Word began circulating through Toyota Center late in the third period of Friday night's game one conference final tilt between the Houston Aeros and Hamilton Bulldogs. And as the word got around, the building seemed to deflate despite the Aeros holding onto a tight 2-0 lead.
John Royal This, amazingly, is not a penalty in the playoffs.
But as the word got around that 28-year-old former Houston Aero Derek Boogaard, who spent several years in Houston before his promotion to the Minnesota Wild, had been found dead in his Minneapolis apartment that evening, the actual game of hockey did not seem so important.
Matt Hackett played perhaps the best game of his career on Friday night, stopping 38 of 39 shots and leading the Aeros to the 2-1 series opening win over Hamilton. But the sense of joy and jubilation in the arena was somewhat deflated.
Aeros forward Matt Kassian was drafted by the Wild to essentially take Boogaard's place, but though they were rivals, Kassian said that he was the ultimate gentleman.
"I can't say a bad word about him, or his family," Kassian said yesterday. "It's, obviously, it's really tragic and sad. It's always a wake-up call. You kind of look at yourself and you look at how fragile life is. There's almost nothing you can say about it. It just shocks you a little bit. I'm still thinking about it. Anytime I think about it, I just, kind of, man, it's a tough situation, and my heart just really breaks for him and his family and for his friends, too."
But the Aeros had more hockey to play, a game two rematch with the Bulldogs yesterday. And once again, the Aeros came out on top, pulling off a tough 3-2 win in a game that was somehow much, much closer than even what the final score indicated.
"They gave us what we were expecting tonight," Aeros head coach Mike Yeo said. "We knew that they were going to come out and be a desperate team. Certainly they were looking for the split, and they gave us all that we could handle tonight. I thought that special teams were a huge factor in the game for us. I thought our goaltending was very good. Both teams defended very well. Both teams did a nice job at both ends of the ice, getting to their game in the offensive zone, and then when it was time to defend they defended well. It was what we expected."
The game was scoreless after one period before the Aeros broke through with a Robbie Earl power play goal 3:16 into the second period. Hamilton was able to tie the score with 5:57 left in the second, but then Marco Scandella fired a laser of a shot from the point with 10 seconds remaining in the period to put the Aeros up 2-1 after two periods.
John Royal Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon celebrate Scandella's second period power play goal.
Colton Gillies, the team's leading playoff scorer, got the Aeros back on the board at the 5:10 mark of the third period when he seemed to fly across the crease and knock in the puck for the goal in a play that reminded some on press row of Bobby Orr's Stanley Cup Finals clinching flying goal against the St. Louis Blues in 1970.
"I don't know about that," Gillies said after the game. "That was just a really good play by [my] linemate Jed Ortmeyer. He had a hit in the neutral zone, went hard around the defenseman and then put [the puck] in a good spot for the rebound. I just went hard to the net."
Hamilton scored once again in the third, but the Aeros, behind the play of goalie Matt Hackett, were able to hold on for the victory. Hackett was thought to be the team's weakness coming into this series, especially after his problems in the previous series against Milwaukee. But he's been like a different player in the net so far.
"I think that game seven [in Milwaukee], he bounced back," Ortmeyer said on Friday night. "His confidence, you could see it in him. He was on the top of his crease. He was battling through traffic and getting to rebounds and making sure that he could see pucks. It was a big boost for him and for our team last series, and he played great [Friday]."
The series has been tough for the Aeros. The team appears to have lost forward Brett Bulmer for the series due to what appeared to be a serious knee injury he received on Friday night. And forward Carson McMillan was knocked out in the second period yesterday and did not return, and his status, as of last night, was unknown as the team was awaiting medical reports.
The teams are off today, but return to action for game three tomorrow night in Hamilton. Games four and five will be played on Wednesday and Friday in Hamilton, and they will return to Houston for games six and seven next Sunday and Tuesday, if needed. But the Aeros are 6-1 all-time in playoffs series when they jump off to a 2-0 series lead, and they're 2-0 in AHL playoff action.
And as for the family and friends of Derek Boogaard, our condolences. He will be missed by the fans in Houston who got to watch him play, but not, I'm sure, as much as he'll be missed by his family and those who knew him best.