With three teams still in contention for the North American Hockey League’s (NAHL) regular-season title heading into final weekend, it was the Wenatchee Wild which eventually came out on top and it took a tie-breaker to settle the score.
The Wild, which wrapped up its regular-season slate with a 4-1 swing against the Alaska Avalanche and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, finished even with the Topeka RoadRunners in points (93), but won the tie-breaker - most wins (45 over Topeka’s 44) - to grab the honor.
“We’re very proud of everything the team has accomplished on the ice this season, including winning the NAHL’s regular-season championship and the West Division championship,” said Wild president Bill Stewart.
“I think this accomplishment takes into account a long 58-game season and really shows the high character and focus we have in the locker room,” added Wild associate head coach Ryan McKelvie, whose team finished the campaign with a 45-10-3 record.
The Wild, though, isn’t about to take its foot off the gas. An overtime goal away from a Robertson Cup championship in its inaugural season of 2008-09, there’s nothing Wenatchee wants more than to be labeled national champions.
“Having won the regular-season championship is great, but our ultimate goal is still to win the Robertson Cup title, and that’s where our players’ full focus needs to be.”
As hosts of the Robertson Cup Championship Tournament, Wenatchee, which will take on the Kenai River Brown Bears in the West Division semifinals (Alaska will play Fairbanks in the other divisional semis), has already secured an automatic bid five-team event, which will take place from May 4-9.
“Even though we have an automatic berth in the Robertson Cup, I don’t think that motivation in the playoffs will be issue for us,” said McKelvie. “Our players want to win the West Division playoff title again, and they know it’s important to be playing our best hockey heading into the tournament.
“We’ll need all 20 players on the ice to be good every game if we want to achieve our goals in the playoffs, and I think we showed signs that we’re figuring this out in our latest road trip (to Alaska).”
The Wild’s efforts off the ice were just as impressive, especially at the Town Toyota Center turnstiles. For the second straight season, Wenatchee, last year’s NAHL Organization of the Year, led all NAHL teams in both average (3,417 per game) and overall (99,108) attendance.
“Our fan support continues to be overwhelming and unparalleled,” said Stewart. “The team’s success wouldn’t be nearly as gratifying without that support, and we’re elated to open the playoffs at home before our fans and to showcase the Wenatchee Valley during the Robertson Cup.”
Despite falling just short of a regular-season championship, the Topeka RoadRunners were also in a celebratory mood last week - and with good reason.
After setting a NAHL single-game attendance record - 7,777 packed the Kansas Expocentre on Thursday night - coupled with the announcement that they’ll host the 2011 Robertson Cup Championship Tournament, the RoadRunners also skated away with the South Division’s regular-season crown with a two-game sweep over the Springfield Jr. Blues.
“It was an exciting week for our organization and for the community as well,” said RoadRunners head coach Scott Langer. “A record crowd, a South Division title and the Robertson Cup bid being awarded to Topeka all in one night is the stuff movies are made of. It’s created a buzz around town you just can't buy.”
The RoadRunners will face off against Springfield in the South Division semis; the No. 2-seeded St. Louis Bandits will battle with the Texas Tornado in the other divisional semifinal.
“It’s a long season, and having to win 44 games and still not clinch (the division title) until the final day of the season is just amazing to me,” said Langer. “In the end, though, the way we won it, and the added excitement around the club has really rejuvenated our team. The guys are confident, excited and determined.”
There was one playoff spot still up for grabs in the NAHL heading into last weekend. That was in the Central Division, where the Albert Lea Thunder outlasted North Iowa Outlaws for the fourth and final berth.
The Thunder was propelled by a strong second half to its season and will take on the division champion Bismarck Bobcats in the first round of the playoffs. The Owatonna Express, the No. 2 seed, with play the Alexandria Blizzard in the other Central semis.
“I’m proud of the players and glad all of our efforts as a team have been rewarded, but, like any coach, I hope they can set their standards even higher,” said Thunder head coach Chuck Linkenheld.
In the North Division, the Marquette Rangers laid claim to its first-ever regular-season divisional title after picking up three wins. The Rangers will tangle with the Motor City Metal Jackets in the first round of the playoffs, while the second-seeded Traverse City North Stars will take on the Janesville Jets.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am for this group of guys,” said Rangers head coach Kenny Miller. “They’ve worked hard all year, survived some bumps in the road, but, when it came time to get it done, they really stepped up and earned the right to be No. 1 going into the playoffs.”
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Forward Zach Smith (Anchorage) closed the regular season with four goals and two assists as the Avalanche went 3-1. He finished second in the NAHL with 228 penalty minutes.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Despite two losses to Bismarck last weekend, the Thunder still clinched the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division. It will play the Bobcats in the first round of the playoffs.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Forward Alex Altenbernd (Moorhead, Minn.) netted three goals and three assists as the Blizzard went 2-0-1. He was also a plus-7 for the weekend.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: Forward Mike Henderson (Bloomington, Ind.) has committed to Army (Atlantic Hockey) for next season.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: Forward Tyler Klein (Fargo, N.D), who began the season with North Iowa, connected for two goals and an assist in the Bobcats’ 6-3 victory over Albert Lea on Saturday. ”Tyler had his best weekend in a Bobcat uniform,” said head coach Byron Pool.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: Forward Michael Juola (Lake Forest, Calif.), a Brown University recruit (ECAC), finished the regular season as the league leader in assists with 55.
JANESVILLE JETS: Forward Kurt Akers (Glenview, Ill.) tallied two goals as the Jets went 1-3 to close the regular season.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Forward Doug Beck (Plymouth, Mich.) tallied two goals and two assists as the Brown Bears closed the regular season with a pair of losses to Alaska.
MARQUETTE RANGERS: With three wins, the Rangers locked up the North Division’s regular-season title - Marquette’s first in it four-year history.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Forward Cody Wydo (Allen Park, Mich.) rang up the game-winning goal and an assist in the Metal Jackets’ 3-2 triumph over Janesville on Wednesday.
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: In three North Iowa losses, forward Derek Loisel (Coon Rapids, Minn.) came through with a goal and two assists. He was also a plus-4 for the weekend.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Forward Chris Darnell ( Barboursville, Va.) registered a goal and two assists, including one on Charlie Thauwald’s (Rochester, Minn.) game-winning goal, in the Express’ 3-2 victory over North Iowa on Thursday.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: RIT (Atlantic Hockey) junior goaltender Jared DeMichiel, who played for the Jr. Blues during the 2004-05 season, was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Division I tournament’s East Regional after backstopping the Tigers to a Frozen Four berth.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: Forward C.J. Eick (Appleton, Wis.) struck for a goal and three assists in the Bandits’ two-game sweep over Texas. He was also a plus-4 for the weekend.
TEXAS TORNADO: Merrimack College freshman forward Stephane Da Costa, who played for Texas during the 2006-07 season, was named the Hockey East Rookie of the Year.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Goaltender Evan Karambelas (Fort St. John, B.C.) backstopped the RoadRunners to a two-game sweep over Springfield and a South Division regular-season championship, turning aside 42 of 48 shots. “Evan stood tall when we needed him on both nights,” said assistant coach R.J. Enga.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Goaltender Chris Paliafito (Shelbyville, Ky.) has committed to Sacred Heart University (Atlantic Hockey) for next season.
WENATCHEE WILD: Goaltender Brandon Jaeger (Champlin, Minn.) finished the regular-season with the best goals-against average (1.83) and save percentage (.928) among NAHL netminders.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Forward Brian Sheehan (St. Louis) finished as the team’s leading scorer with 60 points on 29 goals.