It's hard being a fan of Houston's professional sports teams. The Houston Astros suck. The Houston Rockets just failed to make the playoffs. Again. The Houston Texans are the Houston Texans, which means that a lockout and no season would actually be a blessing. And the Dynamo, as is befitting a team from Houston, are in last place.
John Royal Aeros head coach Mike Yeo and assistant coach Darryl Sydor oversee Thursday's practice.
But don't despair. There's still hope. There is still one professional sports team in Houston of which the city can be proud. One team that will not only be going into the playoffs, but which actually has a chance to advance in the playoffs. That's right, with just one game left in the AHL's regular season, the Houston Aeros are guaranteed to go into the playoffs with a record of 45-28-1-5 (96 points), and they currently sit in second place in the toughest division in the league.
The Aeros will end their regular season in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion on Sunday afternoon when they host the Oklahoma City Barons at Toyota Center. The team is guaranteed a playoff spot, and many of the team's key players, including First Team All-AHL defenseman Max Noreau, are currently up with the parent club Minnesota Wild as the Wild battles illness and injury while limping to an end of a season that for them ends on Sunday.
The Aeros have not played a game since last Saturday, a win over the division rival Chicago Wolves that found, hopefully, the Aeros getting back on the right track after a multi-week period that had found the team struggling to play its game. The defense appeared to be falling apart, the offense wasn't clicking and the team appeared to be in a bit of disarray. But with the playoffs coming next week, team captain Jon DiSalvatore thinks the team has righted itself.
"I think that what was happening was that they were just getting focused on some of the numbers games -- there's been a lot of numbers crunching that goes along with being in such a tight division, we kind of looked at some of those, and maybe made some of those the focus instead of the process and the fundamentals of our game that we needed to get to," he said after the team's practice yesterday. "I think the last two games of the weekend we did that. The game in Milwaukee [a loss], we had a really solid start, and I think we were really happy with the start and it just kind of fell apart for us a little bit, but then we really pulled it together in Chicago, and got us to a place we're really happy with going into this week and going forward."
The man guiding the Aeros as they enter this playoff journey is first-year head coach Mike Yeo. Yeo, a former captain of the Aeros, came to the team from the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, where he had been an assistant coach on one of that league's best franchises.
John Royal Mike Yeo watches as his team skates laps around their practice rink.
Yeo takes part of the blame for the team's play the last several weeks. He shifted their focus from the process of playing the game, of going out and winning each shift, and got them thinking on winning the games and looking down the road. And that, he claims, is the wrong thing upon which to focus.
"When we were playing those games [last week], we were thinking about winning and getting points," he said yesterday. "If the other team scored first, or we got a bad call in the second period, it really took us off our game and we lost our focus from there. But if we just concentrate on the focus, and the process as we like to say, and the next shift and the next guy just going out and doing it the right way, we found it a lot easier to get back to our game."
While the Aeros know they'll be in the playoffs starting next week, what they don't yet know is who they'll be playing, where they'll be playing, or what their seeding in the playoffs will be. There's still a slight chance that the Aeros will finish with the best record in the Western Conference, which would guarantee them home ice throughout the playoffs. But it appears that the Aeros will finish in second place, which gives them home ice for at least the first round.
But still, if the Aeros aren't confident as to who they'll be facing, they can probably answer most of those questions by just going out on the ice and defeating Oklahoma City to end the regular season on Sunday.
So forget about the Astros, the Texans, the Rockets, the Dynamo. There's still one team in this city that can be called a success. And the Aeros are starting their playoff push.
MISCELLANEOUS NOTE: The Aeros have announced that, if they're the home team next week, and facing the Texas Stars, then the first two home games will be next Wednesday and Friday.