Aeros Hockey: Fourth Place, No First Place, No Fouth Place (Or Second Place, Maybe)

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John Royal
What would a hockey game be without a fight, eh?
For one brief shining moment this weekend, the Houston Aeros were tied for first place. They're no longer in first place, not after another brutal travel weekend that found them playing a game in Houston, then Cleveland, then Toronto yesterday afternoon. But none of that matters because, damn it, for a brief shining moment this weekend, the Houston Aeros were in first place.

That moment happened on Saturday night when the Aeros defeated the Lake Erie Monsters 2-1 for their second win in two nights. With the win, the Aeros moved into a West Division first place tie with the Milwaukee Admirals that lasted as long as it took for the Aeros to blow a 2-0 first period lead yesterday in losing to the Toronto Marlies 4-2.

And with that loss, the Aeros were back where they had begun the weekend, back in fourth place (technically, they're tied for second). But in the grand scheme of things, even being in fourth place is a victory for this Aeros team. Especially if you view things from this perspective: Back on December 25, the Aeros were in seventh place, had dropped four straight and were in the midst of a scoreless string stretching across three games.

Since that time, the Aeros have won 10 of 15 games and earned points in 11 of the games. They've soared from the bottom of the standings to where they are now, which is one point out of first place.

The weekend started in Houston on Friday night when the Aeros defeated the Texas Stars 3-1. The Aeros, as has been the case since Christmas, were powered by Robbie Earl, Jon DiSalvatore and Patrick O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan assisted on two of the goals while DiSalvatore scored one goal and assisted on another while Robbie Earl got the game-winning goal. And goalie Matt Hackett stopped 30 of 31 shots to guarantee the win.

No player has seen as big an uptick in play since Christmas than Earl. In that 15-game span, he's scored 13 points with six goals and seven assists.

"I think he was getting a little bit worn down, not that he wasn't good, but I wouldn't say that he was as good," head coach Mike Yeo said on Friday night. "I think his game has gone to another level. Coming out of Christmas he was focused. He came into the office and said, 'What do I need to do, what do I need to do to take another step and be a leader on this team?' He's done it. He's been a great leader for us going out and his work ethic has been phenomenal, first and foremost. And when the work ethic is there, the skill is going to follow."

Hackett Solo.JPG
John Royal
Matt Hackett keeps the puck in his sights Friday night
Unfortunately for the Aeros, the AHL schedule makers have continued plotting against them, scheduling three-games-in-three-days weekend after weekend, with the Aeros having to travel between cities for many of the games. But it's something the Aeros have been dealing with -- suddenly finding ways to earn wins in a majority of the games. And while Mike Yeo probably wanted the Aeros to win all three games this weekend, he'll probably be happy with winning two of three.

"We have to deal with it," Yeo said of this weekend's schedule. "It's in front of us. I think last weekend was a tough weekend, and we got through it well. Certainly we don't want to start looking at Sunday [in Toronto] and say that's going to be a tough game. We have to go in and approach that game tomorrow [Lake Erie] like it's the last game of the weekend. If we do that, I think we'll be ready to lay it on the line, and if we do that, then we give ourselves a good chance to win against a [Toronto] team that's been playing some awfully good hockey lately."

So the Aeros are no longer in first place. But the important thing to remember is this: They won two of three games this weekend and they've won ten of their last 15 games. And while they're in fourth place, they're only one point out of first place.

There are still 31 games left in the season, and the Aeros are by no means guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. But they're in a lot better shape than they were one month ago, and they're in a lot better shape than many observers thought possible at this time last month.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Aeros next play on Wednesday night in Syracuse before returning to Houston for a game on Friday night against Abbotsford....The Aeros have won ten of 14 games at home since November 21, and have not lost in regulation in Houston since December 26....Robbie Earl was hit with a game misconduct for abuse of officials following the game -- though this abuse of officials supposedly consisted of nothing more than cracking his stick on the boards following what appears to have been another poorly officiated game....And one further note of importance, the Aeros are 21-7-0-3 when scoring first...the Aeros are tied in points for second points, but they are in fourth place due to their current winning percentage.

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