It had been awhile since the Topeka RoadRunners delivered the type of dominating performance that was routine during the regular season.
Topeka couldn’t have asked for a better time to conjure up a prototypical RoadRunners’ rout.
The RoadRunners started the North American Hockey League playoffs with a bang, riding a strong first period to down the Wichita Falls Wildcats 5-1 in Game 1 of the South Division semifinals Saturday night at Landon Arena.
The NAHL’s regular-season champions scored three goals in the first eight minutes and never looked back.
“We all felt like ourselves tonight,” said RoadRunners forward Kyle Sharkey, who contributed a goal and an assist. “We got to the rink and we were ready to go. That first 10 minutes of the first period really set the tone, and we were able to maintain that for the whole game.”
Defenseman Chris Bond said the Runners were primed to make a statement.
“To come out that first 10 minutes and absolutely dominate, it sets the tone, not only for this game, but for the whole series,” he said. “It lets them know that we’re ready to go right off the bat.”
The RoadRunners, who outshot Wichita Falls 45-26, struck first 3:24 into the game after Nate Milam redirected Bond’s shot into the net. Davey Middleton then blasted in a one-timer from Sharkey at 5:27.
The Wildcats got a reprieve from the RoadRunners’ early assault when Mikhail Sentyurin scored off a rebound on a Wildcats’ power play at 6:19. However, the RoadRunners answered a minute and a half later when another shot from Bond was redirected in by Kyle Buffardi, who notched his first goal as a RoadRunner.
Bond said Topeka’s defensemen were working especially hard to get pucks to the net from the point.
“They don’t have to be rockets, but our job is just to get it through, get it past their shot blocker and hopefully it’ll get tipped,” he said. “We just have to keep getting ’em there.”
Sharkey gave the RoadRunners a 4-1 advantage at 9:52 of the second period, maneuvering around Wildcats goalie Tyler Green and scoring from point-blank range. Milam then tacked on another power-play goal at 3:11 of the third period to account for the final score.
With leading scorer Michael Hill out for the playoffs, RoadRunners coach Scott Langer said he was encouraged to see several of his forwards fill the void with strong performances.
“Adding (Andrew) O’Leary back made a huge difference with his speed. It’s tough to contain that line,” Langer said. “I thought, for the most part, all of our forwards executed very well.
“(The defense) was absolutely able to support our offense tonight. They took care of those shots, and our forwards did a good job of getting down there and had good screens, and that adds offense. It was a good night.”
RoadRunners goalie Rasmus Tirronen also turned in a solid outing, stopping 20 shots.
Hill, who suffered a concussion in a March 12 game at Amarillo, was back in Topeka for the game.
“He’s doing much better,” Langer said of Hill. “His speech is better and he’s much more aware, which is very good to see.”
The RoadRunners will host Game 2 of the best-of-five series at 6:05 p.m. Sunday.
Wichita Falls 1 0 0 — 1
Topeka 3 1 1 — 5
First period — 1. Topeka, Milam (Bond, Christie), 3:44; 2. Topeka, Middleton (Sharkey), 5:27; 3. Wichita Falls, Sentyurin (Leone, Frost), 6:19; 4. Topeka, Buffardi (Bond, Lynes), 7:22.
Second period — 5. Topeka, Sharkey (Davis, Middleton), 9:52.
Third period — 6. Topeka, Milam (Campbell), 3:11.
Shots on goal — Wichita Falls 13-7-6 – 26. Topeka 17-16-12 — 45.
Goalies — Wichita Falls, Green. Topeka, Tirronen.
Attendance — 2,161.