Seeing his team clinch the North American Hockey League South Division title on the home ice of the Amarillo Bulls should have been a rewarding moment for Topeka RoadRunners coach Scott Langer.
But considering the price the Runners paid to lock up the South, you’ll have to excuse Langer if his excitement was a little subdued.
The Runners, who have won 10 straight games, wrapped up the division after three wins last weekend, one in Wichita Falls and two in Amarillo. However, the RoadRunners returned to Topeka the most banged up they have been all season.
Langer said his team will be without three, possibly four players when they take on rival St. Louis at 7:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Landon Arena.
“It took a beating to win those three and clinch the division, and we’ve lost some personnel because of it,” he said. “We’re going to be missing some key guys, put it that way -- some long term. Even though we were able to win it on (Amarillo’s) ice, they took a lot out of our sails with their actions.”
Needing six points to eliminate Amarillo from first place contention entering last weekend’s road swing, the Runners dealt with several unforeseen circumstances along the way.
First, the Wichita Falls Wildcats managed to get Topeka’s leading scorer Michael Hill suspended from Friday’s game at the last minute, providing the NAHL officials a video clip of a slashing incident that occurred in the previous week in Topeka. The Runners responded with a 4-2 victory against the Wildcats behind three goals from Nate Milam.
The next night, the RoadRunners and Amarillo were involved in a brutal one. Topeka picked up a 7-4 victory in a game that featured six ejections (four from Amarillo) and a combined 202 penalty minutes.
“It seems like the better job you do, the more guys you put into school; the more resentment there is,” Langer said. “I think it’s not really about the league, where it should be, it’s more about the personal accolades to some of these guys. They’re not doing the right thing when they’re chasing guys off the ice, that’s for sure.
“We’ve been given quite a bit of motivation.
“Some of these tricks and things some of these guys are trying to do -- sending in (video) clips behind our backs and all this stuff -- it’s only motivating us. Our guys have been doing a good job of staying resilient and just keeping with the task at hand and winning hockey games.”
The most vicious incident of the weekend occurred in the first period of Saturday’s game when Amarillo forward Brooks Behling cross-checked Hill in the face, dislocating his jaw. The hit was eerily similar to the one Hill delivered to Amarillo’s Derek Hills earlier this season that earned Hill a seven-game suspension. Hill then missed Sunday’s game as the Runners skated to a 5-3 victory.
Langer said Hill has been targeted throughout the season and keeping him protected is becoming an issue.
“The league’s very well aware of it,” Langer said. “I’m not sure Scott Langer and the Topeka RoadRunners can protect him -- I think there has to be some protection from the top. Certainly, if it continues down the stretch, we’re going to have to police it ourselves, I’m guessing, because we’re not getting much help.”
Topeka (42-9-3) can clinch the NAHL regular season championship with one more point. St. Louis comes into Landon Arena with a 37-13-4 mark and has a five-point lead in the North Division. Topeka is 3-3 against St. Louis this season.
“I think it’s a real even match with our clubs,” Langer said. “They’re going to be going hard, they need those points to stay in the top spot in their division so we’re going to get their best game. We’re certainly going to have to be tight defensively with so much firepower out of the lineup.”
Friday night will be $1 beer night at Landon Arena.