Few weekends in the NAHL season are as important as the coming weekend for the Topeka Pilots.
Topeka (18-24-7) currently sits six points out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the NAHL South Division race.
Their opponents this weekend, the Corpus Christi Ice Rays, are the team they are currently chasing in the standings.
Corpus Christi (24-24-1) comes in to Landon Arena this weekend for a two-game series with the Pilots, with huge implications. Puck drop is at 7:05 p.m. each game.
At the end of the weekend, Topeka could be as close to two points away from the final playoff spot, or as far away as 10 points from it.
“This weekend is a huge opportunity for us to get right back in the thick of it,” Pilots coach Simon Watson said.
The Ice Rays, who are 4-6-0 in their last 10 games, are paced by forwards Blake Bennett and Santeri Hartikainen, who each have 19 goals and 28 assists on the season.
“We know they’re a strong team up the middle, and they have a lot of speed up front,” Watson said. “We have to make sure we’re taking the body against them and not puck watching in our own zone.”
Both teams will enter the weekend with 11 games left in the NAHL regular season, with four of those at home for the Pilots, including this weekend’s series. Topeka will also face the Ice Rays in the final series of the regular season, April 5-6 in Corpus Christi.
Topeka heads into the series paced by forward Quinn Green, who has tallied a team-leading 20 goals, coupled with 11 assists. Forward Valdemar Ahlberg has also come on strong of late, tallying two goals and two assists in his last three contests.
The Pilots are 1-8-1 in their last 10 games, but had a strong showing last weekend against the division-leading Amarillo Bulls, despite dropping both contests. Topeka looked especially strong in Friday’s affair with the Bulls, falling 5-4 and narrowly missing an upset bid.
“We’ll make some minor line changes this weekend, but I liked our compete level last weekend,” Watson said. “If we can carry that level of intensity into this weekend, we will be in good shape.”
And while Topeka is ready to hit the ice against the Ice Rays this weekend, the team has also been busy in the community, volunteering at local elementary schools and making countless public appearances, including a pizza party on Wednesday at LaRocca’s Pizza.
“We’re just starting to scratch the surface this year in building relationships with members of our community,” Watson said. “It’s important for our players to give back, and we’re excited to help give back to the city of Topeka.”
With a lot left to play for, Watson hopes his team’s solid week of practice and volunteering will have them ready and focused Friday night.
“We know how much is on the line this weekend,” Watson said. “We have to be ready to come out and play a solid 60 minutes each night.”