Pilots can’t finish late push, fall 7-5 to IceRays

Needing to make a big play, the Topeka Pilots pushed for an equalizing goal late on Friday night. 

Unable to find the back of the net, however, the Pilots surrendered an empty-net goal late, falling 7-5 in a wild shootout at Landon Arena, with playoff implications. 

Down 6-5 after a tally in the middle of the period by Corpus Christi, Topeka pulled goaltender Emil Gransoe with just over two minutes remaining, looking to even the game at six. 

Forward Kyle Moore pocketed an empty net goal at 19:03 of the third, giving Corpus Christi the victory, putting Topeka eight points out of the final playoff spot in the NAHL South Division. 

“It was one of the nights and games that we needed a big play in regulation to get a victory or get the game to overtime, and we didn’t make them when we needed to,” Pilots coach Simon Watson said. 

Trailing 5-3 entering the third period, Topeka tied it with two goals in the first five minutes of the frame, swinging momentum to the Pilots for the final 15 minutes. 

“We came out and played well in the third, we just couldn’t get it done,” Watson said. 

Corpus Christi’s lead goal scorer opened up the offense on Friday night at 6:11 of the first. Forward Santeri Hartikainen took a nice feed from IceRays forward Nicholas Seitz, beating Gransoe from the slot for a 1-0 lead. Hartikainen slipped behind the Pilots’ defense and cleanly beat Gransoe high on the glove side. 

Following several close chances for the IceRays, a tripping penalty on Pilots defenseman Christian Dahl cost Topeka at the 8:32 of the first. Moore took the puck along the right boards and skated around the Pilots’ defense, beating Gransoe to double the lead to 2-0. 

Topeka picked up some much-needed momentum with a nice tally at 16:31 of the first period.  

On a 2-on-1 break, forward Austin McCarthy laid off a nice drop pass for forward Michael MuschitielloMuschitiello, who missed last weekend’s games, outwaited goaltender Brian George and flipped a shot into the twine for his 12th goal of the season, cutting the deficit in half to 2-1. 

The scoreline stood to the first intermission, with the IceRays holding a stark 14-6 shots on goal advantage in the opening 20 minutes. 

An action-packed and physical second period gave fans plenty to cheer about. 

Pilots forward Hugh Quinn put the game back on even keel at 6:23 of the frame, following up on his own shot and knocking the puck out of midair past George, just as the net was shoved off its moorings. 

Less than a minute later, forward Mitchell Walinski put the IceRays right back on top, redirecting a shot past Gransoe at 7:12. 

Then, the fisticuffs picked up. Just 18 seconds later, after a big hit by forward Quinn Green, Pilots forward Brendan Schultz and IceRays defenseman Andrei Golikov squared off near the Pilots’ bench, with Schultz getting several big punches in on the Russian defenseman. 

With Corpus Christi still leading 3-2, forward Austin McCarthy was whistled at 12:15 for falling on the puck in the crease, giving a penalty to IceRays forward Santeri Hartikainen. His shot whistled high, keeping the lead at one. 

Quinn evened the game back up at three-all, scoring his 10th goal of the season at 14:45, with a quick shot from the slot beating George on his glove side. 

Two late tallies in the final minutes of the second put Corpus Christi up 5-3 heading into second intermission, with both goals coming with less than three minutes remaining in the frame. 

Topeka and Corpus Christi will do battle again at 7:05 p.m. Saturday, with Topeka looking to split the two-game series.