Four games in five nights while staying in six different hotels in five different cities will wear on a person. And Friday night, it appeared to wear on 19 different people as the Iowa Stars defeated the Houston Aeros 3-1 before a crowd of 5,123 at Toyota Center.
The Aeros had been 9-0-0-1 at Toyota Center since October 30, and the team had climbed up from the bottom of the West Division to put itself into the middle of the AHL’s Western Conference playoff race. And with the team playing the first of eight home games in January, it could’ve have been expected that the team would find a way to shrug off the weariness and play the game with passion. But except for about two minutes of the sixty minute game, the Aeros were as lifeless as the Fred Thompson presidential campaign.
“We never ever ever in the whole game raised our passion level,” Coach Kevin Constantine stated after the game. And while some may have been willing to forgive the team because of the travel, Constantine wasn’t one of them, saying that “we’ve got to push the peddle down.”
One Aero showed a brief spark of life at 9:07 in the first period. Right wing Petr Kalus would be hit with a five-minute major penalty and ejected from the game with a game misconduct for checking one of the Iowa Stars players in the back away from the puck. And while Constantine wasn’t willing to place any blame for the loss on referee Francois St. Laurent, it did appear that St. Laurent was as sluggish and as out-of-position as the Aeros for most of the game.
According to Constantine, St. Laurent said that he gave Kalus the major penalty and the game misconduct because the puck wasn’t near the player checked, the player was in a defenseless position, and that Kalus acted with malicious intent. Constantine also stated that St. Laurent made it clear that, no matter where the puck would have been, Kalus would have been hit with the five minute major penalty.
While Constantine thought Kalus committed a penalty on the play, he did not feel that Kalus’ actions amounted to a call for ejection, saying that “Petr [Kalus] thought the puck was coming to that guy. And the puck was in the area. So it wasn’t a great play on our part, but it wasn’t a malicious play either. And generally there’s got to be some maliciousness.”
The Stars took the lead while the Aeros were down a man because of the Kalus penalty, and for most of the game, it appeared that the Stars 1-0 lead would be enough to cement the victory.
The Aeros showed another brief period of life late in the first when right wing Cal Clutterbuck got into fight with Iowa right wing B.J. Crombeen. The guys on the bench seemed to show some life while Clutterbuck and Crombeen were slugging it out, but otherwise, they spent the rest of the first period and all of the second period lagging just a step behind the Stars.
With the score 1-0 at 0:47 into the third period, the Aeros tied the game. Iowa goalie Tobias Stephan came out to the top of the goalie crease to block center Adrian Foster’s shot. Left wing Peter Olvecky snuck in behind Stephan, got his stick on the rebounding puck, and shoved the puck into the net, tying the game at 1-1. But that ended the Aeros offense for the night and the Stars would score twice more, winning the game 3-1.
The loss dropped the Aeros record against Iowa this season to 1-4, and Constantine was not too pleased with this development: “As much as any team in the league, they’ve taken points and we haven’t been able to get points from them.”
But the Aeros weren’t done with the Stars for the weekend, not with a rematch scheduled for Sunday afternoon. And the rematch, which went off before 5,545 fans didn’t get off to a promising start, not with the Aeros playing with the same lethargic looking style as Friday. But the funny thing is that things can happen during the intermission between periods.
“We came in the dressing room after the first period and decided to put that first period aside,” center Serge Payer said after the game. And put that first period behind them they did, especially Payer.
Payer kicked off the period by scoring the game’s first goal at the 1:00 mark, knocking in the puck off a rebound to give the Aeros the 1-0 lead. Just over four minutes later, at 5:07, Payer knocked in the puck on a power play for his second goal of the game, giving the Aeros a 2-0 lead. And just over four minutes later, at 9:38, left wing Benoit Pouliot took the puck from one of the Iowa players and slapped the puck past the goalie to put the Aeros up 3-0.
The Aeros scored three goals in just over eight minutes, a scoring surge the like of which they haven’t experienced lately.
“I thought tonight was going to be a repeat of Friday the way the first period went,” Constantine said later. “It was just that sloppy. And thank God we recovered and had a little better second and got some energy from our goals, and played better once we gained the confidence of having scored. So it did end up a lot better than how it started.”
The Aeros weren’t done with the scoring. Center Steve Kelly banked a shot off of the Iowa goalie at the 0:53 mark of the third period to put the Aeros up 4-0. Right wing Danny Irmen finished the scoring for the night when he took a pass from Serge Payer and netted the puck at 10:52.
So while the Aeros appeared to lifeless and listless for much of Friday and for the start of Sunday’s game, they found a much needed spurt of energy to win 5-0.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES:
The Aeros record is 19-15-1-2 and they have climbed into the midst of the playoff race. They are currently in fifth place of the West Division, but are only four points behind third place San Antonio Rampage. However, the Aeros are only three points ahead of the last place Quad City Flames.
All eight of the teams in the West Division are at .500 or better.
