For a team that is just two wins away from clinching a playoff spot, the Houston Aeros have played more than their share of bad hockey this season. And last night, with a chance to move ever closer to that playoff spot, the Aeros turned in one of their worst games of the season.
"We felt tonight was a critical game," Coach Kevin Constantine said after the game, but unfortunately, the Aeros feelings didn't translate to their play on the ice as they lost 5-3 to a Iowa Chops squad struggling to knock the Aeros out of the playoffs.
Part of the reason for the loss can probably go to the Aeros parent club, the Minnesota Wild. Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom is supposedly suffering from a lower body injury. I say supposedly because he has yet to miss a game, but the Wild have used this supposed injury to call up Aeros backup goalie Anton Khudobin twice in the past week, and this has caused a bit of a problem for the Aeros as the team's two primary goalies have been injured.
The Aeros took the loss on Sunday when an injured Schaefer attempted to play, then Khudobin was sent back to the Aeros. On Tuesday, the Aeros defeated Iowa 6-2 in Des Moines as Khudobin had to come into the game midway through the first period as Schaefer was just too injured to continue. But on Wednesday night, the Wild recalled Khudobin, leaving the Aeros with just their injured goalies. Luckily, kind of, Brust was cleared by the medical staff to return to play on Monday.
But it was clear by his play last night that Brust had not played in more than a month as he let several easy shots get past him. Still, as tempting as it to put the total blame for the loss on Brust and the Wild, the truth is that the entire team just played some bad hockey.
"We couldn't figure out a way to score," Constantine said. "We battled back [tying the game at three goals each in the third.] It was great the way we battled back. I thought we had some decent chances...we couldn't capitalize on some chances, and the difference was they capitalized on theirs."
One such Iowa capitalization came in the waning moments of the second period, just after the Aeros had struggled to get the score tied. Benoit Pouliot took a high-sticking penalty at 18:36, then Marco Rosa took a delay of game penalty at 18:46, and just like that Iowa was on a five-on-three power play, which they converted at 19:06 to take the 3-2 lead when Brust was screened by a player and couldn't see the oncoming puck which got past him.
The Aeros have five games left in the season, and the odds of them making the playoffs are still in their favor. But the goalie situation is going to continue to bother the team. Constantine says it is very doubtful that Schaefer will be able to return before the playoffs. The Aeros are hoping that the Wild might send Khudobin back to the team for Saturday's game in Cleveland since the Wild are not playing that night. And Constantine doesn't think Brust is healthy enough to play three games back-to-back.
But the goalie situation isn't the team's only problem. The offense appears to be in one of those stretches when nothing clicks, meaning that the goalie has to be near perfect to get the win, and near perfect coming from an injured goalie just isn't good enough.
The Aeros' next two games are on the road, but two of their final three games are at home, next weekend, as they take on the San Antonio Rampage here in Houston next Friday night and Sunday afternoon with a game in San Antonio to be played on Saturday.