As hosts of the 2011 Robertson Cup, the Topeka RoadRunners are assured of participating in the NAHL’s championship tournament.
However, Topeka head coach Scott Langer said his squad doesn’t discuss that fact.
Instead, the Roadrunners have their sights set on defending their South Division regular-season title captured last year.
“Every night there’s going to be a difficult game,” Langer said. “Every team that wins the South has to win 40-plus games to do it, and that’s a lot of hockey games.”
Through almost a fifth of the season, only six points separate the first-place Wichita Falls Wildcats from the last-place New Mexico Mustangs.
The RoadRunners (7-2-1, 15 points) are currently one point shy of the Wildcats thanks to a two-game sweep in Wichita Falls over the weekend.
Those victories came on the heels of a disappointing home opener the weekend before, but Langer said Topeka spent last week refocusing.
“We had to replace a lot of guys like we have every year,” Langer said. “We only have seven guys back, so it’s a matter of baby steps and growing pains. That’s what we’re seeing right now.”
Michael Hill, who bagged a hat trick in Friday’s 6-3 win, has stepped up his game since becoming the team’s captain. Hill has scored a team-best 17 points, and his five power-play goals are second in the NAHL.
Defenseman Jacob Poe is another veteran who turned down a scholarship offer to Alabama-Huntsville because he felt he had unfinished business with the RoadRunners, who were eliminated in last year’s South Division finals.
“That shows a lot about his character,” said Langer, who recorded his 250th win with the RoadRunners on Saturday (Langer has been their coach since the organization arrived in Santa Fe in 2004.).
A couple Junior A newcomers - forwards Justin Hussar (eight points) and Kevin Novakovich (three goals) - are playing well, but Langer said his squad’s strength so far this season has been in net.
Holdover Eric Rohrkemper and Finland native Rasmus Tirronen have combined for a 2.20 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage.
Rohrkemper played in 20 games with Topeka last season before emerging as the team’s No. 1 goalie in the playoffs. That experience is playing dividends.
“Having to grow up so quickly against a team like the St. Louis Bandits is not easy to do,” Langer said. “It’s such a competitive situation right now. Those guys are fighting for minutes.”
And the Roadrunners, who haven’t finished lower than second in the three years since relocating to Kansas, will be fighting for another South Division title - even if a Robertson Cup berth won’t be at stake.
AMARILLO BULLS: Despite two losses to the Tornado, the Bulls are still averaging 4.09 goals a game, second highest in the league behind Fairbanks. Forward T.J. Sarcona has registered an assist in each of the last five games.
CORPUS CHRISTI ICERAYS: With a pair of shootout victories against New Mexico, Corpus Christi bumped its record to 4-0 in shootouts this season. Five of the IceRays’ 11 games have been tied at the end of regulation. No team in the NAHL has played more overtime/shootout games.
NEW MEXICO MUSTANGS: Goaltender Brian Jones got some revenge Thursday against the Wildcats, who traded him before the Oct. 1 roster cuts. Jones made 36 saves and stopped all but one shootout attempt in the Mustangs’ 3-2 victory. He's 1-1-2 with a 2.83 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage since joining New Mexico.
TEXAS TORNADO: Ralfs Freibergs had six assists over the weekend, including five in Saturday’s 8-4 win in Amarillo. Freibergs’ 15 points are the most among NAHL defensemen, and he also leads the league in assists (14) and power-play assists (eight). The Tornado is currently riding a four-game winning streak.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Mikhail Sentyurin’s three-game streak of scoring a goal ended in Saturday’s loss to Topeka. Mattia Bortolotto picked up an assist Friday in his second game with the team after being acquired from the WHL's Prince George Cougars.