In the end, it wasn't about the officiating. Or about whether Binghamton had tested the hockey gods by releasing the victory parade route plans hours before game six had even started. In the end, it probably wasn't even about the Aeros testing fate by having Eric Winston drop the puck and associating themselves with the cursed fortune of the Houston Texans.
John Royal Patrick O'Sullivan feels the weight of the world
In the end, it was all about the two best teams in the American Hockey League playing a game of hockey. And when it was all over, the best of the two teams was the Binghamton Senators who defeated the Aeros 3-2 in game six of the Calder Cup Finals before a crowd of 10,125 Aeros fans banging thundersticks and clanging cowbells at every opportunity to win the Cup and become the champions of the league.
In the end, it all came down to execution, and the Senators executed their offense just a touch better than the Aeros. And the Senators goalkeeping, behind 19-year rookie Robin Lehner, was exceptional, stopping multiple shots that most older, experienced goalies would have never gotten to.
"As much as I love to win, I think I hate to lose even more," head coach Mike Yeo said. "I wish it was a different outcome for a lot of reasons, but more than anything else, for the guys in that locker room. They poured their hearts and souls into this. I wish that they got what I believe that they deserve. But having said that, congratulations to Binghamton. They're definitely worthy champions. They're a tremendous team, and that was a great series. They're very deserving."
The Senators were more deserving last night as the two teams engaged in the best-played game of the series. The officiating was far improved from what it had been, and there was a flow to the game that had not been evident in any of the first five games of the series.
The Senators grabbed the 1-0 lead at 2:28 in the second period, but the Aeros tied it up at the 5:28 mark when team captain Jon DiSalvatore deflected a shot from Max Noreau past Lehner for a power play goal. The Aeros then grabbed the lead at the 11:20 mark when Jean-Michel Daoust, the star of Saturday's game five, tipped in a rebound of a shot on the power play to make it 2-1.
The Aeros maintained the lead until the 3:26 mark of the third period when Bobby Butler beat Matt Hackett to tie the score. And the Senators took the lead on a power play goal by team captain Ryan Keller at the 9:09 mark of the period. The Aeros fired away, keeping Lehner under pressure, but he wouldn't crack until finally, it was all over. The time was all gone. The season was over.
John Royal Jon DiSalvatore looks out over the crowd, the game lost
"This is not the time to sit here and say we should have done this, we should have done that," Yeo said. "This is a great season -- to think of where they come from this year, and what they've done. You can point to mistakes that players made in the game tonight, or in the series, or whatever. But without every one of those guys, we're not here, I'm not answering these questions, because those guys -- it's amazing what they did this year. I'm really impressed. This is as fun as I've ever had in the game. Not just as a coach, not just as a player, my time in the game. Working with these guys, and seeing what they've given. I wish for them more. That's all."
Looking at this team in mid-December, one would have never imagined the Aeros getting to game six in the Calder Cup Finals, fighting to the final seconds to send the game into overtime. Looking at this team in mid-December, one would have never been able to imagine this team even making the playoffs. But the team grew close, evolved, bought into what Mike Yeo was selling to them.
"It takes a special group of guys to get this spot," DiSalvatore said. "We overcame a lot this year. I can't say enough about this coaching staff, and these guys. And -- a quick time line. The travel we had to endure at times. Just really hard situations where we could have just given up, it would have been easy to give up, and we never did."
In the end, the Aeros became one of the best teams in the AHL. But in the end, becoming one of the best teams just wasn't good enough. Because becoming one of the best teams just isn't enough when you lose to the best team.
And last night, and for the past week, the best team in the league has been the Binghamton Senators. The Aeros played their best hockey in weeks last night. And the Senators took what the Aeros were dishing out and came out on top.
The Aeros will be a different team next year. Living life in the minors always means roster turnover, lots of roster turnover. But for those guys who'll be back, there's going to be this season, and the pain of losing. They may have lost to the best team in the AHL, but that's not going to make the pain any easier with which to live.