John Royal Patrick O'Sullivan with the game-winning goal.
Peoria had pounded away on the Aeros the entire series, trying to break the will of the team's skill players. And with a heavy rain falling from the clouds over Peoria, and with thunder pounding down from the skies, the Rivermen attempted to pound the Aeros into submission.
But the Aeros didn't crack. Patrick O'Sullivan, Jon DiSalvatore, Robbie Earl and Casey Wellman all took nasty hits during the game. Hits that would have sent lesser players out of the game. Hits that would have caused lesser players to abandon their game and go for some retaliation. But the Aeros didn't break. They weren't the lesser players.
They took the licking. They kept on ticking. Now they're waiting to find out who they will play in the next round of the AHL playoffs.
The win didn't come easy. Peoria took the early lead when a Nathan Oystrick shot deflected off a skate of Houston's Justin Falk and past Aeros goalie Matt Hackett midway through the first period. And the Aeros didn't quite seem to be playing their game. They seemed a touch off.
But then came the second period. The Aeros tied the game at 8:22 off a face-off just above the blue line. Jared Spurgeon got the puck and fed it to Drew Bagnall, who was up around center ice. Then Bagnall acted as if he was going to throw the puck into the corner for a scramble, but instead aimed it for the net. Peoria goalie Ben Bishop fell for the fake, and the puck went in the net, tying the game.
In defense of Bishop, it was an easy fake to fall for as Bagnall had not scored a goal the entire season. But the Aeros had studied Bishop's tendencies, and they knew he liked to leave the net to play the puck, so they gave it a try.
John Royal Matt Hackett watches the action in front of him.
The goal seemed to sap some of the spirit out of Peoria. The rest of their spirit was sapped out a few minutes later. Patrick O'Sullivan got loose on a breakaway and flipped the puck past Bishop to put Houston up 2-1.
From that point on, it was a matter of the Aeros hanging tough, taking their beating and not letting Peoria get on the board. And though the game wasn't sewn up, the Aeros seemed to be in a good position to win the game until Bagnall got whistled for closing his hand over the puck and was sent to the penalty box for two minutes with just 2:35 left in the game, putting Peoria on the power play. But though Peoria pressed and pressed, they still couldn't tie the game.
"Sometimes it helps you," Bagnall said about the penalty. "You're better at your penalty kill -- your penalty killers are better at playing that certain position, and you know you can shoot it out. You don't have to make little plays and worry about icing it. I'm not saying I was trying to help us out, but I just wanted that thing out of there as fast as I could."
And then came the agonizing last 25 seconds, which twice saw Aeros goalie Matt Hackett block a shot, only to have the puck hanging around in open ice just in front of the net. But the hockey gods smiled down on the Aeros and kept the puck from crossing the line into the net, that last time coming as the horn sounded to end the game.
"I thought I had it in my chest, so I was just squeezing," Hackett said of the final shot. "But then all of the guys are yelling it's behind me, it's behind me. So I turned around, and luckily it wasn't in the net."
So the Aeros got the four-game sweep to open up the playoffs. A sweep in which Peoria scored first in all four games. A sweep in which the Aeros had to battle from behind every single game.
"That's playoff hockey," head coach Mike Yeo said. "I don't know that you get too many easy ones in the playoffs."
So now the Aeros get a few days off as they wait to play the winner of the Texas/Milwaukee series. They get a little time to relax. A little time to enjoy the taste of playoff victory. But there's still more to come.
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