The Aeros start their march through the playoffs tonight, traveling to Rockford to meet the IceHogs for the seventh time this season in Game One of their best of seven first round playoff series. The IceHogs finished the season just in front of the Aeros with a record of 44-26-4-6 for 98 points while the Aeros finished at 45-29-2-4 for 96 points.
And while the teams were separated in the standings by only two points, there was virtually no separation when these two played each other this season, as each team won three games, and each team won two games in the other’s building.
None of the six games between the teams went into overtime, and only two of the games were close, a 3-2 Rockford win in Houston on October 17 and a 3-2 Aeros win in Houston back on March 15.
“They’re a really good team,” defenseman Shawn Belle said after last Sunday’s regular season finale. “They’ve got a lot of offense. They’ve got guys that like to crash [the net]. It’s going to be a physical series. We’ve got to be ready from the start.”
IceHogs center Colin Fraser says much the same about the Aeros squad, adding that “They’re sound defensively and have good goaltending. It will be a tight series.”
Aeros goalie Nolan Schaefer is familiar with most of Rockford’s players because he faced them when they were with the Norfolk Admirals last season, and after last Sunday’s game he said that “I think if we stick to our game plan we’ll be all right,” adding “I kind of know what to expect as a goalie going into the series.”
Game Two of the series will be tomorrow night. And Games Three, Four and Five will be here next week. Game Three is set for 7:05 on Tuesday. Game Four is set for Thursday, also at 7:05, and if it is needed, Game Five will be Friday at 7:35. Games Six and Seven, if needed, will be in Rockford.
And, though I generally suck at predictions, I’m going on the record as saying that Game Six will be necessary, and that the Aeros will win that game, and the series, in six games.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
The Aeros finished the season as the AHL’s best defensive team, surrendering only 183 goals. But Rockford scored the fifth most goals in the league, averaging 3.09 goals a game. The Aeros were only able to score 206 goals this season, but this was good enough as goalies Nolan Schaefer, Barry Brust, and Anton Khudobin surrendered on average only 2.29 goals a game.
Goalie Barry Brust was named the AHL Goalie of the Month for April. He stopped 110 of the 116 shots he faced in five games in April for a 1.22 goals against average and a .948 save percentage.
Brust, for the season, was 24-16-3 in 43 games, and he had four shutouts. His teammate, Nolan Schaefer, was 19-13-0 in 34 games, and Schaefer had six shutouts. Anton Khudobin, who has been returned to Beaumont to help the Texas Wildcatters in the ECHL playoffs, also had a shutout. The 11 shutouts on the season were a team record.
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Aeros defenseman Erik Reitz was called up to the parent Minnesota Wild last week as an emergency replacement because of injuries to Wild defenseman. And though he has not played in an NHL regular season game, Reitz did get playing time in last night’s Wild 3-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in Game Five of that NHL playoff series.
Reitz spoke to the Minneapolis Star Tribune before the game, and he raved about Constantine and his system: “It's Kevin Constantine. He's having a lot of faith in me, putting me on the first power play and putting a lot of leadership in my hands. Everybody believes in the system down there, believes in the way they coach. We have 30-minute meetings every day before practice, and individual meetings and a lot of team meetings and leadership meetings. It's structured, and I've learned more this year than I ever thought I could learn.”
Aeros forward Benoit Pouliot, who was called up to Minnesota in March, also played in last night’s Wild loss.
******************** The Aeros have also made some roster moves prior to tonight’s game. Center Milan Gajic was released from his contract, and right wing Petr Kalus’s contract was reassigned so that he could join his native Czech national hockey team in preparation for the World Championships in May. – John Royal