out,” said RoadRunners head coach Scott Langer. “Our goal-scorers are starting to produce and our special teams are starting to click. It’s a long season, but we have some definite positives to build on.”
The RoadRunners opened their weekend on Friday with a 5-2 victory. Nate Milam rang up two goals in the win, and Cole Schneider added a goal and an assist. Between the pipes, goaltender Evan Karambelas made 27 saves.
Alec Hagaman connected for a pair of goals the next night, including the game-winner, as Topeka downed the Wildcats, 5-3. Edgars Lipsbergs put home a goal and an assist, and netminder Eric Rohrkemper turned aside 26 shots.
“(The weekend in Wichita Falls) was rewarding because we got contributions all across the roster,” said Langer. “Some were on the scoresheet, but many others in areas that don't show up in the box score.”
Among this year’s returning RoadRunners, captain Kurtis Anton has emerged as a leader, both on and off the ice, according to Langer, with Hagaman, who has six goals for eight points, getting the job done offensively. Martin Sundstedt has also developed into a steady, everyday player.
Newcomer Bryce Johnson has impressed both as a playmaker and on the penalty kill, with Milam, who already has six goals on the season, showcasing his knack for the net. Patrick Kirtland has also shown promise of becoming a legitimate Division I candidate, according to Langer.
“We're a younger team than we've been in the last couple of seasons, so that changes things a bit as we move through the early part of our schedule,” said Langer. “Overall, I feel that we're developing well and making fewer mistakes as we go. Obviously, there's always room to grow and improve, but I believe we’re moving in the right direction.”
What's more, the RoadRunners have been powered by the reunion two linemates from last year’s Mahoning Valley Phantoms Robertson Cup Championship Tournament-qualifying team. Erik Higby was added to Topeka’s roster over the summer with Cole Schneider coming into the fold in late September.
Higby has two goals and six assists in eight games; Schneider has struck for four goals and two assists in his first four games since arriving in Topeka.
“That combination has paid immediate dividends,” said Langer.
So has the addition of Ryan White, who has two goals and an assist in his first four games after starting the season in the WHL.
“He’s wasted no time making his presence felt,” said Langer.
The RoadRunners are also sporting plenty of depth in goal, where Karambelas has been effective playing in all of the team’s first nine games after returning netminder Cooper Frederick was injured during training camp.
With Frederick close to returning and Rohrkemper, a former Michigan high school standout, wasting no time proving his worth with his performance on Saturday against the Wildcats, who will emerge as a No. 1 is anybody’s guess.
“Coop is just starting to practice again and will hopefully be ready to play in a game soon, and then we'll see some stiff competition for playing time,” said Langer.
A perennial contender on the ice, the RoadRunners received even more good news over the offseason when a new ownership group, headed by Don Stone, purchased the team. What’s followed has been nothing but positive for the organization, its fans and the city of Topeka.
“They’ve been unbelievably supportive and have given us all the tools we need to be successful,” said Langer of the team’s owners. “The community response has been overwhelmingly positive as they see our franchise stabilized and following through on the things we say we’ll do.”
Pleased with their early success, the RoadRunners know all too well what’s in store the rest of the way. Wins always come at a premium in the ultra-competitive South Division, which boasts the last six Robertson Cup champions. Langer doesn’t expect anything different this time around.
“You can never take a night off in this division and points are going to be hard to come by every night,” he said. “Our focus has to be on improving our fundamentals and coming out to compete every shift.
“It can be challenging over the course of a long season, but in order to succeed in the South, it's imperative. Taking a single shift off can cost you two points, and that can mean the difference in a division title or home-ice advantage or even a playoff spot.
“We’re taking nothing for granted, and we’re not letting any outside influences distract us from our goal.”