The Houston Aeros wrap up the first half of their season tonight, and they open the second half of the season on Sunday. They will be hosting the Rockford IceHogs at the Toyota Center, and in doing so, the Aeros will be facing a team directly in front of them in the playoff chase.
For the Aeros to make a move and pull out of a tight grouping of teams aiming for the playoffs, then they're going to have to start winning games, starting this weekend.
With game 40 set to play tonight, the Aeros have a record of 18-15-5-1 (42 points), and they're in a tie for the fourth and final West Division playoff spot with the Peoria Rivermen who are 19-13-1-3 (42 points). On the plus side for the Aeros is Peoria having just lost their head coach to the St. Louis Blues. On the minus side, Peoria has played fewer games, and thus has some more margin of error.
The Aeros are just behind this weekend's competition, the IceHogs who, along with playing the Aeros on Friday and Sunday, will be playing in San Antonio on Saturday. The Aeros are also behind Milwaukee, and while the first-place Texas Stars have been slumping recently, the Aeros just can't seem to gain much ground on them.
The Aeros last played hockey on Wednesday night, and for the second game in a row, the Aeros sprinted out to a two-goal lead only to lose in overtime, this time losing to the Stars 3-2 in Austin. The good news is that the Aeros have lost only one of their last five games. The bad news is, the Aeros have won only one of their last five games.
They're getting points and staying in the playoff race by getting games into overtime, but at some point, they've got to find a way to actually start winning those games so that they can actually gain some ground on their division opponents. Once again, goalie Anton Khudobin, who will be an all-star in the upcoming AHL All-Star game, failed to get the win. And once again, he gave up two goals after getting the lead.
Sunday's loss couldn't be entirely blamed on Khudobin as the team was exhausted -- they were playing for the fifth time in seven nights -- and, at one point in the third period, the Aeros were being outshot 36 to 12. And on Wednesday, the Stars got their first two goals while on the power play, which is a bad sign as it appears that the Aeros penalty kill, which was excelling earlier in the season, appears to be slowly falling apart at the seams.
But that's not the only problem. The team is currently carrying three goalies as management in Houston and Minnesota appear to be figuring out who loses the lottery and has to return to the lower level ECHL. Khudobin is currently seen as the future goalie of the Wild, so despite the slump he's been in the past month, his position on the team appears to be secure.
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There appears to be an internal management struggle brewing however. The guys in Houston are pushing to keep Barry Brust, who was one of the team's two goalies during Kevin Constantine's two years in charge in Houston. But he was injured coming into the start of the season, and he lost the number-two spot to Wade Dubielewicz who was signed by the new management in Minnesota. The thoughts over the summer were that either Brust or Dubielewicz would be the backup this season in Minnesota since it was believed that Josh Harding would be traded. But Harding's still in Minnesota and there's no room in Houston for both Brust and Dubielewicz.
The comfort factor with Brust is high in Houston, and they have an extreme amount of trust in him, but the comfort and trust in Brust probably won't be enough for Minnesota management.
But enough of the negative thoughts. Despite injuries and the constant call-up of key players to Minnesota -- it looks like Clayton Stoner might be staying with the Wild for awhile, and Robbie Earl was just sent back to the Wild -- the Aeros are still in the heart of the playoff chase.
And in hockey, it's all about making the playoffs. Because once a team is in the playoffs, it's an all new season where anything can happen, as evidenced by the playoff run the Aeros went on last season.