So close, yet so far away. With the Aeros trailing two games to none in this best-of-seven series with the Manitoba Moose, they found themselves so close in Game Three, yet so far away. The Aeros lost 4-3 in a game where, if the puck bounces the right way at just the right time, the Aeros easily win.
But things didn't work that way, and the 2,634 fans in Toyota Center left disappointed as the Aeros came up just short after a furious third period comeback that found the score tied at three with just over four minutes left in regulation play.
The scoring started in the first period when Manitoba's Mike Keane got his stick on teammate Mario Bliznak's shot and deflected the puck past Houston's Nolan Schaefer at the 13:47 mark to put the Moose up 1-0. Schaefer, starting for the first time since the end of March, was stuck with a shot he couldn't get to thanks to the deflection.
And it was with that goal that Manitoba won the game because coming into the game, the Aeros were 1-6 when the opposition scored first, and 0-7 when trailing after the first period. And trailing after the first period the Aeros were. Manitoba went up 2-0 at 2:33 of the second when Alexandre Bolduc got free and scored a short-handed goal. The Aeros got the score to 2-1 at 12:29 of the second when Matt Beaudoin tipped in a Krys Kolanos shot on the power play. But after two periods, the score was 3-1, and the Aeros appeared to be going down to defeat.
Yet as they did so many times during the regular season, the Aeros came storing out in the third period, playing inspired, desperate hockey, and at 1:11 of the third, Corey Locke took a fantastic pass from Mario Rosa and put the puck in the goal to make the score 3-2. But so close, yet so far away, as it was only seconds later that a Beaudoin shot appeared to bounce off of the cross-bar and back out to the ice instead of into the goal. Then just minutes later, Beaudoin took a pass from Tony Hrkac, but just barely missed the goal with the shot. But with Milwaukee on the power play, Danny Irmen was able to get to a pass from Marco Rosa and knot the score at three at the 6:30 mark.
And so the game stayed for the next ten minutes when Milwaukee's Michael Grabner got a shot past Schaefer to give Manitoba the 4-3 lead, and the win. And though Schaefer claimed that Grabner actually fanned on the shot, he still took the blame for allowing the score.
"When it came down to it, we just gave up too many opportunities and I didn't make the big saves at the right time," Schaefer said. "I don't have any excuses for it. He's a good player. It's a good shot. I just have to make the save the next time."
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As for why Schaefer got the start over Anton Khudobin, who had started the previous 16 playoff games, head coach Kevin Constantine said he was looking for a change in momentum. "We had only won one of our last five games," he said, "so we decided to give Nolan a shot."
Game Four of the series is tomorrow night at Toyota Center. And the question isn't so much whether the Aeros will find a way to win the series; the question is whether the Aeros will find a way to actually win a game.
"We just have to keep our heads up and keep going," Schaefer said. "I don't think we played a terrible game." And Constantine agreed. "I thought we played pretty hard. I wasn't displeased with our effort," he said. "They were better than us tonight by a goal."
One goal. So far, yet so far away. And after 17 games, the Aeros might have gone as far they can go this season. A series farther than many thought they would go, but so, so close to making it to the championship series.