"If you can't get yourself ready for a game like this," Houston Aeros captain Clayton Stoner said Wednesday morning, "then you don't deserve to be here."
The "here" was Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The game was Game Seven of the West Division Finals. The Aeros, who had been up three games to one in the best-of-seven series, were coming off probably their two worst games of the playoffs, and to advance to the next round, then they had no choice but to come together and win Game Seven.
The Milwaukee Admirals came out on the ice to start the game with Foo Fighters' "The Pretender" blasting out through the arena. They had a swagger. A confidence. hey knew they were going to win. But there was just one problem. They forgot to tell the Houston Aeros.
The Aeros didn't come out with a swagger. But there was a kind of quiet confidence to the guys who were out on ice. A confidence born out of the fact that they knew they deserved to be here. And they were ready.
At 3:34 of the first period, Houston's Maxim Noreau fired a shot from the blue line toward the goal. Teammate Corey Locke got in the way, got his stick on the puck and got Milwaukee goalie Drew MacIntyre out of the position, and slipped the puck past him into the net. And just like that, the Aeros, who had been shut out 7-0 in the previous game, were up 1-0. But while that goal helped, the killer came just 49 seconds later when Krys Kolanos, who missed Game Six with a lower body injury, got a pass from Marco Rosa then buried the puck into the net to make the score 2-0.
"When I looked at a game like this," head coach Kevin Constantine said afterwards, "I felt...the guys with the ability to get some things offensively done would have to get it done, and Krys Kolanos and Corey Locke got our first two goals. And not to take away from the other goals, but those are huge. When you lose seven-nothing [like the Aeros did in Game Six], you need something good to happen early to remind yourself you're okay. So those two goals by those two guys were just big, big, big."
Milwaukee got the score to 2-1 before the first period ended, but Stoner fired a shot from near the blue line at 14:21 of the second period to put Houston up 3-1, and though Milwaukee pulled to within 3-2 just before the second period ended, the feeling inside of Bradley Center was that the Aeros were going to do it again.
The Aeros scored early in the third when Tony Hrkac faked out MacIntyre to set up Bryan Lundbohm's goal to make it 4-2, and Locke, the guy who started off the night, effectively ended it with his empty-net goal at 18:09 to make it 5-2.
"It's awesome. I can't really describe the feeling," Stoner said after the game. "The game's just so intense. Everyone's up on the bench the whole game, and every guy's just yelling and pulling for each other. And when it comes to the end of the game, when that final buzzer rang we felt great because we knew that we gave it all."
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The Aeros got the rest of Wednesday night to celebrate, for today they're on buses and airplanes, making their way to Winnipeg, Manitoba for the Western Conference Finals. Game One is Friday night and Game Two is Saturday with the series returning to Houston next Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for games three through five. If necessary, games six and seven will be in Winnipeg the following Monday and Wednesday.
The Manitoba Moose have had the week to rest up and prepare for this series. And once again the Aeros will be the underdog. But so far, the underdog role seems to suit the team just fine.
"That's a group of guys in there that really care," Constantine said about his team. "They really want to be successful. And they got it done."
Here's to the team finding a way to get it done again. If they can get it done against Manitoba, then they're playing for the AHL Title. And if this team pulls that off, then they'll really be getting it done.