Aeros Defeat Bulldogs, Advance to Calder Cup Finals

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John Royal
The Aeros surround Jon DiSalvatore after his game-winning goal.
The Houston Aeros don't believe in doing things the easy way. They battled to make the playoffs, after being near last place toward the end of December. They struggled throughout the playoffs, going to a game seven against Milwaukee in a series that saw three games decided in overtime. Then there was this series against Hamilton, a series that saw the Aeros win the first three games before losing three as the ghosts of Houston playoff chokes hovered over Toyota Center.

And never did the Aeros battle more than they battled last night as the Aeros and Bulldogs played like the two desperate teams they were, neither team wanting their playoff dreams to die.

It was 3-3 with 1:13 remaining in the third period. There was a scramble at the Hamilton net and the puck looked, briefly, like it was lodged in the pads of Hamilton goalie Drew MacIntyre. But Aeros captain Jon DiSalvatore saw an opening. He saw that the puck was free. He saw that he could get to it, and he was not going to be denied. He got his stick on the puck and he shoved it past MacIntyre into the net for the game-winning goal.

"The puck was thrown at the net," DiSalvatore said. "It was laying there between his pads. I think he may have thought he had it covered, so throw everything at him and see what happens. Sometimes that's the way you've got to get it through that guy. He battles very hard. I give him a lot of credit. He made an unbelievable save on [a shot by teammate Patrick] O'Sullivan [minutes earlier] that was complete desperation, so we had to throw some desperation at him to get the puck past him."

The Aeros erupted into celebration. The Bulldogs erupted in anger and swarmed the ref. But the goal stood. Things didn't ease, however, as the Aeros and goalie Matt Hackett had to fight off an attacking swarm of six Hamilton skaters in a skirmish that saw elbows and fists thrown, the net knocked off its moorings and referees pulling Hamilton and Houston players away from each other. And finally the clock hit all zeroes and the Aeros were victorious.

"I don't know what that mad scramble was at the end with about eight seconds left, and the time just ticking away," DiSalvatore said. "I don't know what was going on there. It was -- the crowd was so loud I couldn't even watch, I was looking the other way and just hoping that our guys that do what they do got the job done, and they did. My heart was just racing. It was incredible. It's exciting. To hear that siren go, it's a great feeling."

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John Royal
Things get rough as the game ends.
The Aeros took the early 2-0 lead about seven minutes into the game, scoring goals nine seconds apart. But Hamilton tied the game before the first period ended. Casey Wellman, demoted to the fourth line, put the Aeros back on top when he scored his second goal of the game 2:42 into the second period. But Hamilton tied it seven minutes later, and thus the score stood at 3-3 until DiSalvatore got the game-winner.

"This series has been a struggle," Wellman said. "Obviously we went up three games, and lost three in a row. And personally, it's been kind of a struggle for me. But these are the games you dream about, game sevens, and I'm glad I was able to step up for our team."

The team needed Wellman, who's been in a slump this series, to step up, and he did. But the entire team needed to step up, especially on the offensive end where sloppy puck handling had been leading to some easy Hamilton goals. And with the backing of a 6,000-plus crowd, one that was louder than what's often heard from "sold-out" Rocket crowds, the Aeros found a way to get the job done.

So the Aeros avoided the infamy of becoming the third team in AHL history to lose a playoff series after shooting out to a three-zero series lead. And now they're not going to get to join the pantheon of great Houston sports teams that found multiple ways to lose in the playoffs. Instead, they live on to fight another day as they move on to the final round of the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs.

"I'm really beyond too many words," DiSalvatore said. "It's not the Calder Cup, yet. Now we have the chance to play for it. A lot of guys go a long career without getting the opportunity to play for that. And I've been one of those up to this point. And it's just an amazing feeling, and I'm going to cherish every moment from now until our preparation [begins]...It's awesome."

The Aeros' next opponent is the Binghamton Senators, the champions of the AHL's Eastern Conference. The Senators feature two players who are very familiar to Aeros fans in AHL MVP Corey Locke and goalie Barry Brust, both of whom were key contributors to the Aeros' playoff drive two years ago. The Aeros will once again have home ice advantage, and games one and two are this Friday and Saturday night at Toyota Center at 7:35.

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