A Topeka hockey team is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Looking to clinch a playoff berth, Topeka (29-13-4) remained tied at one with the Springfield Jr. Blues late in regulation.
That’s when the magic happened.
Following a casual dump-in by forward Connor Zilisch the puck took an odd bounce off the end boards and popped out in front of the net. Jr. Blues goaltender Ryan Wilson had already started to head to behind his net to retrieve the puck when it went straight to Pilots forward Austin McCarthy.
McCarthy, the Pilots captain, took full advantage, burying a shot past Wilson at 17:56 of the third period. Wilson dove back in a desperation attempt to stop the shot, but he could not stop the shot.
Topeka held on after the McCarthy goal, with a great effort from Pilots goaltender Guy Blessing. Blessing, who was injured in the second period, stayed in the game after being down for several minutes and ended the night with 15 saves on 16 shots.
After several unlucky breaks through the night and numerous close calls, the victory allowed a sigh of relief for the Pilots, who have now clinched a spot in the Robertson Cup Playoffs. Topeka fell in Friday’s contest after surrendering a late goal and then the game-winning goal in overtime.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Pilots head coach Simon Watson said. “Springfield did a great job this weekend, and gave us a good test.”
After giving up five goals in Friday’s game, Topeka played a much strong defensive game in Saturday’s contest, limiting quality scoring chances.
“We ironed some things out defensively tonight,” Watson said. “We were a little bit lower risk all over the ice. We didn’t have our ‘jump’ tonight, but we played a lot smarter.”
The Pilots opened the scoring at 13:40 of the first period, as forward Dominic Sandoval took a pass from forward Shane Hathaway, after a giveaway in front of the net. Sandoval beat Wilson high on the blocker side to give the Pilots a lead heading into first intermission.
Dominic and his twin brother Lucas Sandoval were inserted into Saturday’s lineup after forward Michael Muschitiello and defenseman Jordan Gonzalez sat out the contest.
In the second period, forward Jonathan Panisa evened it up for Springfield 56 seconds into the frame with a powerplay goal, beating Blessing with a one-timer that snuck through his pads.
Despite an overall physical contest with nine total powerplays, neither team could take advantage of any additional man-advantages.
The game appeared to be heading to overtime until McCarthy’s game-winner late in the third.
Topeka now heads out on a 10-game road swing, beginning Feb. 21-22 in Albuquerque, N.M. where they will play the Ice Wolves in a two-game series. The Pilots end the series with a four-game home stand, beginning March 27.