Photo by Fred Trask
Tonight the Houston Aeros will take on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in Bridgeport, CT. It will be the fifth game of an eight game road trip and their sixth game in their sixth state in nine days. It will also be their 40th game of the season, meaning they will have reached the halfway point of the season.
And at the halfway point, this season for the Aeros can best be described by one word: consistent. As in consistently inconsistent. Their record is 17-15-1-6 (41 points), and they find themselves in sixth place of the AHL's West Division - points-wise, they are tied for fourth place with the Chicago Wolves and Rockford IceHogs - and they are just one point behind the Peoria Rivermen and Iowa Chops while being nine points behind the first place Milwaukee Admirals.
One can look at the record and note that the Aeros are in the middle of the AHL playoff race, especially if they could find someway to win games in the shootout. One can also look at the record and see a mediocre team that isn't playing as well as they did last season when they had less talent available on the roster.
One night the offense comes out firing on all cylinders and scores five goals on five consecutive shots within six minutes. Then they will come out one night and get shut out. One night Barry Brust will stop every shot that comes his way, the next night he's being pulled five minutes into the game because he can't stop a shot.
Their best offensive player, Krys Kolanos, is probably with the Minnesota Wild to stay, as is their best energy player, Cal Clutterbuck, who is now a mainstay with the Wild. They've been beset with injuries, and they've had other players spending time with the Wild.
"We came out flat," Barry Brust said after one game in November. But coming out flat hasn't been a one game thing; it's perhaps the one thing that the team is most consistent about.
They're also consistent about their ability to get a lead, then blow it, having the tendency to, as defenseman Tomas Mojzis said last week, to "kind of sit back" and wait for the bad breaks and bounces to come. Or as defenseman Maxim Noreau said, "We have trouble holding leads. We can't put teams away."
Then there is their consistent ability to skate from behind in the third period to tie the game, but fail to win. "Our biggest problem right now," defenseman Maxim Noreau said after last Tuesday's come from ahead defeat to the Lake Erie Monsters, "is we're a team that can come back from a deficit...we're not afraid." But when they get that lead, they sit back, wait for the bad breaks, and lose the game.
Aeros goalies Barry Brust and Nolan Schaefer are both ranked in the top 20 of the AHL's best goalies, but they're not consistent, either. Brust falls apart in the shootout, which has led Coach Kevin Constantine to start pulling Brust from the game for the shootout and replacing him with the cold Nolan Schaefer. And both Schaefer and Brust have had a tendency to let the easy shots get past them on a pretty consistent basis.
Coach Kevin Constantine, while juggling different line combinations in an effort to solve all of these problems, feels the primary problems are a lack of on-ice leadership and stupid playing. And there is something to that. The team often seems to be rudderless when it's out on the ice. When Kolanos is around, there at least appears to be a plan on offense - attacking the net - but when he's gone, the team seems to lack a plan and seem to be more concerned with not making a mistake, which often leads to them making a mistake. And it's often on these mistakes that Brust and Schaefer then make their mistakes and allow the goals.
The good news is that the Aeros are primed for a playoff run. And if they can start playing every period like it's the third period, and if they can start holding onto leads, and if Barry Brust can break his mental block in the shootout, then it's possible that the team will go on a run of great hockey. But the bad news is that it's just as probable that the second half of the Aeros season will be just as consistently inconsistent as the first half. -- John Royal