The Topeka Pilots needed a victory to stay pace with the Corpus Christi IceRays Saturday.
They got a victory, in dramatic fashion, in sudden-death overtime.
Tied at seven, forward Connor Zilisch followed up on a shot from defenseman Max Finner and beat goaltender Brian George to give the Pilots a heart-pounding 8-7 win at Landon Arena.
“The puck popped right up and fell to me, and it couldn’t have bounced better,” Zilisch said. “It was wild game, and it ended up paying off for us.”
Topeka (19-25-7) tied the game with just over a minute remaining in the third period when forward Michael Muschitiello made an outstanding individual effort, racing in after deking through the defense, to put the game at 7-7, sending the crowd of 1,039 into a frenzy.
“What a crowd and what a goal by Michael,” Pilots coach Simon Watson said. “The crowd was electric tonight, and I think that’s a statement win for us.”
A raucous and rowdy first period set the precedent Saturday.
With 13 infractions, 70 total penalty minutes, nine combined goals and three goaltender changes for the IceRays, the action didn’t let up at any point in the opening 20 minutes.
After the IceRays raced out to an early 2-0 lead, Pilots coach Simon Watson called his team’s timeout, to refocus his squad and dispel some of the IceRays’ momentum.
“I just told our guys to slow down and remember we still have 57 more minutes to play,” Watson said. “We needed to re-focus, and I think we did.”
The move worked with the Pilots netting three goals in a five-minute span before the first 10 minutes of the period had passed.
Forward Hugh Quinn had two of those tallies, at 6:53 and 9:19. Quinn netted two in Friday’s game, as well, bringing him to 12 goals on the season.
The seesaw battle continued, with Corpus Christi beating goaltender McLean Dorr for an equalizing goal at 10:59, putting the score at 3-3.
Muschitiello took a nice feed from Zilisch at 13:44, giving the lead back to the Pilots.
Then after a holding infraction on IceRays defenseman Kyle Gudme, Topeka went to the powerplay, where they were 1-for-2 for the night. Finner buried a slap shot from the blue line on the powerplay, putting the Pilots up by a two-goal margin.
IceRays forward Santeri Hartikainen, the team’s leading scorer, knocked home a powerplay goal of his own at 17:59, putting the score at 5-4 Pilots at first intermission.
Corpus Christi outshot Topeka 17-15 in the first.
In another action-packed 20 minutes, the second period was physical and offensive-minded. Following forwards Jake Stella and Blake Bennett beating Dorr for their 20th goals of the season, respectively, the IceRays had their lead back at 6-5.
The Pilots evened it back up at six just before the second intermission, with a goal at 18:24. After battling for the puck along the left wing, forward Quinn Green fed a slick pass to forward Christian Thomas, who beat George short side.
The score stood at 6-6 entering the third period.
With Topeka now seven points out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the NAHL South Division, Topeka heads to Shreveport, La., where they will face the Mudbugs at 7:11 p.m. March 15-16.