One of the constants the last four years in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) has been the Topeka RoadRunners.
Since moving to Kansas’ capitol city in the summer of 2007, the RoadRunners have done plenty of winning. Two regular-season division titles and 145 regular-season wins later, the RoadRunners again find themselves flirting with the top of the South Division and are again considered among the NAHL’s elite.
Seeing it all through has been the combination of owner Don Stone and head coach Scott Langer.
“It starts and continues with the people you surround yourself with to create certain culture,” said Langer. “In order to produce a winning atmosphere, it takes the dedication and hard work of a lot of people. Starting with owners, Don and Barb Stone, we’ve tried to create a family atmosphere in the office, in the locker room, on the ice and with our fans. It starts and ends there and we feel like, during the last four seasons, that’s been instrumental to our success.”
That success for Topeka will hit an organizational high point when the RoadRunners host the 2011 Robertson Cup Championship Tournament. Preparations for the tournament began over a year ago and Langer feels like the support in the community will be at an all-time high when Topeka and three other NAHL teams hit the ice for the NAHL’s ultimate prize in May.
“The fans of Topeka are ecstatic about having this event,” said Langer. “We have strong community leaders leading focus and planning groups to ensure that all of the teams are treated to a world-class event and experience where they’re treated like stars,” said Langer. “It’s been a good learning process being on the host side and we hope it culminates in one of the best events our city, our team and our league has ever seen.”
As hosts, the RoadRunners receive the automatic bid to the tournament, but that hasn’t slowed Topeka down this season. The RoadRunners again find themselves battling for the South Division title halfway through the season - an accomplishment Langer savors in large part because of the parity that exists within the division.
“The work ethic of our opponents probably stands out the most,” remarked Langer of the revamped South Division. “If you don’t play 60 minutes against any of the teams within our division, you’re going to get beat. All of them are well-coached, well-balanced and the games are competitive every night.”
Topeka’s offense has received a lot of attention thanks to Michael Hill, who is second in among league goal-scorers. However, if the RoadRunners are going to have success the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs, it might be because of their defense, which is in the top five in the NAHL in shots allowed per game, goals-against per game and penalty-killing.
It’s been that team defense that’s allowed Topeka not to lose more than two games in a row this season - a consistency Langer attributes in large part to his goaltenders, Rasmus Tirronen and Eric Rohrkemper.
“It’s so important to have a two-goalie combination that you can rely on the entire season. It definitely helps our team knowing we have strong goaltending to back them up,” said Langer. “Early on, Rasmus was the guy and lately Eric has been on a tear, so we’ll continue to ride them as we have this season and let it work itself out as we head towards the playoffs.”
SOUTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
AMARILLO BULLS: There’s a reason the Bulls are now atop the NAHL South Division standings. With a win and a shootout loss at Topeka last weekend, the Bulls have now taken points in eight straight games. Forward Dan Sherer recorded four points last week, which included two-point nights in wins against Wichita Falls on Wednesday and Topeka on Friday. The Bulls, who have the league’s best home record, will have a chance to increase their division lead with five out of the first seven games in 2011 at home.
CORPUS CHRISTI ICERAYS: Talk about close games: The last four IceRays games have been decided by one goal. Two of them have been wins, but with the IceRays in fifth place in the South Division and on the outside of the playoffs, they’ll need more wins in 2011. The schedule is very favorable for Corpus Christi beginning this weekend as they play the first five games of the New Year at home - a place the ‘Rays are .500 so far this season. Since joining the IceRays in early November, defenseman Colton Saucerman has 10 points in 13 games and is riding a four-game point streak.
NEW MEXICO MUSTANGS: The next seven games for the Mustangs are against either Amarillo or Corpus Christi. New Mexico’s last win was against Amarillo and the Mustangs have a combined record of 3-6-2 against the two clubs. The Mustangs are the least penalized team in the South Division so far this year, averaging just under 26 penalty minutes per game. Forward Patrick Anderson has at least a point in three out of his last five games and is one of only two Mustangs players to have a positive plus-minus rating.
TEXAS TORNADO: Jack Prince and Ralfs Freibergs couldn’t have returned soon enough to the Tornado lineup. Having missed all of the Tornado games in December because of their participation in the IIHF Division I World Junior Championship, both returned for the Tornado’s home game on New Year’s Eve. Prince scored the first two Tornado goals and Freibergs assisted on the first three Tornado goals, including the game-winner. Freibergs was also named South Division Player of the Week, marking the second time this season the Latvian-born defenseman has received the honor and the fifth time overall a Tornado player has received the award.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Wildcats defenseman Miha Stebih took some time away from the team to represent his home country of Slovenia at the IIHF Division I Group B World Junior Championship. The Slovenian squad finished second with a 4-0-0-1 record. Stebih had a goal and was a plus-4 in the five games. Slovenia’s lone loss game against Division I B champion Denmark. The Wildcats set a team season record for most penalty minutes in a game with 67 against Amarillo last Wednesday. The previous record was 57 against Topeka on Oct. 8, while the team’s all-time record is 106 against St. Louis in 2007.