The weekend was lined up perfectly for the Houston Aeros. They had three games at home. They were facing one of the worst teams in the AHL on Friday and Saturday, and they were facing a Chicago team that, while one of the best in the division, was playing its third road game in three days. The timing was perfect for the Aeros to gain ground on their division rivals in the playoff race.
It's safe to say that after losing two of the three games this weekend the Aeros aren't pleased. And it's just as safe to say that the Aeros playoff chances are dropping about as quickly as the chances of Gary Kubiak ever being named the NFL Coach of the Year.
"It's crunch time," goalie Barry Brust said after Sunday's 3-0 loss to the first place Chicago Wolves. "And you've got to be desperate, and we weren't desperate enough tonight. We've got to find a way to be hungrier."
The Aeros did not look like the hungry team this weekend. Too often they resembled the Texans in that they were making stupid plays, getting beat on defense, and just playing a complacent style of hockey that had all involved wondering why the team couldn't play up to the level of its talent. Especially since the team was supposed to be playing like the playoffs were on the line.
"We have to have good games from now on," Brust said after Saturday's win. "We can't have anything like what happened [Friday -- a 7-2 loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins]. The boys established the tone early and let the other team know we're going to be physical in the first five minutes. We've got to keep doing that. It's playoffs for us now. It's kind of like the playoffs for me now personally, too."
The team did play like that on Saturday when they defeated the Griffins 1-0 in overtime. Brust, who was left unprotected by his defense on way too many chances on Friday and Sunday, had the defensive help that he needed to keep the Griffins off of the board while the Aeros offense, which head coach Kevin Constantine defended after all three games as having excellent chances throughout the games, did just enough to get the win.
"Hopefully it'll get better," Brust said on Sunday. "And it has to if we want to have any chance at the playoffs at all."
But if they keep playing like this weekend, that's just not going to be happening. Especially if the offense continues to fail on games they play inside Toyota Center.
"I mean, we've been scoring quite a bit, but if you look at the weekend, we scored what, two goals, three goals," Constantine said. "That's on home ice. That's a bit of a concern...but if the scoring chances are there, then you don't worry about it too much. Obviously, you've got to get your goals, but the first thing you say is, well, are we getting our chances? And then go from there."
The thing is, I've come to have faith in Constantine. His previous two Houston teams had to go on late drives to reach the playoffs. And he has yet to miss the playoffs in any season in which he's coached the entire year. I've also watched and come to know players like Danny Irmen, Brandon Rogers, Max Noreau, Barry Brust, and Matt Kassian in my three years covering the team, and I know how much they want to win. Players don't switch back-and-forth from defense to center to defense during a game like Rogers does almost nightly if they don't desire the victory.
But there are times when desire and want just aren't enough. And with only 23 games remaining in the season, the Aeros, with a record of 26-21-6-1 (59 points), not only find themselves struggling to reach that number-four spot for the playoffs, but also struggling to hold off the fast-rising San Antonio Rampage in the fight for fifth place.
The Aeros are off until this weekend, when they play three road games, Friday in Milwaukee, Saturday in Chicago, and Sunday in Peoria. If the Aeros get hungry, they just might be able to play themselves back into the playoff hunt. But if they play like they did this weekend, then it's safe to say it's all over.