Haskin: Cup talk does not runneth over

When you've skated to the league's best record, Topeka RoadRunners such as Justin Hussar (above, shooting against Amarillo) know they have a target firmly on their backs as they head into post-season play.

Animation got it all wrong. The coyote is not all that is after the RoadRunner.

 

Not when the bird is capitalized (in two places), represents a hockey team and calls Topeka home.

The entire North American Hockey League has made Topeka both a destination and an objective.

“It seems like right now we’re a rival for everybody,’’ said RoadRunners coach Scott Langer. “Everybody wants to knock us off the top, we get their best game, they go after our players and it’s a chess match. A lot of people gauge their teams by how they do against Topeka right now.’’

Skate to the best regular-season record in the NAHL and opponents tend to target your back.

The RoadRunners went 43-12-3 and earned 89 points, despite fielding a young team that included just seven returning players. Langer never went back and compared birthdays with other teams Topeka fielded during its seven-year stretch in the NAHL, but he can tell you that most of his players are in their teens.

“Normally the teams in the North American Hockey League that come out on top are the teams with a lot of 20-year-olds. And they’re more mature,’’ Langer said. “So, with that in mind, and only bringing back seven veteran hockey players to this team, at this level that takes a lot of matching and these guys have done a great job getting through it.’’

They didn’t have to, really. The Runners were already through the playoffs and in the Robertson Cup before the season ever started. As the host team (and city) for that season-ending tournament May 2-8, Topeka is an automatic qualifier.

“It was exciting that the Stones took this on,’’ Langer said of team owner Don Stone and his family. “Obviously it’s a big thing. And it’s more exciting for the city of Topeka to bring something of that magnitude here. It’s great for a city that’s tried to have a hockey team for so many years and make it work and grow.’’

That is about as much as Langer wants to dwell on the Robertson Cup.

During the regular season he did not want the Runners to relax because of their host status. And now that the NAHL playoffs are set, with Topeka taking on Wichita Falls in a first-round opener Saturday, Langer wants his team to stay sharp.

“Our guys aren’t coasting into this thing,’’ Langer said. “We very rarely bring up the Robertson Cup, and it’s rarely talked about within our family. Our goal is to win game one and try to navigate our way through the first round, get into the second round and try to win the South Division playoff championship.’’

The bracket is not as messy that way when it is restricted to four division champions, rather than allowing a fifth slot for the Cup host. Besides, when a team proves to be the best in the NAHL over the course of a season, why settle for a handout?

The Runners bounced back from a rough early stretch to go on a torrid streak that began with a New Year’s Day win at home. Now, they face adversity again after captain Michael Hill was ruled out of the playoffs — remember what Langer said about opponents going after his players — with a career-threatening concussion.

“We haven’t had any complacency from day one,’’ Langer said.

That must continue. Topeka can ill afford to assume it can float through the first round because it carries a 15-game win streak against Wichita Falls dating to last season. With Hill out, the Runners are missing their leader in goals (37), but they also played 15 games previously without their star forward.

“We’re just at that time of year where the kids have to decide how important this is,’’ Langer said. “It’s not important to get home and be done with the season. It’s important to keep putting the RoadRunner logo on the map.’’

Kevin Haskin can be reached
at (785) 295-1159
or kevin.haskin@cjonline.com.

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