Photo by John Royal
"I agree with everything you said about the ups and downs," Houston Aeros coach Kevin Constantine told me last night from his office in the visiting locker room inside the bowels of Peoria, Illinois' Carver Arena. "We had ups and downs within periods."
Thus it was somewhat fitting that for the Houston Aeros, the continuation of this season came down to the third period of Game Seven of a best-of-seven series with the Peoria Rivermen.
The Aeros had played fantastic hockey in games two and three. They were awful in games one and four. Game Five saw a team play a great final five minutes of the third period to score two goals to send the game into overtime where the team got the victory. With the chance to clinch the series in Peoria Saturday night, the Aeros came out in the first two periods and dominated the game, only to give up two goals amid trip after trip to the penalty box and lose the game 2-1.
So that brings things around to last night. A night where the Aeros came out and took a two-nothing lead after a dominating first period of play. But then there was the second period where the Aeros looked like the worst team in the AHL and were lucky to hit the intermission tied at two after getting zero shots on goal.
Then the Aeros took a shot at the goal about four minutes into the third period that never had a chance of making it into the goal. What was notable about it was that it was the Aeros first shot on goal since late in the first period. And with that shot, things just seemed to burst open. At 9:41, Matt Beaudoin fired the puck at Peoria goalie Manny Legace. Legace blocked the shot, where it rebounded out to Max Noreau. And Noreau, the man who won Game Five in overtime for the Aeros, fired a shot from the top of the circle that Legace couldn't stop. And just like that, the Aeros were up 3-2.
The Aeros wound up winning the game 5-2 as Corey Locke and Mitch Love got empty-net goals inside the last thirty seconds to clinch the game and to send the team onto the next round of the playoffs.
"It's unbelievable," Max Noreau said. "When that puck went in I was ecstatic. And I've never felt this way before."
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As to his game-winning shot, Noreau said: "The puck came bouncing out. I think Legace made a good save on the first shot and then their guys kind of went down when I faked the shot and I just walked around them. I saw traffic and I tried to put it high because he's a smaller goalie and it's been working for us. It's the same place I went at last time."
And Noreau had a goal robbed from him in the first period that possibly could have put the game out of reach early, but though the on-ice officials admitted that a goal was probably scored, they refused to put the goal up on the Aeros total. At close to the spot from where Noreau nailed his game-winner, he slapped another shot at Legace. A shot that had the puck fly through the net, cause the net to move, and saw the puck move through a hole in the net and out though the other side onto the ice outside of the ice.
Confused? I'll let Coach Constantine give the explanation he got from the officials: "The puck went to Noreau at the right point," Constantine said. "And it went...over Legace's right pad. About two inches inside the post. And it went right through the netting. And everybody could see the netting move, including the linesmen and the ref. He said 'Yeah we all saw the netting move'....So it was obvious to everybody in the building that it was in. And the ref said 'I can't disagree. All of the physics say that that must have been in, but because no official can absolutely a hundred percent say it, we can't just guess. We have to say no, no goal.'"
But in the end, it didn't matter. The Aeros were the victors. And the Aeros, who have been on the rollercoaster all season long, get to continue the ride. They play the Milwaukee Admirals in the next round of the playoffs. The first two games of the series will be in Milwaukee on Thursday and Saturday. The next three games will be in Houston on May 5, May 7, and either May 8 or 9. Games six and seven, if needed, will be in Milwaukee on May 11 and May 13.