Runners corral Tornado to win series

Christopher A. Smith / Campus Editor

In their first best-of-five playoff series victory, the Topeka RoadRunners won three games faster than the Texas Tornado.

Topeka outscored Texas 18-3 in the series to earn a spot in the NAHL South Division Finals against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, which begins 7:05 p.m. Thursday in Landon Arena.

After winning the regular-season division championship, the top-seeded Runners were paired against No. 4-seed Texas in the playoff’s opening round. Topeka made the Tornado look like a gentle breeze with a 6-2 win in the first game of the series.

“We have a lot of confidence right now,” said coach Scott Langer. “We’re such a young team and we feel like we just can’t lose. They’re coming together and we’re just such a tight-knit unit.”

No dramatic pickup truck chases or flying cows were necessary for Topeka to chase down the Tornado and win the series. In the first period of game one the Runners out-shot Texas 22-5 but were still tied 1-1. The shooting spree continued into the second period as Topeka built up a 40-7 differential and a 4-1 lead. With the game all but done, the Tornado scored their second goal with 2:33 to play. However, the Runners killed any chances of the Tornado gaining momentum by responding with a sixth goal in the final 45 seconds.

It’s hard to have any complaints with such a dominating win, but Langer did ask one thing of defenseman Randy Swank entering the series.

“I’ve been asking Randy to shoot more,” said Langer. “He’s got a pro-caliber shot, and he’s starting to utilize it again.”

The shots Swank took translated into two goals and a pair of assists through the first two games of the series. As a team, the Tornado tallied 21 shots on goal in game two. Goalkeeper Bryce Merriam deflected all 21 to pick up a 7-0 shutout win and a 2-0 series lead.

The Runners messed with Texas in the first period, letting them stick around in a 0-0 tie. But once the scoring started it never stopped in the second consecutive blowout victory. It would be easy to look at the Runners’ sudden success in the playoffs this season and credit an added year of experience. However, a look at the playoff roster suggests it’s nothing more than a new crop of talent.

“Being here before helps a little bit,” said Langer. “But we didn’t have a lot back from last year. There are only five veterans back from that team. They’re great leaders, but our new guys are good character kids. They’ve just figured it out on this level.”

With Texas’ chances of advancing all but eliminated, desperation lineup changes were made for the series’ third game. Tornado goalkeeper Adam Brown played for just the second time all season. The change made an impact, as Brown allowed only five goals. Compared to the six and seven that Texas’ usual keeper allowed, Brown was an improvement. However, Texas could only net one goal, Topeka cruised to a 5-1 win, and swept their division rivals.

“We changed it up a little bit on the defensive side in game three to counter their lineup changes,” said Langer. “But other than some minor adjustments, we just kept doing what’s been successful for us all season.”

The Tornado were within striking distance, down 3-1 in the third period, but Topeka scored twice within a 32-second span to put the game, and series, out of reach. With his second-period goal, forward Eriah Hayes became the only player in the league to score in each game of the series.

Texas will be the easiest competition the Runners face throughout the playoffs, but if Topeka continues playing at this level it appears their biggest hurdle could be themselves.

“It’s tough to say that there’s anything we need to change,” said Langer. “We haven’t had a lot of adversity. We know it will be different from here on out, playing Fairbanks. Our team has to realize it’s going to get a little more difficult now.”

In the central division standings, Topeka led Texas by 41 points. Fairbanks trailed Topeka by just four in the season’s final standings. With the series’ two opening games on Thursday and Friday hosted by Topeka, the Runners hope to build momentum similar to their opening round three-game sweep.

“If we’re lucky enough to win against Fairbanks, the three top division winners advance to a bracket in St. Louis,” said Langer. “Hopefully, that’s us. We’ve played well enough during the season to get the home-ice advantage. We just need to keep doing what we’ve always done, and hope that’s enough.”