St. Louis, Topeka fight to the finish
by By Brian McDonough | NAHL.com
Read the full NAHL Weekly Release.
One weekend left in the regular season, and still no champion.
That’s what the NAHL looks like with only a handful of games to play, and the final act couldn’t have been scripted any better with the St. Louis Bandits and the Topeka RoadRunners going head-to-head in a two-game set to decide the league championship.
“We fully expect our team to be treating these games like it’s playoff hockey,” said Bandits head coach Jeff Brown. “With the division title and the regular-season title and home ice throughout the postseason on the line, the playoffs begin Friday night.”
“They’ll be on the hunt against us,” said RoadRunners head coach Scott Langer. “We’ll have to be perfect in every aspect against them. Series like this is why we play the game.”
For the Bandits, who hold a one-point edge over the RoadRunners in the South Division with 88 points, a sweep, split or a win and a shootout/overtime loss will give them their second consecutive regular-season title.
The RoadRunners need a sweep or a win and a shootout/overtime loss to win the championship.
That second scenario – a Topeka win and a shootout/overtime loss - would leave both teams with 90 points. With the first regular-season tiebreaker – most wins – still tied (49 each), the RoadRunners would hold the second tiebreaker – head-to-head points – with a 16-13 advantage over the Bandits.
For the RoadRunners, who are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, they’ll need to rebound from a two-game split with the Wichita Falls Wildcats last weekend.
“We’ve put ourselves in a tough spot, but, if we’re competitive inside, we’ll bounce back,” said Langer.
St. Louis, which holds a 9-1 mark in its last 10, enters the weekend after celebrating two wins over the North Division-leading Mahoning Valley Phantoms.
“Sweeping Mahoning Valley, a team that we have so much respect for, was a good tune-up for this all-important weekend against Topeka,” said Brown. “We were happy with the results, but feel that we still have yet to play our best hockey.”
And the season-series between the two powerhouses has been nothing short of dramatic, with all but one of the teams’ 10 games decided by two goals or fewer, with four of those determined in overtime or a shootout.
“Topeka is full of veterans and they have guys who’ve experienced playoff hockey before,” said Brown of the RoadRunners, who represented the South Division at last year’s Robertson Cup Championship Tournament. “They have a lot of depth and it should be another good test for our hockey club.”
“St. Louis has been a consistent team all year,” said Langer of the two-time defending Robertson Cup champions. “They haven't taken a night off since Christmas. They’re hungry.”
The series kicks off on Friday at Hardee’s Iceplex in Chesterfield, Mo. (7:15 faceoff). Game 2 slated for Saturday at the Iceplex with another 7:15 p.m. start.
“We need to be mentally tough,” said Langer. “We have to put the last month behind us and move forward. We’ll need to start working harder defensively, back to what we’ve put pride in since this franchise came about.”
“I think we just need to play Bandits hockey,” said Brown. “We know how Topeka plays, and Topeka knows how we play, so when it’s all said and done, this weekend is going to come down to who wants it more.”
The Central’s playoff picture became crystal clear last weekend, as the Bismarck Bobcats rattled off three wins to lock up their first-ever regular-season division championship.
The Bobcats will host the No. 4-seed Alexandria Blizzard in the first round of the playoffs, with the No. 2-seed North Iowa Outlaws hosting the Owatonna Express in the other divisional semifinals series.
“The fact that it’s the first division title in franchise history is pretty special,” said Bobcats head coach Byron Pool. “They’ve had some great teams in Bismarck, and to be the first is a great accomplishment for these young men. It’s something they should extremely be proud of.”
The league’s final postseason berth is still up for grabs in the North Division, as the Marquette Rangers, who skated to a two-game sweep over the Motor City Machine last weekend, inched closer to the Alpena IceDiggers, who picked up one point in three attempts, for the last spot.
With 58 points apiece, Alpena has three games remaining - two at Mahoning Valley and one at the U.S. Under-17 Team - and Marquette two (a two-game home series against the Traverse City North Stars).
The North’s regular-season championship is also still in play, with Mahoning Valley (75 points, two games remaining), Traverse City (72, two remaining) and the U.S. National Team (71, four remaining) all fighting for the division’s top spot.
“I’ve been around for a while, and I don’t think I’ve seen so much undecided heading into the final weekend of the season,” said NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “It certainly makes things exciting, and the playoffs should only be better.”
AROUND THE NAHL
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Kyle Pichler and Tyler Currier scored for the Avalanche in its three losses to Wenatchee last weekend.
ALBERT LEA THUNDER: Nikita Feoktistov put home a goal and an assist in the Thunder’s 10-2 loss to Bismarck on Saturday.
ALEXANDRIA BLIZZARD: Texas native Kyle Clement tallied two goals, including the game-winner, in the Blizzard’s 3-2 win over North Iowa on Saturday.
ALPENA ICEDIGGERS: Jimmy McCusker tallied a goal and an assist as the IceDiggers fashioned an 0-2-1 record against the U.S. Under-18 Team and Traverse City.
BISMARCK BOBCATS: With 25 points in 39 games since joining the Bobcats from Fairbanks earlier this season, Isaiah Bennis has been a welcome addition to the lineup. “He’s a big body (6-foot-4, 210) that has a lot of skill and has performed very nicely for us,” said head coach Byron Pool.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: California native Mark Pustin notched two goals and three assists as the Ice Dogs skated to a two-game sweep over Kenai River.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: Ryan Lemke and Kevin Wentland each connected for a goal an assist as the Brown Bears wrapped up their regular season with a pair of losses to Fairbanks.
MAHONING VALLEY PHANTOMS: Josh Bussell tallied two goals in three games last weekend, including one in the Phantoms’ 4-1 victory over the U.S. Under-17 Team on St. Patrick’s Day.
MARQUETTE RANGERS: NAHL Top Prospects Tournament participants Chad Pietila (Northern Michigan University) and Reed Rushing (Bowling Green State University) have committed to CCHA programs for next season.
MOTOR CITY MACHINE: Ryan Misiak, an NAHL Top Prospects Tournament participant, has committed to Mercyhurst College (Atlantic Hockey) for the 2011-12 season.
NORTH IOWA OUTLAWS: With two home games left, the Outlaws are 1,154 fans away from passing last season’s record attendance mark. North Iowa needs to average 577 in attencance over its last two games to break the record.
OWATONNA EXPRESS: Air Force recruit John Kruse struck for the game-winning goal in the Express’ 5-3 win over Springfield on Saturday.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Goaltender CJ Groh turned back all 27 shots in the Jr. Blues’ 1-0 overtime victory over Owatonna on Friday. “CJ has played very well for us the last few months and has been the rock of this hockey team down the stretch,” said head coach Andy Maher.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: Defenseman Danny Weiss, from Ballwin, Mo., has committed to Niagara University (College Hockey America) for next season.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: Andrew Blazek tallied two goals and an assist as the RoadRunners split a pair of games with Wichita Falls. “Andrew is consistent and a great asset for us heading into the playoffs,” said head coach Scott Langer.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Forward Dan Radke, from Orinda, Calif., has committed to Lake Superior State University (CCHA) for next season.
TEAM USA: The Under-17 and Under-18 Teams combined for a 3-2-1 record in six games against North Division opponents last week.
WENATCHEE WILD: Two Wild players who competed in the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament have committed to Bemidji State University (College Hockey America): forward Duncan McKellar and goaltender Mathieu Dugas.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: Kyle Gallegos recorded two assists, including one on Ryan Amin’s game-winning goal, in the Wildcats’ 4-2 triumph over Topeka on Friday.