The Houston Aeros always celebrate three star players at the end of every game. Friday night, two of the stars were undoubtedly goalie Barry Brust and left wing Ryan Hamilton. The third pick was Adrian Foster, but the true star of the game, in my opinion, was a guy who happened to be on the bench at a time when the game threatened to turn into an on-ice riot.
The Aeros were up 1-0 with 12 seconds remaining in the game. The Hartford Wolf Pack had six skaters on the ice, and all of these skaters converged on Aeros goalie Barry Brust. Brust was able to block the shot, but various Hartford players slammed into Brust as referee Jeff Smith blew the whistle stopping play. Players from both teams were pushing and shoving when suddenly Hartford left wing Dane Byers pulled Aeros left wing Benoit Pouliot from the pack, yanked Pouliot’s helmet from his head, then repeatedly shoved Pouliot’s unprotected head into the ice. Time. And time again.
As a linesman stood over Byers and allowed the pummeling to continue, Aeros right wing Cal Clutterbuck made a move to leap over the retaining wall and head toward the action. That’s when center Steve Kelly grabbed Clutterbuck and pulled him back to the bench, keeping him there as the action on the ice slowly calmed.
While Clutterbuck’s desire to come to the aid of his teammate was admirable, Kelly’s actions with Clutterbuck kept the on-ice melee from escalating into something that could have possibly been far more dangerous.
As Coach Kevin Constantine said after Friday’s game, “When you’re up a goal, you’re trying to be smart. Because you don’t want to do anything that will jeopardize that one-goal lead.”
So Brust and Hamilton aside, the star of the game was Steve Kelly. The seasoned, ten-year veteran kept his head, made sure his teammate stayed out of the trouble and prevented a possible bench-clearing brawl. With 12 seconds still on the clock, it’s possible a fired-up Hartford team could have found away to get the puck past Brust and into the goal. As it was, the fired-up Aeros rallied around their fallen teammate and preserved the victory.
Friday’s lone goal came at 9:25 in the first period when Hamilton found himself checked to the ice. As the shot from Marco Rosa rebounded past the goalie, Hamilton, on his knees and facing in the opposite direction, was able to get his stick on the puck and push it behind him and into the open net, bringing the crowd of 6,718 to their feet.
Brust, making his sixth straight start, got his third shut-out in his last four games, stopping all 23 shots that came his way. “I don’t think it’s really anything that I do,” he said after the game. “It’s just the boys battening down the hatches.”
Hamilton disagreed, saying “Brust played great.” And Constantine agreed with Hamilton, saying “It’s impossible for a goalie to get a shutout without him having done an A-plus job.”
As for the game’s only goal, “We always want to come out and have a good start,” Hamilton said. “It was huge. And it turned out to be the game-winning goal.”
Now, with the one of the best teams of the Eastern Conference out of the way, the Aeros were ready to take a break by facing the Rochester Americans, one of that conference’s dregs.
But dregs or not, the Americans gave the Aeros a contest, and the team needed a goal from Pouliot, with eight seconds remaining in overtime to give the Aeros the 3-2 victory before 4,596 fans on Sunday afternoon. Brust, once again, got the victory, his seventh straight, by stopping 26 of 28 shots. Hamilton scored the Aeros’ first goal, with four seconds remaining in the second period. That’s his third goal in three games.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
Friday’s game was a rather brutal affair though very few penalties were called. And most of that action took place in front of Brust: “[Hartford] crashed the net pretty hard. And I got a hit a couple of times. But I kind of like that sometimes. It gets me into the game mentally.”
But the physical nature of the Friday game could have led to the melee at the end of the game. And while it could be argued that the officiating was rather piss poor, and I’ll gladly make that argument. Coach Constantine had a bit of a differing view: “I really think [referee Jeff Smith is] consistent. He lets you play more than some other referees. I do appreciate his consistency.”
Constantine, and Brust, felt the bigger problem was an illness that affected one of the linesman, forcing him to miss the third period. “I think minus a linesman was as a big factor as anything,” Constantine said. “One less set of eyes to keep an eye on things.”
My star of Friday’s game, Steve Kelly, was called up to the parent Minnesota Wild Saturday night. Kelly will be replacing Wild center Eric Belanger, who was injured in the Wild’s Friday night loss. Kelly was replaced on the roster by right wing Troy Riddle.
Defenseman Maxim Noreau, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime on Tuesday night, did so on a broken foot which also had a high-ankle sprain. Noreau said Friday night that he didn’t realize the extent of the injury because of the tightness of his skate.
Barry Brust has stopped 136 of his last 140 shots, and the three shutouts for the Aeros in the last five games is the team’s best stretch since they had three straight shutouts in December of 1996. The goalies have allowed only 139 goals this season, the best in the AHL. The Aeros have also killed the last 46 penalties, and have not even allowed a power play goal in their last nine games. They have allowed only nine goals in their last seven games.
There was a change in some stats I gave after Wednesday’s game. After rechecking the numbers, the Aeros press staff informed us that Brust’s shutout streak actually lasted for 190:29, which was 3:08 short of the mark set by Frederic Chabot in 1996.
The team’s seven straight wins is also its best stretch since winning eight straight in December of 2005.
The Aeros are now 26-3-1-2 when scoring first in the game. They are 25-1-0-1 when holding the opponent to less than 3 goals. And they are 24-1-0-1 when leading after two periods. They are also 9-1-0-1 when Hamilton scores. “It’s nice to score some goals and contribute to the team,” Hamilton said Friday night. The team is also 12-2-3 when taking a game into overtime.
The Aeros, at 34-22-2-3 (73 points), now have 19 games left in the season, and all of the remaining games are with teams they are battling for playoff spots. Constantine claims the only way to handle the pressure the Aeros are now under is “to spend 80 percent of our attention on today. Today’s practice. Today’s game. Today’s shift. The first period….I know it sounds like a cliché, but we really are trying to stay in the present. Play day to day. Game to game.”
The Aeros are tied with the Milwaukee Admirals for the fourth spot in the West Division and would be in the playoffs, as they have more points than the fourth place team in the North Division.
The Aeros next play on Thursday night when they face the Rockford IceHogs at 7:05 p.m. at the Toyota Center. – John Royal