The Cinderella Calder Cup playoff run of the Houston Aeros finally ended last night with the Aeros losing to the Manitoba Moose 3-1. But the fact that the Aeros actually made it to a Game Six should mean something, especially as, at this time last week, the Aeros were down 0-3 and only one game from elimination.
The Aeros have been a cardiac-type of team all season. They've been a team unable to preserve leads, yet they've also been a team with the ability to storm back in the final period and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Aeros actually grabbed the early lead last night, going up 1-0 at 12:52 of the first period when Krys Kolanos found Corey Locke in front of a wide-open net with the Aeros on the power play. And Locke, as has been his wont this season, put the puck in the net. The goal was Locke's 12th goal of the playoffs and that goal, along with his 11 assists, gave him 23 points, setting a new Aeros record for single-season playoff points. The previous mark of 22 points (11 goals and 11 assists) was set by Mark Freer in the 1999 playoffs.
Manitoba tied the game a few minutes later, but the Aeros almost grabbed the lead as time in the first period expired when a John Lammers shot barely missed a wide open net with just seconds left in the period.
The Aeros were able to keep Manitoba off of the scoreboard for all of the second period, and for the first half of the third, until the Moose got a power play goal at 9:52 to go up 2-1. Manitoba then got an insurance goal at 12:07 of the third, making the score 3-1. And the Aeros, playing their 21st game in just a little over a month, appeared to just be too tired to keep up with the Moose.
"They haven't failed at all," head coach Kevin Constantine told the Chron. "They've grown a lot as a group, as players. I want them to be proud of themselves for what they did because they did a hell of a lot. There were only four teams standing at the end, and they were one of the four and that's pretty darn good."
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And Constantine makes a good point. Not many people expected the Aeros to make it this far once the playoffs started. The two primary goalies, Nolan Schaefer and Barry Brust, were injured, and third-stringer Anton Khudobin was unproven at this level of play. The team slumped badly coming into the end of the season. And due to injuries and call-ups to the big league club Minnesota Wild, the team's chemistry appeared to be suffering.
But the team rallied around Khudobin and upset Peoria in the first round of the playoffs despite injuries to Jesse Schultz and Tomas Mojzis. The team soared to a 3-1 lead over Milwaukee in the second round, then held on to win that series despite an injury to star forward Krys Kolanos. Then came Manitoba which saw what appeared to be an exhausted Aeros team losing the first three games, only to storm back to win two games and get back in the series despite an injury to Khudobin that found the team having to rely on its fourth-string goalie, Matt Climie.
And so another hockey season ends in Houston, and the upcoming off-season might find the Aeros facing lots of changes. Top scorers Kolanos, Locke, and Schultz are free agents. Nolan Schaefer and Benoit Pouliot are free agents. The old man, Tony Hrkac, will be returning to his job of coaching college hockey. Matt Beaudoin will be seeking a new contract, as will fan favorite Mitch Love. John Lammers and Matt Climie are under contract to the Dallas Stars, and they will be on the roster of the NHL's Stars, or on the new Austin-based AHL team, the Texas Stars, next season. And with new management taking over the parent club, the possibility, though slight, of further player and management changes is also there.
But let's forget all of that for now and just remember the some of the joys of this season. Like a healthy Kolanos exploding down the ice and scoring a goal with defenders draped over him. Or the crowd singing Happy Birthday to Khudobin after his playoff shutout victory over the Milwaukee Admirals. Or Mitch Love emerging from a fight and urging the crowd to rise their feet. And so many others.