The Houston Aeros are returning home tonight to face the Manitoba Moose at Toyota Center at 7:05 p.m. They spent the past week on the road where they went 0-3 while losing twice in Grand Rapids and once to the Texas Stars in Austin on Sunday. But despite the team's inability to get its offense working properly, the Aeros still find themselves hanging around the top of the Western Division standings.
One of the reasons for this has been the team's consistently outstanding penalty kill, which has been a rather commonplace occurrence the past several years. There have been two consistent influences to the Aeros penalty kill over the past three years. Head coach Kevin Constantine has a reputation for having a good penalty kill with all of his teams. The other consistent influence is right wing Danny Irmen.
Constantine stresses the penalty kill because he believes that a good penalty kill not only prevents the opponent from scoring, it provides energy for the rest of the team and can help change the momentum of a game. And no one on the Aeros is better at this than Irmen.
"We've had a really good penalty [kill] three years in a row," Constantine tells Hair Balls. "It's either been two to five in the regular season and one or two in the playoffs. And [Irmen is] one of the four featured penalty killers every year. He's done a good job with that every year."
A Fargo, North Dakota native who is a devoted follower of the Minnesota Vikings and Twins, Irmen is now in his fourth season as one of the Aeros top energy guys. In that time, he's become a fan favorite in a place that Irmen considers to be a privilege to play.
"I'm lucky to be in a good place like Houston," he says.
Constantine is a big fan of Irmen, which should surprise no one who has watched the Aeros under Constantine and who has come to know the type of play that Constantine likes.
"He's got great speed," Constantine says of Irmen. "He can get around the rink really quick. I'd like to find a way for him to get the goals he got his first year before I got here. But I think he's just continuing to try to be a high-energy guy. A very trustworthy guy. A guy a coach can really trust. And he's done all of those things. And I think he's just continuing to work on the other parts of his game."
The key to his game, says Irmen, is hard play and movement on the ice. He's not a flashy player like Krys Kolanos. And he's not a fighter like past fan favorite Mitch Love. Irmen's just a guy who goes out and plays hard and moves around on the ice.
"I think my best nights are when I'm high energy," he says. "And that's move my feet and finish my checks and getting pucks in deep."
Irmen has been lucky in that he's stayed with one organization, and one team, for his pro career so far. Except for a few games he missed in Houston last season while up with parent Minnesota Wild, Irmen's career has been a bit of a minor league rarity.
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As anyone who has watched the Aeros the past several seasons know, roster turnover is a pretty common occurrence. But Irmen has stuck, and he actually likes the challenge that comes from playing with new guys every year.
"It's kind of fun," Irmen says. "The new guys come in and it's a new team. We're fortunate that it's the same coaching staff for the third year now. It's nice. You know the systems. You know how they work. Everything's the same except for the new faces....It's fun to see the guys come in. Especially the talent that they bring in. You always know you have a good team and a good chance to go far in the playoffs."
And yes, Irmen believes that this current Aeros squad is going to return to the playoffs. "I think the sky's the limit. There's a lot of character on this team. A lot of talent. A lot of hard work. And that's what you need. And great goaltending. We're just going to take it one game at a time here, and hopefully we make a little run here throughout the year and into the playoffs."
The season's still early, so it's kind of hard to evaluate whether the Aeros will make the playoffs. The talent is there. And as long as Irmen continues anchoring the penalty kill, then at least one part of the Aeros will be of playoff caliber.