The Houston Aeros got off to a sluggish start last night. And for the entire first period, the 7,274 fans in attendance could be forgiven for thinking that they were watching a bunch of guys so stuffed with Christmas turkey that they couldn’t lift their feet in order to move their skates.
Then came the second period when Aeros center Steve Kelly decided to take command. Working his cross-ice, Kelly found himself in front of the goalie where he slipped in a shot from his backhand side into the net to put the Aeros up 1-0.
“I took it to the goal on my backhand and it found the net,” Kelly said. “A lot of goalies don’t know where the puck’s going to go on the backhand.”
As to the slow start, Kelly said after the game that both teams had been eating turkey for three days, so the play was going to be a little sluggish.
The Aeros recovered from their sluggishness. The San Antonio Rampage did not. The Rampage would keep the game at 1-0 for most of the period, but with 2.8 seconds left in the second, and with the Aeros just having come off of a power play, center Adrian Foster slipped free on a breakaway, passed cross-ice to left wing Peter Olvecky, and Olvecky passed the back to right wing Benoit Pouliot whose shot cleared the goalie to put the Aeros up 2-0.
While the Aeros struggled offensively for the first part of the game, goalie Nolan Schaefer continued with his superb play between the pipes, blocking 26 shots for his second consecutive shut-out.
Being the good teammate, Schaefer deflected the credit after the game. “The guys are playing great,” he said. “Just give credit to the forwards and defense. It was a great team effort.” But Steve Kelly wasn’t willing to let Schaefer deflect the credit: “Schaef’s been playing unbelievable,” he said after the game.
Coach Kevin Constantine was also willing to give credit where credit was due. Schaefer’s “just been really really steady for us the last month,” he said.
And Constantine said Schaefer’s play was more impressive given the nature of last night’s game. “Sometimes when there are lulls, if your team’s not giving up a lot of chances, sometimes those are harder games to play. We played up in Iowa and there was a steady barrage of shots on him. Then the last two games we’ve not been giving up a lot, but sometimes for the goalie it’s hard to stay in the game and stay focused.”
So with Schaefer’s steady play, and Kelly’s effort, the Aeros stuffed the Rampage and ended their 2007 home schedule on a high note.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES:
The Aeros are now 4-1 against the Rampage this season, having won three straight.
Steve Kelly has scored in the Aeros’ last five games, including two goals and three assists. Benoit Pouliot has been just as hot with seven points in his last eight games, including four goals and three assists. But speaking of hot streaks, Nolan Schaefer has two straight shut-outs with a total of three shut-outs for the season and 11 shut-outs for his AHL career. He’s now gone 131:44 minutes without giving up a goal.
In baseball, when a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, the rest of the team does not disturb the pitcher for fear of jinxing the game. While not as severe, hockey players have their own rituals when a goalie’s got a shut-out going. “They don’t ignore me,” Schaefer said. “They talk to me the same, but I don’t think you’re supposed to say the word “shutout.’ That might jinx it.”
Only three teams have allowed fewer goals than the Aeros this season. And they have a 13-0 record when allowing two or fewer goals in a game.
With last night’s victory, the Aeros are now 16-12-1-2 on the season, and they have moved into fifth place in the AHL’s West Division of the Western Conference. The Aeros also extended their undefeated home streak to ten games (9-0-0-1). They have not lost at the Toyota Center in regulation since October 30, 2007.
“We’re really comfortable when we come home,” Schaefer said. “We know our own ice and we get great crowd support. It gets us excited for every game.”
But the Aeros are back on the road to finish out 2007 and to start 2008, and of all of the bizarre road trips, the trip the Aeros are going on might be one of the most bizarre of all road trips. The Aeros will be playing four games in five days while staying in six different hotels. The action gets underway on Saturday night with the Aeros in Quad City taking on the Flames. The Aeros will fly home to Houston on Sunday, and then take the bus to San Antonio for a game with the Rampage. The Aeros will then bus back to Houston, stay in the Sheraton at the airport, then fly to Chicago where they will bus to Des Moines for a New Year’s Eve game in Des Moines with the Stars. Then the Aeros will bus to Peoria, Illinois for a New Year’s game with the Peoria Rivermen before returning home to Houston.
“It’s just an awful trip,” Steve Kelly said. “To tell you the truth, I can’t believe the league even scheduled something like this. It’s pretty ridiculous. I’ve never seen anything like it before. But it’s there, so you suck it up. You get all the rest you can on the buses and the hotels.”
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“We go [to Quad Cities] and come back to here to bus to San Antonio. It’s a wild trip, all based on explainable reasons to anybody but a player,” Coach Constantine said. But “that’s what the schedule is so we’ve got to go try to figure out a way to try and keep this thing going if we can.”
To make things even more bizarre, the Aeros also find themselves caught up in matters of national politics. They normally stay in a hotel across the street from Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. But this trip, the hotel is booked out for the Iowa caucuses, so the Aeros will be staying in a hotel 20 minutes outside of Des Moines.
Center Serge Payer’s left hand was injured in the third period of last night’s game. But Coach Constantine was not sure of his status for the road trip, though Payer did return to the bench and was available to play if needed.
The Aeros next home game is Friday, January 4, 2008, against the Iowa Stars. This will be the first of eight home games in January. Besides the New Year’s game against Peoria, the Aeros have only one other road game in January, a Friday, January 11, contest in San Antonio against the Rampage. – John Royal