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Another Lost Weekend: San Antonio Rampage Take Two from Houston Aeros

“You just get in ruts,” center Steve Kelly said Friday night. But then he looked up and added, “I think we will be fine. We just got to get back to basic hockey.”

Unfortunately for Kelly and his teammates, there’s no Ctrl-Alt-Delete in hockey. But after Friday night’s 3-1 loss to the San Antonio Rampage in the Toyota Center before 4,693 fans, the Aeros probably wish they could reboot, especially with this being their third loss in the row, and especially after the loss dropped the team down into seventh place in the ultra-competitive West Division.

And the Aeros can’t afford to be falling into ruts right now. Not in the midst of a month-long home stand, and not in the midst of a tough playoff battle. But fall into a rut they have, and while the team might not be happy about it, they’re stuck, and getting out isn’t going to be simple. And it’s really bugging Kelly.

“We’re not playing with any urgency here,” he said. “We’re getting behind right now. We’re starting slow and kind of waiting, and then we start to come on in the third when it’s a little too late.”

The Rampage took a 1-0 lead in the first period. The goal came on a power play, with center Joey Tenute scoring at 10:10, only nine seconds after defenseman John Scott had been sent off the ice on a holding penalty. Then, at 11:05 in the first, Rampage right wing Enver Lisin broke through the Aero defense and lifted the puck past Nolan Schaefer for a 2-0 lead.

“I thought they were a little sharper in the first period, I thought it was pretty evenly played after that,” Coach Kevin Constantine said after the game.

And in a way, Constantine was correct. For the next 49 minutes and 55 seconds, the Aeros and Rampage did skate evenly, with each team getting one goal apiece. Unfortunately for the Aeros, that meant a 3-1 loss.

Defenseman Erik Reitz, playing his first game in nearly two weeks, put the Aeros on the scoreboard at 16:36 in the first, when he took a pass off the boards from right wing Joel Ward at the blue line, just in front of the Rampage bench, and fired a slap shot past Rampage goalie Josh Tordjman.

Though upset by the loss, Reitz, who missed last weekend’s games because of an injury, was able to get some laughs because of the goal, and how the goal came about: “A great pass by Joel,” he said. “And we actually talked about it before the game, and I said, ‘Joel you aren’t passing me the puck off the board this year. Last year we were getting a lot of points with this.’ And I thought it was pretty funny when he passed me the puck [off the board]. That was before the game. That was the first time we talked about it all season.”

The game’s final goal came at 19:37 in the third period, when San Antonio right wing Bill Thomas flipped the puck past Schaefer while the Aeros were struggling to clear the puck from their zone so that they could pull Schaefer.

“We struggled at the end there,” Reitz said. And the struggle hurt, because pulling Schaefer would have allowed the Aeros to attack the Rampage with six skaters in a last attempt to tie the score. But instead of being able to attack the Rampage, the Aeros fought for over a minute to clear the puck from their zone before the Rampage scored that third goal.

That wasn’t the game’s backbreaker however. The backbreaker, if it can be called that, came at 6:57 in the third when Kelly was fouled on a potential breakaway and was given a penalty shot – Kelly was given the chance to go one-on-one against the goalie. If Kelly had made the shot, the score would have been tied and the momentum would have been in the Aeros favor.

Alas, that did not happen.

“It would’ve been a big goal. It was kind of a letdown there, but that’s the way it goes,” Kelly said. “[Making the goal] would’ve been a nice thing, it probably would’ve given the guys a little lift, that penalty shot, and maybe turned the game around.”

“The penalty shot would be your biggest make or break at the moment because you’ve got one on goalie,” Coach Constantine said. “Steve’s pretty good at that. It certainly was a point where we were optimistic that something good could happen.”

Kelly wasn’t content with putting the blame for the loss on that missed shot. He would probably be delighted if the loss was just because of his failure to convert. But though he seems as if he would be more than willing to take the blame, he just couldn’t do it because that the reason for the loss.

“You can’t leave the game to that play,” he said afterwards. “We’ve got to start taking the game to other teams in our rink. And right now we’re kind of coming back sitting waiting and seeing what happens.”

The locker room was full of frustrated players Friday night. Full of players seeking to get back into that rhythm in they’d been just weeks before, when the team had been one of the hottest in the AHL and rising high in the standings. Perhaps Kelly is right when he says “We just got to play solid hockey, and hard hockey.”

Perhaps that is the hockey equivalent of Ctrl-Alt-Delete. And with another game against San Antonio on Saturday night, perhaps Kelly’s suggestion of “We’ve got to just start coming out faster, harder” would be all that the team needed to reboot the season and get out of that rut.

But alas, though the Aeros came out hitting hard on Saturday night, the reboot didn’t seem to have taken, and the 9,107 fans in attendance witnessed the Aeros fourth straight defeat – and their fourth straight at Toyota Center – by a 3-2 score to the Rampage.

