Photo by John Royal Darcy Kuemper with a save.
The Aeros got to the game one victory on Friday night behind the superb play of second-year goalie Darcy Kuemper, who blocked all 36 Grand Rapids shots in the Aeros 3-0 win. But the Aeros, who played perhaps their best all-around team game of the season on Friday night, failed to show for much of yesterday's 3-2 game two loss.
"We didn't come out at all," head coach John Torchetti said. "We finally played the last seven minutes of the [third] period. Kuemper did a great job of keeping us in it. I've got to do a better job of keeping us focused, I guess, because we certainly didn't show up."
The Aeros who played on Friday night played a spectacular game, forcing the action, and playing to win. The team was aggressive, hard hitting, and kept the Griffins off balance while Kuemper seemingly shrugged off every shot like it was just some fly bugging him on a lazy summer afternoon.
But yesterday, the team appeared to be playing not to lose. The Griffins forced the action, kept firing the puck toward Kuemper, and knocked the Aeros all over the ice. The team finally put forth some effort in the last minutes of the third period, scoring two goals in the final minutes of the game, and having a prime opportunity to tie it all up in the final seconds, but it was too little too late, and if not for Kuemper they wouldn't have had the chance at all.
"I thought we were still in the game," Torchetti said. "We didn't deserve any part of this game, but we were still in the game."
This was only one defeat, but the first round of the AHL playoffs is a best of five series, and the final three games will be played later this week in Grand Rapids. So after Friday's win, the Aeros were in prime position to deliver a critical punch to the gut of the favored Griffins. Instead, the Aeros, a team with no future in Houston, is now on life support, its last legs giving way in a lackluster effort made even more maddening and disappointing by Friday's victory.
But if this weekend was the last ever weekend of the Houston Aeros, if there are no more playoff games at Toyota Center, then the Aeros fans did get to see birth to the legend of Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper, playing in his first ever professional playoff games this weekend, was superb. That he was superb shouldn't have been too unexpected for the Aeros fans that have seen him play hockey the past several seasons. But what was surprising was the matter of Kuemper's play, a calm, smooth style that reflected no hint of nervousness and hinted at a kid on the verge of bursting into a full-blown NHL superstar.
"He keeps things calm for us," Torchetti said of Kuemper on Friday night. "He didn't give a lot of rebounds, which is a big plus for us and makes our job a little bit easier."
To the 22-year old Kuemper, it's all just another day on the job. He doesn't want to let down his teammates, so he works on his focus, tries to make himself big in the net - at 6-4, 212 pounds that's not too hard - and just uses his past experiences to carry him through big moments. Big moments like a first ever professional playoff game.
"I played quite a few playoffs games in juniors, a lot of games in juniors," Kuemper said on Friday. "I just always try to touch back on those experiences, recall those memories, what went well, what didn't, and use those to just play my game out there."
What went well for Darcy Kuemper this past weekend was everything, much as everything's gone right for him this season, only now on the bigger stage of the playoffs. He guided the team to victory on Friday, and kept them in a game yesterday when they should have been blown out.
If the Aeros can win two of three games this week in Grand Rapids, then the team will have more hockey to play in Toyota Center before it's all said and done. But if this weekend was it, perhaps the fans should focus not on yesterday's loss but instead look back with fondness on Darcy Kuemper and remember a young player reaching for the stars. It won't erase the bitterness of the team's departure, but perhaps it will ease the sting just a tiny bit.