(Photo: Troy Young)
Game 1: 4/10, 7:05 p.m. – Kansas Expocentre, Topeka, Kans.
Game 2: 4/11, 7:05 p.m. – Kansas Expocentre, Topeka, Kans.
Game 3: 4/13, 7:05 p.m. – Kay Yeager Coliseum, Wichita Falls, Texas
Game 4*: 4/14, 7:05 p.m. – Kay Yeager Coliseum, Wichita Falls, Texas
Game 5*: 4/18, 7:05 p.m. – Kansas Expocentre, Topeka, Kans.
TICKETS: Single-game tickets for Games 3 and 4* of the Division Semifinal round of the playoffs are now on sale through the Kay Yeager Coliseum box office, and can be purchased in person or by calling (940) 716-5555. Tickets start at just $10 for adults, and $8 for children.
(*IF NECESSARY: Should Game 4 not be necessary, fans that have purchased single-game tickets will be reimbursed in the form of tickets to a game of their choosing during the 2015-16 season, or a gift certificate of equal value to the Roar Store. Season-ticket holders with unused tickets may return them for a credit on 2015-16 season tickets. Fans who have already paid for 2015-16 season tickets in-full may exchange unused playoff tickets for a gift certificate of equal value to the Roar Store. Tickets and proof-of-purchase must be presented at time of exchange.)
This South Division Semifinal pits two of the league’s most evenly matched teams in the Wichita Falls Wildcats and Topeka RoadRunners. The Wildcats and RoadRunners split their season series evenly, with each team posting a 4-3-1 mark against the other, and most recently shared the weekend’s spoils in a pair of overtime contests when they last met at the end of February. Topeka claimed a 4-3 win in game one of that set on Feb. 27 despite surrendering a two-goal lead, with Dominic Lutz scoring the game-winning goal in the final minute of overtime. Wichita Falls exacted its revenge the next night though, as Jake Townsend netted the decisive goal just over a minute into the extra session to give the ‘Cats a 3-2 win. Veterans Colin Staub (5-4-9) and Nick Farmer (3-6-9) tied for the team-lead in scoring against the ‘Runners this season, with defenseman Matt Koch (0-8-8) not far behind. In net, Austin Shaw started all but one game against Topeka this season, compiling a 4-2-1 mark, 3.11 goals against average and .903 save percentage; David Zevnik went 0-1-0 against the ‘Runners, with a 3.01 GAA and .897 save percentage. On the other side, Daniel Rzavsky (6-1-7), Jasen Fernsler (4-3-7) and Dominic Lutz (4-3-7) led Topeka in scoring against the Wildcats. Both RoadRunners goaltenders saw time against the ‘Cats this season, with Matej Tomek going 3-2-0 against the red-and-black, with a 2.81 GAA and .907 save percentage, while Drew Vogler posted a 1-1-1 record, 3.78 GAA and .857 save percentage against Wichita Falls. Dating back to 2004-05, the Wildcats own a 32-65-11 mark in regular-season competition against Topeka, and are 4-6 against the ‘Runners all-time in postseason play.
The RoadRunners enter this best-of-five series following a first-round bye after they finished the regular season as the South Division’s second seed with a record of 39-15-6. Much of Topeka’s success during the regular season stemmed from a strong showing on home ice; the ‘Runners went 25-3-2 at home, second only to the Lone Star Brahmas for most home wins in the league, compared to a 14-12-4 mark as the away team. The RoadRunners offense was led by Jasen Fernsler, who posted 50 points on 17 goals and 37 assists in 60 games played, while Mike Gornall (15-34-49) and Daniel Rzavsky (22-24-46) made sizeable contributions as well. Although Matej Tomek and Drew Vogler saw similar minutes during the regular season, Tomek established himself as the starter early in his tenure with the ‘Runners, and finished the season 24-7-2, with a 1.83 goals against average and .928 save percentage, with six shutouts.
For Topeka, a Postseason Pedigree
When the puck drops on Friday to open the Division Semifinals, it will mark the ninth-consecutive season the RoadRunners franchise has qualified for the Robertson Cup playoffs, and tenth time overall. Since the North American Hockey League and America West Hockey League merged prior to the 2003-04 campaign, the only time the ‘Runners have failed to qualify for the postseason has been 2006, when the franchise was still located in Santa Fe, N.M. The RoadRunners finished fifth in the South Division that year, two points behind Wichita Falls in the race for the final playoff spot. Dating back to the 2005 season, the ‘Runners own a 36-37 record in postseason play.
When the Wildcats and RoadRunners face off in Game 1 on Friday, it will mark the third time the two teams will meet in the South Division Semifinals. Topeka has claimed the series in each of the previous two meetings, first besting the ‘Cats in the postseason in the 2009 Robertson Cup playoffs, before the ‘Runners eliminated the red-and-black again in 2011. Both of those series were tightly-contested affairs though, with Wichita Falls pushing Topeka to the brink in each series before the RoadRunners ultimately emerged victorious in the decisive fifth game. The Wildcats are 4-6 all-time against Topeka in playoff action, and are 1-5 at the Kansas Expocentre in postseason play.
The Wildcats set up their semifinal matchup with Topeka by knocking off the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees in the best-of-three South Division Play-In round, 2-0, marking the first-ever postseason series win in franchise history. Wichita Falls posted comeback wins in both games, overcoming a 2-1 deficit for a 4-2 win in Game 1 on April 2 before erasing two early goals from the Killer Bees in a series-clinching 5-4 triumph the next evening. The power play sparked the comeback bids in both instances, as the ‘Cats went three-for-seven (42.9 percent) on the man-advantage in the series. Twelve different skaters registered at least one point in the series for the red-and-black, led by four points from Tommy Apap (1-3-4), and three points from Colin Staub (2-1-3), Austin Beaulieu (1-2-3) and Cam Knight (0-3-3). Austin Shaw and David Zevnik each recorded a win in the series, with Shaw making 18 saves on 20 shots on goal to earn the win in Game 1, while Zevnik recorded 19 saves in the Game 2 victory. Shaw’s win in Game 1 made him the first netminder in Wildcats history to win his first-career postseason start. With the two wins, Wichita Falls improved to 9-18 all-time in postseason play.
Townsend Commits to UMass Lowell
Defenseman Jake Townsend became the latest Wildcats player to make plans to play Division I college hockey when he announced his commitment to the UMass Lowell River Hawks of the Hockey East Association on Tuesday. Townsend becomes the 12th skater with a Division I commitment to play for the red-and-black this season, a total that sets a new team record for most Division I commits in a single season, and is the most of any team in the North American Hockey League. Townsend is the first Wildcat to commit to UMass Lowell, and is the 71st player in team history to commit to play Division I college hockey.
Central Scouting Shines Spotlight on Shaw
Wildcats netminder Austin Shaw has been listed among the top draft-eligible goaltenders in the 2015 National Hockey League Central Scouting Service Final Rankings, released Wednesday. Listed at No. 24 among North American-based goalies, Shaw is one of four players from the North American Hockey League to crack the final rankings, all of whom are goalies, including Matej Tomek (Topeka RoadRunners), Ryan Bednard (Johnstown Tomahawks), and Evan Smith (Austin Bruins). Shaw is the first player to be listed on the CSS Final Rankings while playing for the Wildcats since fellow-goaltender Evan Cowley cracked the final rankings ahead of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Cowley eventually became the 92nd overall pick when he was selected by the Florida Panthers in Round 4 of that year’s draft. Founded in 1975, NHL CSS is a department within the NHL that ranks prospects for the NHL Entry Draft at specific times during the season.
The college hockey season will wind to a close with the Frozen Four in Boston this weekend, with one former Wildcat on the cusp of a National Championship. Defenseman Tucker Poolman (2011-12) and the University of North Dakota will skate in a semifinal matchup against Boston University on Thursday, with puck drop slated for 7:30 p.m. Central Daylight Time on ESPN 2. Should North Dakota claim the title, Poolman would become the first Wildcats alumnus to win a Division I National Championship. After recording a goal and an assist to help North Dakota advance from the West Regional, the freshman now has 17 points on eight goals and nine assists in 39 games split between forward and defense.
Power-Play is Paramount
Success on the power play played a large role in the high-powered Wildcats offense this season. The ‘Cats went 55-for-220 (25.0 percent) on the power play to lead the North American Hockey League in power-play percentage, while also establishing a new team record for best power-play percentage in a season. When Wichita Falls found twine while up a man, it usually meant good things for the red-and-black; the Wildcats went 27-8-2 in games in which they record a power-play marker, as opposed to a 12-7-3 record when being blanked on the man-advantage this year. The red-and-black’s semifinal series will pit the power play against a penalty kill for Topeka that finished at 86.1 percent (217-for-252), 6th in the league. The Wildcats went four-for-24 (16.7 percent) on the man-advantage against the RoadRunners during the regular season.
Keep ‘Em Quiet on the Kill
The Wildcats have made strides on the penalty kill of late, finishing the season by killing off 28 of their opponent’s 30 power-play opportunities (93.3 percent) over the final seven games of the year. During the regular season, Wichita Falls compiled a 20-4-1 mark when holding its opponent scoreless on the man-advantage, compared to a 19-12-4 record when the ‘Cats opponent tallied a power-play goal. The Wildcats went 21-for-29 (72.4 percent) on the penalty kill against Topeka during the regular season.
With an average output of 4.03 goals per game, the Wildcats finished the regular season as the league’s top offense. Wichita Falls found the net a league-high 242 times to set a new team record for most goals in a single season, surpassing the 220 goals scored during the 2007-08 campaign. The red-and-black spread the offense around this year, as five different Wildcats players reached 50 points and 11 total players posted at least 30 points, setting new high-water marks for most skaters north of 50 and 30 points in a single season, respectively. Additionally, Wichita Falls was one of just two teams out of 24 in the North American Hockey League to finish the season with a different team-leader in goals (Kevin Charyszyn, 27), assists (Matt Koch, 44) and points (Colin Staub, 60). The only other team in the NAHL to conclude the campaign with a different skater leading the team in each of those categories was the Springfield Jr. Blues.
Sixty Points for Staub
When Colin Staub found the net twice in against the Brahmas on March 27, it gave him 60 points on the season (26 goals, 34 assists). Staub is the first player to reach 60 points for Wichita Falls since Brian Sheehan posted 60 on 29 goals and 31 assists in 2009-10. Staub is just the ninth skater in team history to register 60 points in a single season, joining: Kevin Huck (24-54-78), Chad Costello (29-34-63) and Kyle Kramer (29-33-62) in 2004-05; Kramer (27-41-68) in 2005-06; Adam Cardwell (32-59-91), Luke Salazar (41-46-87) and Grant Everett (19-50-69) in 2007-08; and Sheehan (29-31-60) in 09-10.
The Wildcats are primed for a prolonged postseason run in their seventh trip to the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup playoffs, and second in as many seasons. Wichita Falls owns a 9-18 all-time record in postseason play, but after the red-and-black registered their first-ever postseason series win against Rio Grande Valley in the Play-In round, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Bolstered by the league’s most potent offense, the ‘Cats finished the regular season with a 39-16-5 mark, which set a new franchise record for most wins in a single season, and also marked the first time in team history that Wichita Falls had recorded consecutive 30-win campaigns. Included in that overall record is a 21-6-1 mark at the Kay Yeager Coliseum, which stands as the team’s best-ever record at the KYC, surpassing the 18-8-1 mark from the 2007-08 campaign; the 21 wins at the KYC also represent a 10-win improvement from the Wildcats’ home record from 2013-14.
