Aeros Searching for Clues and Consistency As Mid-Season Arrives

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Matt Hackett.JPG
John Royal
Matt Hackett has been one of the team's bright spots.
For a team coached by a man nicknamed "Torch," the Houston Aeros (20-8-2-7, 49 points) have been a pretty lifeless entity the past month. And as the team moves into the second half of the season this weekend, lifelessness appears to be the least of their problems.

The Aeros opened the season fine, moving into first place and obtaining the best record in the league. They strongly resembled the hot team that ended the regular season and mowed through their AHL playoff competition before losing in the Calder Cup Finals to the Binghamton Senators in six games last year.

But then things started falling apart. Primarily, things started falling apart with the Aeros' parent club, the Minnesota Wild. The Wild, coached by last season's Aeros coach Mike Yeo, also got off to a hot start, and were looked poised to burn through the NHL. Then the injuries hit. And when the injuries hit in St. Paul, the result was felt in Houston, where player after player after player has been called up and sent back.

While it's good for the players to be called up to the big time, it ultimately harms the team in Houston because team chemistry collapses. There's no consistency in the lineup. Players play on new lines each night with new teammates. And as head coach John Torchetti told Aeros radio on Sunday, the urgency and need to be physical disappears because the players are afraid to get injured and miss their chance of playing the NHL.

The Aeros still excel in the goal. Back-up goalie Darcy Kuemper earned Goalie of the Week honors in December, and he was the Rookie of the Month for December. Matt Hackett, the starter, shined when he was called up to the Wild during December, keeping the Wild alive while many of their star players were injured, and he will be representing the Aeros at the AHL All-Star game at the end of the month (he will be joined on the All-Star team by Aeros captain Jon DiSalvatore).

The goalies have needed to excel because the defense has been awful at times. And when the defense hasn't been awful, the offense has been nonexistent. But the goalies haven't been perfect -- no goalie can be perfect every night -- and they, along with the rest of the team, have struggled to win games that reach the shootout. The Aeros have won just one game in a shootout this season, and before pulling out that win on Wednesday night, they were closing in on the AHL record for consecutive shootout losses to start a season.

"Shootouts, right now they're affecting us a little bit," Torchetti said in November after one such loss. "We're not productive on it. We'll address and keep working on it. We can't hide it down in the basement because it's costing us points right now. We have to understand that and keep working on it."

John Royal
Head Coach John Torchetti is searching for clues.
And while failing in the shootout, the Aeros have been Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to their home/road splits. The team's been a monster on the road, going 13-2-0-2, the second-best road winning percentage in the league. But at home, which is where they should be strong seeing as how they've been performing in front of large crowds (leftover goodwill from last year's title run), they're just a very timid 7-6-2-5.

Torchetti's been asked about this disparity numerous times this season, and his usual answer has become one along the lines of "If you members of the media can solve the problem, then please let me know because I'd love to know the answer," though he has stated that the lineup inconsistency and guys playing more minutes than they're used to is contributing to the problem.

"I don't know what it is, yet," he said after one of the team's many shootout losses. "I'd probably get a little better idea, but I don't know if we've had the same lineup, twice. I know our team cares. I know it competes."

Yet despite all of this doom and gloom, one things needs to be remembered: The Aeros still have one of the best records in the AHL. Despite everything, they've got the third-best record in the AHL's Western Conference, and they're tied for the fifth-best record in the league.

It's a puzzling team. It's a team that looks a bit different every night. Yet despite the injuries in Minnesota, despite the rotating cast of replacement players, despite the inability of the team to win a game once it gets into overtime or when they're at home, the Aeros are still one of the best teams in the league.

They have problems. Every team has problems, especially minor league teams trying to serve their masters. But they're hanging in, and maybe the cure will be really, really simple: the Minnesota Wild getting healthy and sending back the Aeros players. Get the guys back, let them all play together again, let them get some consistency in the lineup, get some chemistry back.

Then things will be all better. Maybe.

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