The Houston Aeros: Playing Like Winners, Even If They Weren't

The Houston Aeros opened the 2007-08 season in much the same fashion as they opened the 2006-07 season. They lost.

The Chicago Wolves defeated the Aeros 4-2, but after falling behind 3-0 15:42 into the first period, the Aeros would shut down the Wolves for most of the rest of the game, getting to within 3-2 early in the third period.

The Aeros had their problems. They had difficulty with converting on power play opportunities, which, considering the Aeros had two more than the Wolves, could’ve meant the key to the game, especially since two of the Wolves first three goals were off of power play opportunities.

Down 3-0 coming into the second period, the Aeros came out attacking. It was as if the players had figured out how to work with each other, and had moved past any hesitation that had been holding them back. Their first goal came on a power play at 13:55 in the second period when rookie Cal Clutterbuck scored on a slap shot from the blue line. Aeros defenseman Erik Reitz, who assisted on the first goal, scored the second goal at 2:11 in the third period.

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For any who saw the Aeros last season, especially toward the end of the season, there was a marked difference. The players were attacking the net and attacking opposing players, checking many into the boards. And while the team didn’t convert on many of their opportunities to score, the team didn’t stop trying, like last season’s team often appeared to do.

Another noted difference was in the goal, where starter Nolan Schaefer, while giving up three goals in the first period, proceeded to shut down the Wolves for most of the rest of the game. Coach Kevin Constantine felt this was a key, because once the Aeros fell behind, the team had to attack and spread things, leaving less protection for Schaefer.

Once Josh Harding was promoted to Minnesota last season, the Aeros goaltenders had problems with both allowing early goals to give the opposition the lead, but also with allowing the team to stay in the game while playing catch up, and Constantine was impressed that Schaefer didn’t panic and was able to keep the team in the game.

In the locker room after the game, Erik Reitz said he felt the problem with the Aeros power play came from the Aeros trying to work down low, which was a problem because the Wolves collapsed down low and were swarming the Aeros players. This was a problem which was remedied in the second and third periods as the Aeros spread things out on the power play.

Reitz said the team’s main problem was simple: lots of young guys getting jitters. “We were not working smart,” he said. “But we were working hard.”

And it’s this working hard which has Reitz optimistic for this season. Reitz, while a veteran of last season’s Aeros, didn’t join the team until Thursday, as he was one of the last players the parent club Wild assigned to the team from their roster.

“The key is the players buying into the system,” Reitz said after the game. And he likes what he sees from new coach Kevin Constantine and his assistants. Constantine offers more one-on-one work, more teaching, and he believes in video and reviewing the game. “They will break down the video,” Reitz said, and come next Friday’s game against the Iowa Stars, Reitz is confident the team will be set to win.

As for his game, while happy about getting two points, Reitz claims scoring isn’t his main focus. He says his main focus as a player, and his key to advancing, and sticking, with Minnesota, is being tough and physical.

The Aeros looked slow and sluggish in the first period. But they really did appear to be a different team once the second period started. Coach Constantine attributes this to getting the team to not worry about what the scoreboard says, but to instead “worry about doing things right. If they do things right, it will work out.”

Constantine believes that last season’s team was one that grew accustomed to losing, and it’s this mentality that he’s changing: “When you haven’t had a lot of success, then you’re staring at being down 2-0, it can be mentally nettling. The brain goes ‘here we go again.’ We’ve got to work our way into a winner’s mentality.”

Constantine, like Reitz, was optimistic after the defeat. “I saw much that I liked. There’s a lot to work on. That’s the nature of building. We put a couple of bricks into the foundation.”

The Aeros next play on Friday night in Iowa, then return to Toyota Center for a Saturday night match-up with Peoria.

Now, for some miscellaneous notes from the game…

This was the 91st meeting between these two teams, and after tonight the Aeros are 41-32-14-4 (for those unfamiliar with hockey won-loss records, that equates to 41 wins, 32 losses, 14 overtime losses, and 4 shoot-out losses). And after the loss, the Aeros are now 5-6-3 for their Season Openers.

The first Aero sent to the penalty box was defenseman Brandon Rogers. This occurred 37 seconds into the game. The penalty was high sticking.

The first goal against the Aeros came seconds later, at 1:10 in the game. It was scored by Chicago’s Jesse Schultz, with assists from Andre Deveux and Steve Martins. Martins would score the third goal for Chicago, and he would be assisted by Schultz. Schultz and Martins would also assist on the fourth goal.

The first punches of the season didn’t occur until 19:43 in the second period when Aeros right winger Aaron Voros went at it with Wolves’ defenseman Boris Valabik.

Interestingly, while the Chicago Wolves play in Chicago, home of the NHL Chicago Blackhawks, the Wolves are the minor league affiliate of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers.

Opening night attendance at Toyota Center was 8,418.

My best friend Craig will be happy to know the Aeros power play is no longer sponsored by D&C Storm Systems. He always thought, when hearing “D&C Power Play,” that the Aeros were leasing their power play out to an abortion procedure. And, knowing how anemic the Aeros power play was last season, that might not have been too far off of the mark.

The Wolves accumulated more shots on goal, out-shooting the Aeros 36-23.

The Aeros are once again doing the chuck-a-puck game between periods. And on Saturday, a fan did chuck a puck into the helmet sitting at center ice, thus winning $500.

Doug Risebrough, President and General Manager of the Wild, was in attendance.

And this to you guys out there. I go to baseball, football, basketball games, etc. The hottest women can be found at hockey games. It is really rather amazing. – John Royal

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