Aeros Return to Toyota Center, Risk Falling into Irrelevancy

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GR Fight.JPG
John Royal
The Aeros put up a fight on Saturday night, but not so much on Sunday.
When the Houston Aeros last played a home game at Toyota Center, the New York Giants had yet to defeat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Astros had yet to report to Florida for spring training. When the Aeros last played a home game, they had the fourth-best record in the AHL Western Conference and looked to be a sure bet for the playoffs.

But that was February 5, 2012. Since then, the Aeros have had a 4-7 road trip. They've lost a player to suspension for two games due to offensive tweets. The team has skated without a full compliment of players on multiple occasions. All Star goalie Matt Hackett has been called up to the Minnesota Wild because of injuries and back-up goalie Darcy Kuemper is out for the season with the injuries.

The Aeros finally returned to Toyota Center this weekend for two games against the Grand Rapids Griffins, and it was a far different-looking team than the one that last played inside the building. They'd dropped to ninth place and were on the outside looking in at the playoffs. The new goalies, Jimmy Joe Fallon and Matt Keetley, were in the ECHL just weeks ago, and the Aeros were barely treading water.

"It's kind of one of those things where we had a lot of guys in and out every night," forward Jeff Taffe said after Saturday night's 5-1 win. "It's hard. Obviously our goaltending, when you lose a guy like Matt Hackett, and Kuemper's out for the season, they were the ones that were winning us games at the beginning of the season. Obviously [Fallon] did that for us tonight."

Everything clicked on Saturday night for the Aeros, who scored three times in the first period, including twice on the power play, and scored three power plays in total. Team captain Jon DiSalvatore accounted for two of the goals, and Taffe netted a goal and got three assists. It was one of those games that could make Aeros fans forget that Hackett, Jed Ortmeyer, Warren Peters and Matt Kassian are gone for the rest of the regular season, and that Ortmeyer, Peters and Kassian won't even be able to return for the playoffs.

"It's always good to come home and play in front of your fans -- great crowd tonight -- it was a good hockey game for them to see," head coach John Torchetti said. "They were loud and they were part of it. But for us, it's a big win because we played with confidence through the whole 60 minutes. We just came out and played a solid game."

Things did not go as well for the Aeros on Sunday as they lost 5-2 to Grand Rapids. They didn't play a solid game. Joe Fallon played at times like he was still in the ECHL, and the rest of the team acted as if they wanted to be in the ECHL.

The loss dropped the Aeros into tenth place in the Western Conference playoff standings, and since only eight teams make it from each conference, the Aeros found themselves actually losing ground this weekend. There are 26 games left in the season, and there's still time for the team to make up ground, but making up that ground will be difficult.

The good vibes from last season's playoff run are gone as are most of the key players. And with the Minnesota Wild apparently playing its games on top of cursed Indian burial ground -- how else to explain that MASH unit of a club with seemingly a different player being injured every game -- it's apparent that the Aeros aren't going to be getting any help from that direction.

The team's saying the right words. Words about controlling their own destiny. Words about sticking together, playing for each other. And if the roster actually remains the same for a week or two, then that's a possibility. Then again, this is a club that finds itself depending an awful bunch on a group of young guys who weren't expected to play at this level of play this season.

The Aeros are only two points out of the last playoff spot. And they're only three points and a bunch of tiebreakers away from being the fourth seed. One of those teams directly in front of them, the Abbotsford Heat, will be in town for games tomorrow night and Saturday, so a couple of wins gets the Aeros back in the middle of everything.

That's the optimistic side. The pessimistic side is that the team is depleted. They're going to have to do without the excellent goaltending they've had the past several seasons. Many of their key players are with the Wild. And if the Aeros let the Heat win two games this week, then instead of being in the heart of the playoff race, they might well be starting that long slide to irrelevancy.

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