Lost Weekend: Aeros Lose to Marlies and Bulldogs

“It wasn’t a good weekend for us,” Houston Aeros center Steve Kelly said after Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the Hamilton Bulldogs before 6,373 Toyota Center fans. “We just didn’t have that extra bit of hardness.”

Saying that it wasn’t a good weekend is a mild way to describe the Aeros' weekend. A lost, miserable weekend might be a more apt description.

The badness started on a cold, wet uncomfortable Friday night. And that was inside Toyota Center. And that was before the Aeros went down in overtime 5-4 to the Toronto Marlies. At that point, the 6,038 fans in attendance probably would have had a more enjoyable time standing out in the pouring, nearly freezing rain than they had had watching the Aeros flounder around on the ice.

The Aeros didn’t have an excuse for the sluggishness. They had been off since last Saturday’s 4-1 victory over the Manitoba Moose. The Marlies, however, had a legitimate excuse in that Houston was the sixth game of an eight-game road trip with all games being in different cities.

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But the Aeros didn’t play like a team that was fresh, and several players said after the game that the layoff did more harm than good: “It’s a natural thing to take you a shift or two to get going,” center Serge Payer said after the game. “It’s natural to not be as good as you would be if you played the night before, or a couple of nights before. But it’s no excuse.”

Coach Kevin Constantine also spoke of the layoff hurting the team, saying in his office after the game, “I don’t generally find teams play that well when you have that much time off… It’s really hard to prepare for a game except to play a game… I thought we were a little bit out of rhythm. And we definitely didn’t play the type of game that suits our game.”

But though the layoff hurt, Payer wasn’t willing to lay the loss off on that: “We practiced well. We practiced hard all week. We were mentally ready, and physically ready.”

And center Adrian Foster, the star of the game with a goal and two assists, definitely wasn’t willing to blame the layoff. He instead found it to be a mental thing on behalf of the team: “It kind of started slow. We came back, but we just made mistakes.” Then, shaking his head in disgust, he spat out, “I don’t think we should have lost this game.”

The Aeros, despite their sloppy play, had the lead after one period at the 19:07 mark, as defenseman Paul Albers knocked in a slap shot from just in front of the blue line for his fifth goal of the season.

Things looked good at the time because, despite the team’s play, all-star Nolan Schaefer was in the goal, and he stopped all seven shots that came his way. But in the second period, the fans witnessed something that hadn’t happened since New Year’s Eve: Schaefer allowing three goals in one period.

The goals came in a barrage, starting at the 12:11 mark, as Toronto right wing Jeremy Williams tied the score. Just over a minute later, Aeros left wing Benoit Pouliot found the puck behind the Toronto goal, fired it back to Payer who was in front of the net, and Payer slapped it in to put the Aeros back up 2-1. But once again, just over a minute after that, at 14:42, Toronto center Kris Newbury tied the score once again.

The game calmed down for the next five minutes, and it appeared the Aeros would escape the second period with the score tied. But at the 19:48 mark, Toronto center Alex Foster put the Marlies up 3-2 to end the period.

The Aeros tried to get back into the game, and at 7:36, it appeared that Aeros defenseman Brandon Rogers got hold of a puck under the goalie’s pad and slid it past him, into the net. But there was one problem: despite a flashing red light indicating a goal, the refs were waving it off, claiming the puck was frozen and that time had been called, thus disallowing the point.

Constantine, of course, disagreed: “The puck never got frozen. Refs are coached that when they lose sight of the puck to blow the whistle, and I think he lost sight of the puck. But the puck was still loose. So you hope the referee can get positioned right and work hard enough to know that the puck’s loose and give you a chance. In most games that’s a backbreaker.”

And for the next eight minutes, it did appear to be a backbreaker, but at 15:19, Adrian Foster decided to set things right. The action started when right wing Joel Ward got the puck behind the Toronto goal and slipped a pass behind his pack to Foster, who was standing next to the goalie and found it easy to slip the puck into the goal to the tie the score.

