The Houston Aeros come into tonight's game against the Chicago Wolves with 34 games remaining in the season. The Aeros, with a record of 22-17-6-1 (51 points), still sit on the edge of the playoff race, and if they're going to stand any realistic chance of making the postseason, then winning tonight -- and throughout the weekend -- is a probably a damn good idea because the Aeros are playing their primary playoff competitors.
"You always talk about [how] points [and wins] in November are important," head coach Kevin Constantine said right before the Aeros went on the All-Star break. "But the reality is, as the season wears on you have less and less games to play, you've got less and less of a chance to catch up. We have to play catch up. That's just the way it's going to be here."
The Aeros came out of the All-Star break with two surprising wins last weekend, defeating the Abbotsford Heat who were playing way up in the AHL isolation of Abbotsford, British Columbia. The big win (numerically) was on Friday night when the Aeros got the 7-1 win behind five points (two goals and three assists) from All-Star Max Noreau and a team that was surprisingly powered by the team's once-seemingly dead power play.
The Aeros scored five points with a man advantage, and now suddenly find themselves with the league's second-best power play when playing on the road (the team has the league's overall 13th-best power play -- it seems just like a mere couple of weeks ago that the Aeros power play was languishing close to last place). And if the team is going to play the catch-up brand of hockey desired by Constantine, then that power play is going to have to keep improving.
As surprising as Friday's power play propelled victory was Saturday's 5-4 win over Abbotsford. The surprise comes about because the Aeros got the win in overtime, and anyone who has seen the Aeros play this season knows that the Aeros in overtime has been a recipe for disaster.
After playing Chicago tonight, the Aeros play the first place Milwaukee Admirals on Friday night in Milwaukee, then head to Peoria to take on the Rivermen, the team immediately behind Houston in the standings. Getting points in all of these games will go a large way to putting the Aeros back into the middle of the playoff picture, but losses in all three might spell the end to the Aeros post-season hopes.
But there is room for optimism.
Last year's team, for instance, was just barely hanging out around the edge of the playoff hunt, at just about this same part of the season, when they went on a long road trip and got hot, racking up multiple key wins -- powered in part by a revived power play. This year's team doesn't have the offensive scoring power of last year's -- the leading scorer is Noreau, who is a defenseman. But the team's power play is rapidly improving, their penalty kill is the second best in the AHL, and they have a winning road record, which is important in that a majority of their remaining games this season are on the road.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Aeros will have two games at Toyota Center next week (Abbotsford on Monday and Peoria on Wednesday) before going back out on the road....Max Noreau, who has to be the frontrunner for Aeros MVP, was the AHL player of the week for last week -- he had three goals and four assists for seven points in those two games against the Heat this past weekend....And the bizarrely darkly humorous story that is the Aeros goal-tending situation: Anton Khudobin had to miss the games in Abbotsford because of an as yet untold situation involving his passport. Barry Brust, the team's nominal third-string goalie (many would argue that he should be the number-one goalie was down in Florida with the ECHL's Florida Everblades, so it was impossible for the Aeros to get him to Abbotsford in time for the game. As told by the Abbotsford Times, the Aeros, in need of a backup in case of an injury to Wade Dubielewicz, called in a 41-year-old Abbotsford-area goalie instructor (and Abbotsford Heat season-ticket holder) Andy Neilson to help them out.....And the team announced today that forward Petr Sykora was added to the team's roster. Sykora, a long-time NHL vet (677 career points, 302 goals and 375 assists) was a key contributor to Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup win last season, and he was also a key contributor to New Jersey's 2000 Stanley Cup winning team.