SOUTH DIVISION FINALS PREVIEW: TOPEKA vs WICHITA FALLS
By Arch Ecker
The Topeka RoadRunners will skate in the South Division Final for the eighth time in nine seasons since arriving in Kansas. Their opponent will be the South Division Regular Season champion Wichita Falls Wildcats. The best-of-five series begins Friday night in Wichita Falls, TX before heading back to Topeka for Game 3 on Monday and, if necessary, Game 4 on Tuesday. A Game 5 would be played back in Wichita Falls on Saturday, May 7.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Topeka advanced to the South Division Finals by knocking off the #2 seed Lone Star Brahmas 3 games to 1. Lone Star won Game 1 at home, but the ‘Runners took Game 2 in overtime, won Game 3 at home handily and withstood a furious Brahma comeback attempt to win Game 4 at home in overtime. Division champion Wichita Falls fell behind #4 seeded Odessa 3-0 in Game 1 as the Jackalopes erupted for all three goals in the span of 1:20 late in the opening period, but the ‘Cats roared back with 15 unanswered goals over the remainder of the series, sweeping Odessa to advance to the South Division Finals for the first time in franchise history.
HEAD TO HEAD THIS SEASON: The teams met ten times this season, splitting each of the first three weekends. The last two weekends were swept by the Wildcats, both times in Texas. That leaves the RoadRunners with a 3-7-0 record against the ‘Cats, the first time Wichita Falls has ever taken the season series.
TRY TO SCORE FOUR: In games the RoadRunners put up 4 or more goals, they won each time in games against the Wildcats.
KINGS OF THE ROAD: The RoadRunners have enjoyed recent postseason success on the road, winning eight of their last ten away from Kansas.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Wichita Falls had the league’s fourth best power play (22.1%) while Topeka’s ranked thirteenth (16.2%). The Wildcats penalty kill was third best at 86.0% and Topeka ranked tenth at 83.1%. Head to head, the ‘Cats power play was overwhelming, going 13 of 38 for a whopping 34.2% with a shorthanded goal, as Topeka managed just 8 for 52 (15.4%) with three shorthanded goals.
SCORE EARLY, SCORE OFTEN: Both teams play much better with a lead, as each club managed just once all season to overcome a deficit when trailing after two periods.
ONES TO WATCH – TOPEKA: Topeka’s offense is powered by Dominic Lutz (Ferris State) who led the team in goals (26) and power play goals (13). Johnny Walker (Arizona State) has averaged nearly a point per game in his 15 games since arriving via trade from Minot. The RoadRunners add balanced scoring with Quinn Preston, JB Baker, and Luka Maver each netting 34 points. On the blue line, Tyler Hayes and Ryan O’Connor lead the way offensively, while John O’Connor suited up for all 60 games with a plus 11 rating. Topeka also packs a one-two goalie punch with Juho Niku who has played every game in the opening round, and Tyler Johnson (Maine).
ONES TO WATCH – WICHITA FALLS: The Wildcats high octane offense was second highest in the NAHL, led by Austin Albrecht with 60 points, Austin Beaulieu (Alabama-Huntsville) with 49 points, and Jonathan Lazarus with 46 points. Defenseman Jeff Baum added 30 points, and goalie Justin Kapelmaster worked the majority of the games and finished fourth in the NAHL with a goals against average of 2.06.
FEELIN’ STRONG: The RoadRunners continue miss the on-ice presence of captain Cam Strong (Dartmouth) who aged out on March 19. He led the team in plus-minus with plus 19 and despite missing the last 8 games, still finished third in team scoring (13g, 29a). He remains with the team
ALL TIME SERIES: The RoadRunners have dominated the Wildcats historically, with a record of 79-30-8 all time (.709). The teams have met in the South Division Semi Finals three times, with Topeka winning 9 of 14 games to take all three series.