Two minutes later, the Aeros joy turned to jubilation as right wing Cal Clutterbuck, with the assist from Foster and Steve Kelly, knocked in a slap shot to put the Aeros up 4-3 at 17:31 in the game.

But at 19:19 in the game, with less than a minute to play, the Marlies struck again as center John Mitchell slapped the puck past Schaefer to tie the game. And at 3:02 in the overtime period, the Marlies ended the Aeros’ agony as defenseman Staffan Kronwall got the game-winning goal.

Constantine saw the game as one the Aeros shouldn’t win: “If you look at our team, and you look at the way we win, we win 2-1, 3-1, 3-2. I don’t think we win 6-5, 5-4. That’s not our type of game. And by not our type of game, I mean when you see the game go end-to-end, then we’re a little out of sync in terms of what we’re trying to do... The biggest part of our game that wasn’t very good was our decisions, abilities with the puck,” he continued. “It was just sloppy. We didn’t take very good care of the puck tonight.”

Foster, while saying the Aeros should’ve won the game, also handed some credit to the Marlies: “That’s a good team. You’ve got to give credit to them.” And Payer stated that the Marlies are “definitely very good offensively. They’re very explosive. And they took advantage of our mistakes. They can finish. They can play well offensively.”

Constantine, while willing to give credit to the Marlies, also looked in the direction of his goalie: “In all honesty,” Constantine said, Schaefer’s “been unbelievably good for us and wasn’t very good tonight.”

And while the weather outside had improved by the time of Sunday’s afternoon’s start, the play of the Aeros didn’t. Steve Kelly said, “Early in the game we were just kind of going through the motions.” But going through the motions though they were, the Aeros stayed in the game with Schaefer shutting out the Bulldogs through the first 27 minutes.

That’s when the perverse John Scott hat trick came into play. And this hat trick was just something from which the Aeros could never recover.

The action started at 5:16 into the second when Scott was whistled for interference. At 7:06, with the penalty about to expire, Hamilton center Mathie Aubin deflected the shot of his teammate defenseman Pavel Valentenko into the goal, giving Hamilton the 1-0 lead. At 9:41, Scott would be sent back to the penalty box, this time for holding. And at 11:54, after being out of the penalty box for only 13 seconds, Scott was sent back to the box for another two minutes on another holding call.

“We took a couple of penalties,” right wing Cal Clutterbuck said after the game, “and we didn’t think, I don’t think, that we deserved them and I think we let it affect us too much. They got a couple of good bounces in front of the net.”

Coach Constantine wasn’t as angry at Scott as one would’ve expected, instead, after the game, expressing his displeasure at right wing Petr Kalus for what he thought was a stupid penalty at 19:55 of the second period: “I was more upset by the [Kalus] penalty at the end of the second. All of John Scott’s penalties were right at the puck... When you’re 200 feet from the puck and you retaliate, that says lack of discipline to me. So that one was more bothersome than Scott’s.”

With Kalus and Clutterbuck sitting in the penalty box early in the third period, the Bulldogs got their final goal of the night at 1:47. And it was only at about this time, with less than a period remaining in the game, that the Aeros came to life.

“It’s desperation at that point,” Clutterbuck said. “The problem is we didn’t have that kind of desperation at all in the first 45 minutes of the game. If we would have played with that kind of desperation the whole game, we probably would’ve beaten them five-nothing, but we didn’t.”

Constantine pulled Schaefer from the goal with a little over four minutes remaining in hopes of overpowering the Hamilton with six skaters against their five. And at 18:03 in the third, left wing Peter Olvecky was able to deflect the puck past the goaltender and into the net, making the score 2-1. But it was too little, too late, and the Aeros were unable to score in the remaining 1:57 of the game.

After the game, Clutterbuck was not happy with himself or with his teammates: “We didn’t work as hard as we should at all. Not even close. We’re going to go back to the drawing board.” And to Clutterbuck, what hurt more than the weekend losses was the fact that they were losing ground to their rivals: “We lost another game here at home. And even though it wasn’t a divisional game, other divisional teams are winning their games.”

