NAHL South Division title between Topeka, St. Louis

Flying V The Topeka RoadRunners defeated the Springfield Jr. Blues 8-1 Friday night and 4-3 Saturday night to move on to the NAHL South Division Championship against the St. Louis Bandits. Game 1 is Thursday at 7

Richard Kelly

For a second straight season, the South Division title for the North American Hockey League will come down to the Topeka RoadRunners and the St. Louis Bandits.

After losing the first game of the South Division’s first round match-up with the Springfield Jr. Blues, the Topeka RoadRunners successfully pulled off three straight wins, including an 8-1 romp over the Jr. Blues last Friday night and a 4-3 victory over Springfield on Saturday to wrap up the series.

Edgars Lipsbergs got the scoring started on Friday at the 4:25 mark when he found his way into the slot and fired the puck past Andrew Martin for a 1-0 lead. A minute later, Justin Kovacs increased it to a 2-0 lead for Topeka, which was the score at first intermission.

During the second frame, Kovacs fed Alec Hagaman the puck in the middle slot and he fired it into the back of the net to make it a 3-0 game going into second intermission. The RoadRunners exploded for five goals in the third period, beginning just 1:25 in when Cole Schneider found the puck off a rebound and make it a 4-0 game.

It became 5-0 when Schneider fed Tony Thomas in front of the net who then found a streaking Bryce Johnson who buried his opportunity. Nick Curry put Springfield on the board a few minutes later before Cole Schneider scored two more goals at 12:02 and 13:51 of the third period to give him a hat trick and Topeka a 7-1 lead. Michael Hill finished off the scoring for Topeka at the 15:58 mark. Eric Rohrkemper came up with 22 saves on 23 shots while Andrew Martin made 24 stops on 31 shots. Tanner Milliron wasn’t able to stop the only shot he faced.

Topeka assistant head coach R.J. Enga was satisfied with the way Rohrkemper played when he was called on in net and looked at the battle between he, Evan Karembelas and Cooper Frederick to be a positive one.

“Eric’s done a good job so far in the playoffs and has really stepped up his game and made some big saves and showed that he can compete. And with all three of the goalies, it’s a healthy competition. They all three want to be in there and be the starting guy,” said Enga.

Saturday’s game had a better effort from Springfield. A streak of late first period penalties gave the Jr. Blues a 5-on-3 powerplay and only nine seconds after Topeka regained a player, Randy Cure found the net to give Springfield a 1-0 lead. It remained that score at first intermission, with shots deadlocked at 10.

But at 1:13 of the second period, Topeka would get on the board when Thomas scored off a rebound to a shot by Johnson. At the 11:54 mark, Cole Schneider continued his hot streak when Lipsbergs found him in the left slot and he was able to get a shot behind Martin to give the ‘Runners the lead going into second intermission.

None other than Schneider scored at the 4:53 mark of the third period to increase the Topeka lead to 3-1. But Springfield answered at the 5:19 mark to make it 3-2. However, Schneider earned his second straight hat trick when he followed up a Johnson shot and knocked it behind Martin. At 19:26, Mike O’Donnell cut it to 4-3, but Topeka held on to wrap up the series and move on to the next round. Springfield had the shot advantage 38-32 but Karembelas stopped 35 of 38 shots for Topeka to preserve the victory.

With quite a few penalties against Topeka and a fair amount of playing shorthanded, Enga was happy with how Karembelas responded.

“It was just one bad thing after another. But Evan really stepped it up and made some key stops. Hats off to the guys, they worked well and hard to help be the catalyst to preserve the game,” he said.

After being down 2-0 in the series early, the St. Louis Bandits finished their miraculous comeback with a 3-2 overtime victory on Saturday afternoon versus the Texas Tornado. The two teams will start the series in Topeka at Landon Arena on Thursday and Friday night at 7:05. After facing St. Louis for the first two games in their arena last year, it’s going to be Topeka’s turn this time around.

“You fight hard to get that home ice. You get to eat meals at home, sleep in your own beds,” said Enga. “It’s something you look forward to all year to have that. You know your surroundings and feel more comfortable in having that advantage of being in your own rink.”