The game was even after one period, but at 3:18 in the second period, Rampage right wing Jon DiSalvorte accepted a pass from left wing Matt Murley and slipped the puck past Schaefer to make the score 1-0. The Aeros tied the score at 16:02 when left wing Benoit Pouliot split two San Antonio defenders to grab the loose puck and knock it in for an unassisted goal. But the fun didn’t last as, just 40 seconds later, the Rampage went back up 2-1 on a Matt Murley shot.

The Rampage went up 3-1 in the third, but the Aeros fought back as right wing Adrian Foster slapped in the puck after accepting a pass from Pouliot at 12:24 in the third. But after that goal, no matter what the Aeros tried, they just couldn’t get the puck to go into the net.

“We just didn’t have enough time in the end there,” Pouliot said after the game.

Despite the Aeros out-shooting the Rampage 20 to 1 in the third period, the Aeros still lost.

So with the Aeros hitting the AHL all-star break, it’s back to finding another way to reboot the team’s attitude and return to a winning program. Which Reitz is convinced the team will be doing. “The problem is inside this [locker] room,” he said Saturday night. But though sounding resigned, he seemed convinced the problem could be fixed: “When we come back from all-star break we’ll have some stuff to look at with Kevin at what we did wrong this weekend. We’ve got to fix it.”

The next attempt at fixing the problem will be Friday night at Toyota Center against the Quad City Flames.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES:

One problem the team appears to have involves a long layoff between games. The team appears to be rusty when coming back after the layoffs involving four or more days.

Center Steve Kelly doesn’t want to lay the team’s problem on the layoffs: “I like the rest. I like the time between games. You can use it as an excuse all you will…but I don’t think getting more rest changes it. You just got to come out and play the game. That’s what it comes down to.”

Coach Constantine, however, does find a problem with the time off: “For me, hockey is a game of rhythm, and I wish I had a coaching plan/strategy that would help our guys play better when we’ve had time off. But time off for us has not made us a very good team, it’s made us rusty….just think that for me, history tells me that it’s hard to play this game when you have more than five days off.”

And as the coach, it’s Constantine who feels it’s his responsibility, not the players’, to figure out how to handle the problem: “The bad news about that is a person should be able to come up with some type of plan that works. The good news about it is we’re not going to have a whole bunch of games the rest of the year with five days off….so we won’t have that excuse, that’s for sure.”

While disappointed in the losses, Constantine didn’t fault his team’s efforts. “I think our team played hard tonight. We played really hard,” he said after Saturday’s loss. “All you ask from your guys is to go hard every night. To compete and try to stay disciplined.”

Erik Reitz and Nolan Schaefer will be playing in tonight’s AHL all-star game in Binghamton, New York. While he’s excited to be going to the game, Reitz isn’t exactly in the most upbeat of moods. “It’s disappointing after tonight’s loss,” he said Saturday. “It kind of brings you down.”

Nolan Schaefer feels much like Reitz, but he’s trying to work on his attitude: “It should be fun. It’s a little bit of bitter taste in my mouth after two losses. But I just got to go there and try to have fun. Then got to get back and concentrate on getting into the playoffs.”

As to the playoffs, even though the Aeros have dropped to seventh in the AHL’s West Division, the Aeros are still in the midst of the playoff hunt. But if the Aeros make the playoffs, they are potentially looking at a long break between games. “Hopefully,” Constantine said, “we can find a way to be better coming off a week long rest.”

With the offense not firing on all cylinders, Schaefer admits to feeling a little pressure in the goal. “I think you always want to give your team a chance to win,” he said Saturday night. “When we’re not getting as much offense or have the confidence that we usually play with, you feel a little bit of that pressure to give your team a chance to win.”

Amazingly, the Aeros out-shot the Rampage 40-17 on Saturday night, including 20-1 in the third period.

Saturday’s game was the 100th regular season game of Ryan Hamilton’s professional career.

Some numbers of possible interest: When trailing after two periods, the Aeros are 1-11-2-0. The Aeros are 1 for 24 on the power play for their last four games. And after starting 2008 with a record of 5-0-1-0, the Aeros finished the month at 5-4-1-0. The team’s record for the season is now 22-18-2-2.

On a personal note, some of you may remember that several times this season, I have commented on the uniforms worn by the Aero Dynamics dance team. This weekend they abandoned the short skirts they have worn for most games, and replaced them with long pants. From a purely chauvinistic point of view, I miss the short skirts. But that might just be me.

Also, can we please, please, please retire the “Cotton-Eyed Joe”? And while you’re at it, please kill “Who Let the Dogs Out?” This is 2008. Let’s play some music from 2008. Though I do admit to some enjoyment in hearing the uncensored version of “Man In The Box.”

About 4,500 fans were shocked Saturday night when they sat down after the Davis Elementary rendition of the National Anthem. The shock arose from the school immediately restarting and doing the song a second time, causing those who had just sat down to re-rise – and, yes, I was one of those who sat down and had to re-stand.

The team is now 0-2 when playing on television. There is one game, coming in March, left to be televised by Fox Sports Houston this season. – John Royal


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