While not thrilled with his team’s play, Constantine seemed more resigned than angry. “Do I think we could’ve been better?” he said Sunday night. “For sure. We got to find a way to just have a little more life and intensity and have that just create more...in the way of physical play and scoring chances... We’ve just got to be better.”

The Aeros are taking tomorrow off, but Constantine promises that the rest of the week will be spent on that whole getting better thing so that, hopefully, there will be no more lost weekends for the Aeros at Toyota Center.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES:

The Aeros record is now 22-16-2-2. After climbing to as high as third place last weekend, the Aeros have slipped back down to fifth, only two points ahead of sixth place Milwaukee.

After the weekend losses, the Aeros are now 1-9-2-0 when trailing after two periods. Their overtime record dropped to 3-2-0-0. And when playing after four or more days rest, the team is now 3-1-2-0. Sunday’s loss was also the first time this season that the Aeros have lost when holding a team to less than three goals.

Adrian Foster’s three points (1 goal and 2 assists) on Friday were a career-high.

Defensemen Erik Reitz and Clayton Stoner missed both games this weekend. Stoner is suffering from back problems, and Reitz’s head is still feeling the aftereffects of the Ryan FitzGerald cheap shot from last Saturday night. Constantine believes both should return for next weekend’s game versus the San Antonio Rampage. Reitz must undergo and pass one more medical exam, and Stoner’s back feels the best it has in several weeks.

Steve Kelly believes the refs were picking on his teammate John Scott on Sunday: “They gave John Scott a rough time. He’s a lot bigger [6’8”] than everyone. Sometimes he just pushes a guy over. They just focus on him because of his size. When there are two refs out there, it’s like one doesn’t call it and the other one’s trying to see something.”

Kelly also had a disagreement with one of the refs after he was sent off of the ice on an interference penalty in the third period. “Sometimes you disagree with the call,” he said. “If I’m holding my lane on the ice and not skating, not striding, I can hold that piece of ice. And he can skate right into me and fall over, but you can hold your ice. I just didn’t think it was a good call, especially with all of the slashing that was let go. But that’s the way it goes”

The team appeared to be a step behind most of the weekend. Kelly was able to offer up one theory. “I just don’t think we’re creating enough out there. Teams are starting to know how we play, and they’re anticipating our dumps and stuff. And we’re not recovering the pucks enough to create the offense.”

Constantine feels there is some credence to this: “That might be fair. And that might be true,” he said. “To a degree, that’s probably true.”

The good news for Kelly is that he leads the AHL with six game-winning goals.

The Aeros’ next games will be on Friday and Saturday against the San Antonio Rampage. And Saturday’s game with the Rampage will be the second of three Aeros games this season to be televised on Fox Sports Houston.

The Aeros announced on Friday that Serge Payer and Nolan Schaefer have set up performance-based programs and are asking for pledges to benefit their respective foundations. Nolan Schaefer’s wife was diagnosed as suffering from Lyme disease in early 2007. Schaefer’s program will be based on wins and shutouts, and the proceeds will be donated to Open Eyes Pictures, a production company specializing in documentaries, one of which, Under Our Skin, is currently in production and looks at Lyme disease and its effects. Further information regarding Lyme disease can be found at Schaefer’s Web site, www.unmasklyme.com.

Serge Payer’s program is based on goals and assists, and donations will go the Serge Payer Foundation. Payer is, himself, a sufferer of Gullian-Barre Syndrome, and his foundation was set up to help fund research and treatment for the disease. A portion of the money raised will be donated to Memorial Hermann TIRR. Information regarding Payer, his foundation, and Guillian-Barre’s can be found at Payer’s Web site, www.sergepayerfoundation.org.

The program will start on February 1, and will run through April 9 of this year. For anyone who is interested in pledging to one of the programs, pledge forms can be found here. -- John Royal

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