Here’s the thing about a team that needs to play perfect hockey to compete against the best. When things fall apart, they fall apart quick. And for the Houston Aeros on Friday night, things fell apart just 1:55 into the game.
The Houston Aeros charged out of the gate, winning the face-off, and raced toward the Rockford IceHogs goal. There was no goal because at the six second mark, a hooking penalty was called on Rockford defenseman Jim Fahey. Neither team had been able to score on the power play in this series, but there was a feeling in the air that this night would be different.
And it was.
At 1:55, Rockford right wing Kris Versteeg found himself with the puck in the Aeros end of the ice, and just like that, somebody had finally scored on the power play. Of course, it was the Aeros who were on the power play, and it was Rockford who was skating a man short because of the penalty. But it was Rockford that suddenly found itself up 1-0 before two minutes had elapsed in the game.
The Aeros kept the game close the rest of the period, out-shooting Rockford 8-4 for the period, yet it was Rockford who went into the intermission with the lead, not Houston.
The Aeros kept up the intensity for the second period, again forcing the issue, again forcing the puck into Rockford’s side of the ice, but the Aeros were unable to score. At 13:22, Rockford right wing Mike Blunden swept behind the Aeros goal and stuck the puck in past goalie Barry Brust to give Rockford the 2-0 lead. But Houston fought back, and just over a minute later left wing Peter Olvecky stuffed the puck past Rockford goalie Corey Crawford, bring the score to 2-1.
The crowd of 4,144 had the building rocking as the teams emerged for the third period, and once again, there was this feeling of magic in the arena, this feeling that something was going to happen.
And that magic something was bad, as Rockford right wing Bryan Bickell scored at 1:13 of the third to put Rockford up 3-1. The crowd didn’t give up, but at 6:53, center Jake Dowell got an unassisted goal to put Rockford up 4-1. Houston would get back on the board as Olvecky would feed the puck to center Morten Madsen for a goal at 12:16. And even as Aeros coach Kevin Constantine pulled Brust from the ice with over five minutes to left so the team could attack with more skaters, the feeling was that the game was lost, especially when at 15:35 Rockford got the empty net goal to go up 5-2.
The Aeros fought through the final period, through the entire game, playing hard and trying to force the action, but nothing worked, and it always seemed to come back to bite the team in the rear. “We had to go for it,” team captain Erik Reitz said after the game. “If we would’ve set back and didn’t do anything I think it would’ve just been a lower scoring game. We had to go for it.”
“It’s really a sad day today,” Reitz said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Defenseman Maxim Noreau summed it up thusly: “We had a pretty strong finish to the year. We ought to be proud of that. Obviously we’re not very happy with the outcome. But we’ve got a good group of guys in here. We worked really hard, and I guess they just outworked us and they beat us. We’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
“It’s been a fine year,” goalie Barry Brust said from his locker. “But it’s tough to end like that. We had some bad bounces.”
But bad bounces or not, so ended the season for the Houston Aeros, losing Game Five of the series to the IceHogs 5-2, and losing the series four games to one.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES:
Friday’s Game Five was the only game of the series where the score was not tied after every intermission. And it was the only game that was decided by more than two goals. The Aeros scored only one goal in each of the first four games before the Friday night, Game Five, breakthrough of two goals. These four games with only one goal was the longest such streak in Aeros playoff history.
The Aeros are now 2-6 all-time (IHL and AHL) in the playoffs when losing the first game of the series. And they are now 3-4 in Game Fives in the AHL playoffs. And the team is now 31-31 in all-time home playoff games.
The Aeros led for only 6:05 of the series. And Rockford outscored the Aeros 8-2 in the third period for the series – with three of those goals coming Friday night.
******************* Goalie Nolan Schaefer told us after Thursday’s Game Four that he thought Rockford’s second – and game-winning – goal was actually kicked into the goal and as such should have been disallowed. Aeros GM Tom Lynn confirmed before Friday’s game that a review of the game tape showed that, indeed, the goal had been kicked in.
The use of replay is not allowed in the AHL. However, the kick might have been obvious to all in the arena if replays had been shown on the Toyota Center video boards. But Les Alexander charges an exorbitant fee for use of these boards, so the Aeros only have replays in the arena on Friday and Saturday games.
And speaking of high fees, ice and atmospheric conditions were somewhat improved on Friday. Though the ice was still in bad shape, it was still better than the ice on Tuesday and Thursday. I still think Minnesota Wild management should be asking for a refund of the money they paid for utilities, because it appears that Les just took that cash and pocketed it.
******************* Though the team lost the playoff series, Coach Kevin Constantine was still proud of his guys. “The injuries and the call ups had no effect on our win-loss record,” he said following the loss. “ And the only reason you can ever get away with not having injuries or key players called up bother you is if you’re willing to play a team game, play together, stick to the system, and stick to the details.”
Steve Kelly, Joel Ward, Ryan Hamilton, Jon Awe and Matt Kassian were scratches from the game. Kelly was scratched for an unspecified injury, while Ward and Hamilton were scratched because of shoulder injuries. Awe and Kassian were healthy scratches. The loss of Ward and Hamilton for lots of the playoffs really hurt the team.
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“We’re not a high scoring team,” Constantine said. “We lost Hamilton, who played Game One [and] Two, but he was really on a half a shoulder. So that’s 20 goals. And Ward played the last couple of games on a hurt shoulder and not at all tonight. That’s 20 goals. And Foster missed a little bit. And that’s 15 goals. That’s one, two, three goal scorers and we’re a real low goal scoring team.”
****************** The team depended on the play of goalies Nolan Schaefer and Barry Brust all season, and but for Game Five, the goalies more than did their jobs in this series. But Erik Reitz was very clear on why the team lost. “We just didn’t score enough goals,” he said. “[Rockford] were a good team. They capitalized on all our mistakes.”
Constantine agreed that the problem wasn’t with the goalies. “[Rockford’s] goaltending was good all series,” he said. “Our goaltending was good all series.”
****************** Sitting at his desk following the loss, Constantine looked back on the season. “And so from that standpoint it was a very, very rewarding year for me enjoying the job coaching,” he said. “We had players that just changed the way they played from the beginning of the year to the end. They became a better team.” Then he reflected a bit more. “They put in a great effort as a group of guys to try to get better all the way along the way.” -- John Royal