Coach Kevin Constantine’s not content, and he doesn’t want to see his team becoming complacent about the playoffs. “We’re in a dogfight for a playoff spot. An absolute dogfight,” he said Friday night. And the players’ response Friday night did not please him. “I just want to look on the ice and see play that matches the race that we’re in. The spirit of the play should match the race. And we just didn’t have that tonight….Whatever the reasons are, we just have to fix them right away.”
Goalie Nolan Schaefer got the win on Sunday. This was his fourth shutout of the season, which is a career-high for Schaefer. “It feels pretty good,” Schaefer said after Sunday’s game, “but it’s not an individual game. It’s all twenty guys out there. And we’ve been battling through the road and being tired, and I’m just really happy with the way we can come back after a couple of losses to this team.”
Schaefer’s record is 14-7-0 for the Aeros this season, and he has won twelve of his last sixteen starts while stopping 405 of 433 shots.
Coach Constantine was concerned about the team’s fatigue and has given them a couple of days off this week. “I’m hoping these next three days we can rejuvenate and reenergize,” he said after Sunday’s game. Schaefer and Payer said after Sunday’s game that they were thankful for the break.
The Aeros have only one more road game this month. They journey to San Antonio to take on the Rampage this Friday. They have six more games in Toyota Center left for this month. This must be some kind of karmic payoff for the ridiculous schedule they faced in December.
The Aeros are now 10-1-0-1 at Toyota Center since October 30, 2007.
This was the Aeros first home victory over the Iowa Stars since February 23, 2006. The Aeros are now 2-3-1-0 against the Stars this season.
Serge Payer had a career game Sunday night. Along with his two goals, he also had two assists for four points in the game. He was the first player to get four points for the Aeros this season. But while Payer was happy for the points, he was most happy about the actual good – besides the win – that resulted from the points.
Payer was stricken with Guillain-Barre Syndrome as a nineteen-year old while playing in junior hockey. The proceeds from the pucks purchased for Sunday’s Chuck-A-Puck contest were donated to the Serge Payer Foundation, which he set up to raise awareness of Guillain-Barre Syndrome and to raise awareness.
“Through good care and good doctors I was diagnosed quick enough and treated and back on my feet,” he said after the game when asked about the Foundation. “Just going back to those hospital days when I was on my back and my hopes were down and thankfully with God in my heart he kept me going….I founded that [the Serge Payer Foundation] coming out of the hospital in ninety-nine.” Information about Payer, Guillain-Barre, and the Foundation can be found at Payer’s website, www.sergepayerfoundation.org.
But what really got to Payer was the anonymous donor who donated $1,400 to the foundation. The Aeros PA announcer announced after Payer’s first goal that $250 had been donated to the Foundation. Another $250 was donated after the second goal, and the remainder was donated after each of his assists.
“When they announced that over the intercom, I had chills up and down my spine,” Payer said. “I was really moved. I couldn’t be thankful enough to the organization…including all of the fans who contributed.” Payer stated that he was very thankful to that anonymous fan. “When they announced it, I was actually on the ice getting ready for a face-off and it was pretty moving. It was very impressive.”
The Aeros are once again a healthy team as defenseman Brandon Rogers will be back for Thursday morning’s game. But with the healthy players, and with AHL rules that only nineteen players can suit up for a game, Constantine will be sitting healthy players instead of sending them to Beaumont’s ECHL team.
“There’s no plans to move anybody right now,” he said Sunday. “But Tom Lynn [Assistant GM for the Minnesota Wild and GM for the Aeros] who makes those calls will be here next week. And so he will be able to watch our team for four days and maybe something will happen after that. But not till he’s here and watches us.”
The Aeros had a player hit with a misconduct in both games. And while Kalus’ Friday misconduct came on his hit of an Iowa player, Sunday’s misconduct was towards the end of the game and was assessed to right wing Cal Clutterbuck, who wasn’t even involved in the fight that was occurring at the time, nor had he been involved in any of the game’s fights, several of which occurred during the third period after the Aeros had put the game away.
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When asked about Clutterbuck’s misconduct, Constantine stated he wasn’t sure what happened, just that he was told that it had something to do with Clutterbuck’s stick. “I was worried more about all the other stuff going on in the rink,” Constantine said. “I got into more of the fact that I thought the game was getting a little out of hand.”
But when he was questioned, a grinning Clutterbuck confessed that the misconduct had nothing to do with his stick, but instead dealt with what he did to the stick of Iowa’s B.J. Crombeen who, at the time, was using his face to block the incoming fists of Houston’s Erik Reitz.
Clutterbuck stated that, as he did often in junior hockey, he picked up Crombeen’s stick and broke it. Something which, he said, as he had just learned, that “you can’t do up here.”
The Aeros have three games this week. There’s a Thursday morning game against the Manitoba Moose at Toyota Center which starts at 11:05. The Aeros are in San Antonio to take on the Rampage Friday night, then they close out the week with a Saturday night game at Toyota Center, once again against the Moose. -- John Royal