The Houston Aeros were down three games to none to the Manitoba Moose, and they were one game away from the end of their season. So yesterday morning, hours before their game with the Moose, I sought out Tony Hrkac, the grizzled old veteran who joined the team in March after four years of retirement.
"Obviously it's an uphill battle," Hrkac said. "But you don't look at the overall picture. You don't look at four games, because that's overwhelming. You look at one game, and that's all you can win at a time anyway. It's one game at a time. You can't play all four at once."
If anybody knew what he was talking about, it was Hrkac, a veteran of the NHL Stanley Cup and AHL Calder Cup playoff drives. He's played in the pressure games, and he knows what it's like to be facing elimination.
"You take it period by period," he says. "I know it's all of the old clichés, shift by shift, but our backs are against the wall so we have to take it like that. That's got to be our mentality. We've got to play our game. Play hard. Play smart. We really have to do things right because they're a good team. Any mistakes and we're done."
The Aeros came out last night and scored the first goal, only to give up two first period goals on mistakes. They were playing hard. But they weren't playing smart. And they were losing. So just maybe the old man knew what he was talking about.
The Aeros tied the game in the second period, but then committed a huge mistake just 25 seconds into the third period that not only allowed Manitoba to go up 3-2, but appeared to doom the Aeros chances of winning at least one game of the series. But if there's one thing that anybody's learned by watching the Aeros this season, then it's to never count this team out.
At 13:34 of the third period, Matt Beaudoin accepted a pass from Benoit Pouliot and moved into the slot where he fired a slap shot past Manitoba goalie Cory Schneider to tie the game. And about a minute later, Beaudoin got to the puck behind the Manitoba net and passed it back up to old man Hrkac who netted the goal to put the Aeros up 4-3. The excitement wasn't over however as, at 17:21 of the third, the Aeros let up a bit on defense and Manitoba tied the game, getting the puck past a badly out of position Anton Khudobin to tie the game at four.
And just like that, the Aeros were in overtime. And just like that, Nolan Schaefer was skating out to the Aeros goal to replace an injured Khudobin. And a cold goalie coming into a game in overtime is usually a worrisome sight for any team, much less a team like the Aeros which has been beset by goalie injuries for the last two months.
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"I just didn't want to let the team down," Schaefer said. 'I wanted to get in there and give them the chance to win, and I didn't even have to do that."
Schaefer didn't even have to do that because he never faced a shot as the Aeros came out for the overtime on the attack and just two minutes in, Matt Beaudoin scored his second goal of the night to give the Aeros the 5-4 win and keep the series alive.
"Obviously that wasn't our plan," Hrkac said after the game. "We wanted to keep the lead. But this team has faced adversity all throughout the playoffs. We've been behind a lot in the second and third. We came back tonight. We fought hard. We tied it then they went up. We came out in the third with a bad shift and they scored to go up 3-2. We knew our backs were against the wall. Then we got a nice goal and another goal. We let up in the last couple of minutes and let them score, but we came out in the overtime and gave ourselves another chance."
Another chance which will come in the form of a Game Five at Toyota Center on Friday night at 7:35.