Aeros Stay Alive Again, The Hard Way

"I always look at President Obama -- or any president -- I look at how they age," Houston Aeros coach Kevin Constantine said Friday night. "I started the playoffs at 50 and I'm 73 years old already."


And of those 23 years he claims to have rapidly aged, Constantine probably aged 22 of them on Friday night as the Aeros, facing Calder Cup elimination, blew a 3-1 lead with 21 seconds remaining in the game then stormed back to get the 4-3 victory over the Manitoba Moose 4:29 into the second overtime.


That the Aeros were even in a position to win the game in the first place was the result of the play of fourth-string goalie Matt Climie, a player from the Dallas Stars organization who was loaned to the Aeros for the playoffs because of injuries to goalies Nolan Schaefer and Barry Brust. Climie hadn't seen much action with the Aeros, relieving Anton Khudobin on two occasions, but not even dressing recently as a still-injured Schaefer returned to action. But with Khudobin suffering a lower-body injury in the third period of the Aeros' overtime victory on Wednesday, Constantine and his coaching staff decided to go with the healthy Climie instead of Schaefer.


And for 59:39, that decision was perfect as Climie stopped 27 of 28 shots and had the Aeros positioned to for the win. But at 19:39, and with Manitoba on the power play, the Moose were able to get the puck past Climie. And with two seconds remaining in the game, the Moose got the puck past Climie again, sending the game to overtime.

"In retrospect," Constantine said. "I think it was a bad coaching decision not to call the timeout. If we'd lost, it would have been a long, long summer for me."

But that long summer has yet to start for Constantine because Climie gathered himself and stopped 18 shots in the two overtimes.

"I felt good the whole game, but I caught a couple of unlucky breaks at the end there," Climie said. "They had a couple of lucky goals to tie it up. I just wanted to keep the boys in it and give them a chance in overtime. The third goal was a kind of weak one to give up, with just two seconds left. And I wanted to do my part in overtime to shut the door."

Shut the door he did, leaving it to the grizzled old man, Tony Hrkac to play the ultimate hero as Hrkac got the puck past the Manitoba goalie for the win at 4:29 of the second overtime period.

"Benoit [Pouliot] made a nice play behind the net to get it in," Hrkac said. "Robbie [Earl] got it in the corner, and their forwards were kind of on me, but then they spread out because they were thinking about Robbie going to the point, and there was a little lane there, so Robbie saw it and I saw it, and he gave me the puck, the goalie went down and boom, over the shoulder."

The goal was Hrkac's second for the night, and it put the Aeros into a position to pull off one of the more stunning upsets in AHL hockey history. It was just last Monday night that the Aeros were down three games to zero in this best-of-seven conference final, and the hope was the Aeros would be able to find some way to win one game and prevent the sweep. But now the Aeros are on their way back to Winnipeg with the chance to do something that has only been done twice in AHL history, and that is to come back from being down 0-3 to win four straight games.

"We just never give up," said Jesse Schultz, the injured forward who returned from an ankle injury on Friday night to play his first game in a month. "We've played this way the whole year. It just seems that we can never do things the easy way. For whatever reason, we like a big challenge like that. We still have a long way to go. They're the top team in the league and they have home ice...but we like how we play, and we think we play good playoff style, so we'll go in there and see what happens."

Hrkac summed it up best.  "You've got to enjoy the win," he said. "But you can't rest on it."

Not that the Aeros are getting much rest. They flew to Minneapolis on Saturday, then got a connecting flight to Fargo, ND, and from there, they took a three hour-plus bus ride to Winnipeg. The plan called for some rest on Sunday, then a return to hockey for Game Six on Monday night. And if the Aeros can find someway to pull out the win and tie the series, then the deciding game will be on Wednesday night, also in Winnipeg.


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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal