South Finals: New rivalry gains momentum
by Alex Kyrias | NAHL.com
One glance at the rivalry that’s become the Topeka RoadRunners versus the Amarillo Bulls and fans would think it goes back to the days of old.
However, this rivalry is just 12 games is the making, but this matchup of the South Division’s top two teams in the regular season promises to be nasty, gritty, and a fight to the finish.
The No. 1-ranked RoadRunners advanced, but it wasn’t as easy as expected. As a matter of fact, it was downright hard. It took a last-minute goal in the fifth-and-deciding game by Jordan Davis for the RoadRunners to move onto the South Finals.
“Wichita Falls played with a lot of desperation and made it a heck of a series,” said RoadRunners head coach Scott Langer. “But, I’m proud of our guys who hung in there and did what they needed to do to advance.”
Topeka was seemingly cruising after a 5-1 win in Game 1 in which Nate Milam scored twice and Rasmus Tirronen made 25 saves. Game 2, however, was a different story and one that plays itself out so often in the playoffs.
RoadRunners goaltender Eric Rohrkemper was perfect through regulation, making 24 saves. The problem for Topeka was that, despite pumping 39 shots on goal, all were turned aside by the Wildcats goaltender Tyler Green. Then, a faceoff win by the Wildcats in overtime and subsequent goal tied the series at 1-1 heading to Wichita Falls.
Again, the RoadRunners would control Game 3, winning 5-2. Brian Christie was fantastic, scoring two goals and two assists and Milam had another strong night with three more points.
But again, the RoadRunners would fall victim the next night thanks to a three-goal comeback in the late stages of the game by the Wildcats, who won Game 4 in overtime, 4-3. That forced a Game 5 in Topeka, which led to Davis’s last-minute heroics to win the series.
“People forget that we don’t have a lot of guys with playoff experience,” said Langer. “So it was good for them to experience a five-game series and hopefully they’ll learn from it.”
As for the games with Amarillo, Langer believes it will be a tough, competitive series.
“We’ve developed and good on-ice rivalry with them in a short period of time. They are well coached and can take advantage of your mistakes. They have great goaltending so we’ll need to take advantage of our opportunities. We’re taking it one game at a time right now and our complete focus is winning this next playoff round.”
It took the Bulls four games to dispatch the Texas Tornado in the semifinal round. The first three games of the series were something out of a movie. Throughout the entire regular season, Amarillo and Texas played some tight, defensive games, but that was debunked in the first three games. The teams combined for 30 goals in the three games and both defenses and goaltenders were struggling to keep pucks out of the net.
Fortunately for the Bulls, they managed to come up on the winning side of things in Games 1 and 2 at home as they took down Texas, 7-5 and 5-3. The Tornado led in both games, but the resilient Bulls fought their way back to wins both nights. The offensive juggernaut continued in Game 3 at Texas, but the Tornado won its first game of the series, 6-4.
Leading the way offensively was the trio of Michael Erickson, Zack Smoot and Sean Keane. Game 4 was where the Bulls defeated the Tornado 2-1 in overtime, advancing to the South finals. Cody Freeman scored the game-winning goal and goaltender Nikifor Szczerba was true to form, making 34 saves.
“It was hard to explain what happened in those first three games,” said Bulls head coach Dennis Williams. “It was just one of those things where teams were scoring and no lead was safe. I was happy with our guys because they managed to fight their way back in the first two games and showed some fortitude in Game 4.
“We got good goaltending when we needed it and did what it took to win on the road and advance. The important thing for our guys to remember about that game was we played strong and took our shots for over 60 minutes of hockey and those are the type of playoff games you have to win.”
As for the impending series with Topeka, it’s one that Williams and the Bulls are looking forward to.
“I think it’ll be a good, intense series with Topeka and define what the playoffs at this time of year are all about. I like our chances if we minimize our turnovers and play a full 60 minutes. Topeka has depth at every position and you can’t allow them second chances, so we’ll have to play smart and play tough.”