Year-by-Year Playoff Summaries
In the team’s first year, the Wildcats qualified for the postseason as the fourth seed in the South Division with a 28-21-7 record and 63 points, two more than the Springfield Jr. Blues. Wichita Falls wound up being swept away by the Texas Tornado in the franchise’s first ever playoff appearance though, losing 9-5 in Game 1, 8-6 in Game 2 and finally, 7-3 in Game 3. Chad Costello led the Wildcats in points in the series, notching five goals and an assist over the three games.
Wichita Falls once again finished in fourth in the South Division in 2005-06, setting up a rematch of the previous year’s first-round matchup against the Texas Tornado, who had claimed their second-straight division title. The Wildcats stumbled to a 6-1 defeat in Game 1 of the first round, but rebounded to win the next two games to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. However, the Tornado would battle back to win Game 4, 4-2, before clinching the series victory at home with a 4-0 win in Game 5. Chris Ochoa led the Wildcats in points over the five-game series, posting three goals and an assist.
After missing the playoffs in 2006-07, the Wildcats returned to the postseason with high hopes in the spring of 2008. The red-and-black posted their best regular-season record that year, going 38-18-2 to earn the third seed in the South Division, and a first-round meeting with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. Wichita Falls earned a split in the first two games in Alaska, bouncing back from a 4-0 loss in Game 1 to claim a 3-1 win in Game 2, and returned home with sights set on sealing the series. However, the Ice Dogs registered wins in Games 3 and 4, 3-1 and 6-3 respectively, to take the series in four games and dash the Wildcats’ hopes. Five different Wichita Falls skaters tied for the team-lead in playoff scoring with two points, including Kyle Delaurell, who had two goals in four games.
Wichita Falls returned to the playoffs in 2008-09 as the third seed in the South Division, and tangled with the Topeka Roadrunners in the first round. The Wildcats dropped Games 1 and 2 on the road, but returned home and evened the series thanks to a 2-1 overtime win in Game 3, and a 4-1 triumph in Game 4. In Game 5, the ‘Cats opened up a 2-0 lead in the first period, but the Roadrunners scored four unanswered goals in the third to win the game and the series. Chad Hudson (4-2–6) and Brett Hartung (3-3–6) tied for the team-lead in postseason scoring.
In 2010-11, the Wildcats entered the postseason as the South Division’s fourth seed, earning them a first-round encounter with the Topeka Roadrunners. After losing Game 1, the Wildcats evened the series with a 1-0 road win in Game 2, before returning home for the next two games. Topeka claimed a 5-2 win in Game 3, but Wichita Falls rebounded for a dramatic, 4-3 overtime victory to once again level the series. The teams returned to Topeka for what turned out to be an enthralling Game 5 that featured three tie scores and multiple lead changes, however it was the Roadrunners who came out on top in the game and the series thanks to a late third-period goal. Ryan Frost paced the Wildcats postseason attack, posting six points (four goals, two assists) in the five-game series.
Following a two-year absence from the postseason, Wichita Falls returned to the Robertson Cup playoffs in 2013-14 with a first-round matchup against the rival Amarillo Bulls. Backed by home-ice advantage, the Bulls claimed Game 1 by a score of 4-2, setting up a pivotal Game 2 the next night. Wichita Falls would erase a three-goal deficit in that game, but four-unanswered goals for Amarillo helped secure a 7-4 win. Returning home for Game 3 down two games in the series, the Wildcats hopes received an early boost when Nick Farmer scored in the game’s opening minute. However, Amarillo would erase two one-goal Wildcat leads before an early third-period tally by Kyle Gattelaro helped the Bulls claim a 3-2 win on the night, and 3-0 victory in the series. Ben Kucera led Wichita Falls in playoff scoring with three points (one goal, two assists), while six other skaters recorded two points in the series.