Before Saturday night’s 4-1 Houston Aeros victory over the Manitoba Moose in front of 8,178 fans at the Toyota Center, Aeros general manager Tom Lynn said the team’s “challenge is to show they are a good team in this league. To win the tough games. To compete against the top teams and beat them.”
The Aeros were tied in the playoffs standings with the Moose, so the Moose were one of those teams against which the Aeros had to win the tough games. And Saturday night was a tough game. It was physical. It was rough. And on the part of the Moose, it was dirty. Especially when, with just over three minutes left in the first period, Manitoba defenseman Zach FitzGerald decided to slam the head of Aeros defenseman Erik Reitz into the ice.
Enter Aeros defenseman John Scott who, at 6'8", towered over the 6'1" FitzGerald, and who proceeded to set things straight and avenged his fallen teammate. “I turned around and saw him sucker Reitz, and Reitz went down,” he said. “FitzGerald was looking for something there. I had to go after him...it felt pretty good.”
Reitz missed the rest of the game. Scott would be assessed a total of 17 minutes worth of penalties, which kept him out for most of the second period, and early in the second period, defenseman Maxim Noreau was sent out for fighting and missed most of the period. This left a tired team playing its third game in three days with only three defensemen for most of the period, and the team struggled.
“We lost Erik. Then lost John Scott for minutes,” Coach Kevin Constantine said after the game. “Then lost Noreau to a fight and we’re down to three [defensemen] which really tired out our defense. We were kind of holding on for a bit in the second period.”
Luckily for the Aeros, by the time the carnage started at the end of the first, the team was already up by a score of 3-0. Left wing Peter Olvecky started the scoring at 5:42, knocking in the rebound of a Jon Awe slap shot from the blue line on a power play. The team’s second goal came at 12:02 of the first, when defenseman Brandon Rogers fired another slap shot toward the net, which right wing Cal Clutterbuck deflected toward left wing Ryan Hamilton, who was standing in the front of the net and was able to tip in the puck for the 2-0 lead. And at 16:18 of the first, only seconds before Reitz would be sent out of the game, right wing Petr Kalus stole the puck, fed it to Olvecky, who led a pass to center Steve Kelly, who sunk the puck into the net for the 3-0 first period advantage.
Scott said the Moose planned the rough stuff after the Aeros took the lead: “They kind of changed their game to try to get in our heads.” And Constantine agreed with this assessment: “I think that’s what they wanted to do tonight, was get us off our game. It almost worked.” But Scott handled matters with his fist, and the Moose did not get into the Aeros’s heads. However, with the players in the penalty box and the guys tired, the team had to fall back on their standard stand-by, spectacular work in the goal.
All-Star Nolan Schaefer sat this game out for the Aeros, but his back-up, Barry Brust, faced a barrage of shots, in all, and let in only one. Schaefer was proud of his teammate, who hadn't played since a December 29 loss to San Antonio. "A great game. It's really tough when you don't get in the rotation for awhile....He made some big saves when had to."
Also, as is the standard thing with the Aeros goalies, Brust refused to take full credit for the game, stating primarily that he was glad December was over “because I struggled in December.” He credited his coaches for giving him the extra practice and prep work during the week. “I just focused on the little things I could control,” he said after the game. “And the boys obviously did a great job in front of me.”
But to Constantine, the key to the night’s victory was Brust. “I thought he made three saves when the score was 0-0 that were game changing,” he said from the locker room. “Without those saves we’re behind... He allowed us to get to a goal and get untracked and then was solid all night which is very, very hard to do when you haven't played as a goalie because you aren't in a rhythm at all. To have that much time off and do that good is a spectacular job by him.”
The game’s final goal came 8:56 into the third period when left wing Benoit Pouliot scored on a breakaway to ice the game at 4-1.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES:
Here's a little look into just how spectacular Brust’s night was. The Aeros were out shot 40-20, yet Brust allowed only one goal. The Aeros had ten shots in the first period, converting three of those into goals. They had just ten more shots the entire game. The Moose had ten shots in the first period, yet Brust was hit with a barrage of 30 shots in the final two periods.
The Aeros have not lost a game in regulation at Toyota Center since November 2nd.
Despite the Aeros being 5-1-0-0 for January, the team has failed to gain much ground in the West Division. They’re tied with the San Antonio Rampage for fourth place in the west with 47 points. They are only two points behind the third place Peoria Rivermen, but they are only five points in front of the last place Iowa Stars. All teams in the West Division are at .500 or better for the season.
When asked on Saturday night about being selected to the AHL All-Star Game, Schaefer said, “I'm proud. It's a great credit to our team when a goalie gets recognized. I'm really proud. It's my first time. I'm excited. I can't wait.”
I sat next to Aeros GM Tom Lynn for most of the night. Lynn is also the assistant GM of the Minnesota Wild, the Aeros parent club. I asked him about the sale of the Wild (and the Aeros) on Thursday, and he said it’s business as usual. “The new owner is buying the team because he likes the way it’s run,” Lynn said. “The immediate short term thing is to keep doing what we're doing because he likes it.”
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As to how the team looks after the halfway point of the season, Lynn says that “they're playing like we wanted them to play....They're playing the right way.”
As to Erik Reitz, Constantine said that he was held out of the rest of the game as a matter of precaution. The team had the lead and didn't see the need to risk further injury to the All-Star defenseman.
The Aeros are finished with the Moose for this season, and they went 4-0 against Manitoba. Center Steve Kelly scored a goal in all four games, and his goal Saturday was his tenth of the season. Kelly is the first Aero of the season to get ten goals, and the Aeros were the last team in the AHL to have a scorer reach ten goals.
The Aeros next game is Friday night,. at the Toyota Center, against the Toronto Marlies, one of those top teams of the AHL that Lynn wants to see the Aeros to beat. The Aeros then play the Hamilton Bulldogs on Sunday afternoon. The Hamilton game will be the last time this regular season that a Canadian team will visit the Toyota Center. – John Royal