The first 40 minutes of last night’s game between the Aeros and Peoria Rivermen were disappointingly similar to last week’s two games against the Quad City Flames. The Aeros were facing a team trying to catch them for a playoff spot, and the Aeros were doing everything possible to let it happen.
The 3,346 fans in attendance at Toyota Center saw the Aeros down 2-0 to the Rivermen as the teams skated out to drop the puck to start the third period. At 1:12 of the third, Rivermen center Yan Stastny was sent to the penalty box for tripping, and the Aeros were on the power play. Aeros left wing Ryan Hamilton found himself standing in front of the net, and at 1:48 he rebounded defenseman Jon Awe’s slap shot into the net to make the score 2-1 Peoria.
The Aeros attacked the net the rest of the period, and they had several good shots at the net, but they couldn’t convert the chances into points. At the 17:43 mark of the third, Coach Kevin Constantine pulled goalie Barry Brust from the game and went on the attack with six skaters. And at 18:06, with the score still 2-1 and the Aeros on the full-out attack, Peoria left wing Chris Porter was sent to the penalty box, and the Aeros were on a six-on-four power play. They missed on several chances to tie the score, but at 19:16 of the third, Jon Awe, up at the top of the left face-off circle, fired a slap shot toward Peoria goalie Ben Bishop. Bishop blocked the shot, but Aeros right wing Joel Ward was positioned in just the right spot for the rebound, and just like that, the scored was knotted at 2-2.
“I just kind of got the puck and saw there was a lane open,” Ward said. “I just thought I would take it to the net and just try to make a small move and somehow it slid in, and I was pretty excited about that.”
Neither team scored in the overtime to send the game to the shoot-out. The first four Peoria players had their shots blocked by Brust. The first three Aeros also missed their shots, but then came skater number four, Shawn Belle.
“The boys were watching the goalie pretty good there,” Belle said. “They’re all telling me to go five-hole, so I just listened to the guys on the bench and got down there, and his five-hole was pretty wide open so I just shot there.”
The fifth Peoria skater missed his shot, and just like that, the Aeros had won their fourth straight game by a final score of 3-2.
“Good teams find ways to win,” Belle said. And win the Aeros did.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES:
After 69 games, the Aeros record is 39-25-2-3 (83 points). Last night’s game was important not only for the win, but because the Aeros leapfrogged cross-state rival San Antonio Rampage and moved into third place in the West Division.
San Antonio is now percentage points behind the Aeros with a record 36-24-3-7 (82 points). The Rockford IceHogs are in second place with a record of 38-21-4-6 (86 points). The fifth place team is now the Milwaukee Admirals at 38-27-3-2 (81 points). Peoria sits in sixth at 35-26-4-5 (79 points), and Quad City sits on the very edge of the playoff race at 33-28-2-7 (75 points).
If the Aeros can catch Rockford and finish in second place, they will have home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. But, winning streak aside, the danger of missing the playoffs is still very evident.
“We try not to look at the standings too much,” Joel Ward said after the game. “We’ve got to stick to the game plan and just winning games.”
“It’s close enough right now,” Coach Kevin Constantine said, that “anyone can catch us.”
Joel Ward is not happy with the way the team has been starting their games. “We’ve got to be better, and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “We’re fortunate to get two points. They played well tonight and they just came up short. Credit to us as well for just sticking with it and getting two points, but overall I feel we’ve got to get better.”
Ward has three goals in the last three games. Constantine feels this is due to Ward finally finding comfort with the offense. “I think it took him half-a-year to kind of put everything together and for him understand what we were trying to do,” Constantine said. “His poise, and confidence with the puck, has continued to grow.”
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On the injury front, there is no new news regarding defenseman Erik Reitz and goalie Nolan Schaefer, but Schaefer is itching to get back out on the ice under game conditions, though he acknowledges that a groin injury is perhaps one of the most difficult injuries a goalie can have.
And I’d like to thank the sound crew for retiring “How Soon Is Now?” and “The Final Countdown.” Though I’m not sure that “Zombie Nation” is much better.
The Aeros play at home against Peoria on Friday night, but after that, they have only two home games left, so whatever happens on this playoff run will be decided by how the team plays on the road for the rest of the season. The good news is that the team’s road record is 18-12-1-1. The bad news is that all of the games will be with teams either battling for a West Division playoff spot or for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
The Aeros can pull this off, but it’s not going to be easy. – John Royal