With the end of the regular season fast approaching, the Houston Aeros chose last week to play some of their best hockey of the past month, defeating the Grand Rapids Griffins, one of the AHL's best teams, by a 2-1 margin on Thursday night. And though they played an error-filled game on Saturday night, they were still able to hang on to defeat division rival Chicago Wolves 3-1.
The Aeros have 17 games now left in the season, and except for one game with the Lake Erie Monsters, every remaining game is against a division rival that will determine if the Aeros make the playoffs or not.
The key to both victories was the play in the crease of goalie Nolan Schaefer who stopped nearly shot he faced. The most difficult of the games for Schaefer was Saturday night during a game that found excessively hot on-ice temperatures interfering with the game action, especially the play of Schaefer.
"It was pretty hot. It might have been hotter than it was outside. It was pretty warm on the ice and the puck was bouncing everywhere," Schaefer said after Saturday's game. "You have to be focused a bit more...because the puck's bound to jump up on you."
The bad ice also affected the skaters. The Aeros game winning goal on Saturday came 38 seconds when Krys Kolanos got behind the Chicago defense and found himself with the puck and heading toward the Chicago goal. Only it was like watching a guy try to run in wet cement, so bad was the ice. As it was, Kolanos still got a shot, and after it was blocked, he was in just the right position to knock the puck off of his body and into the net.
"It went off my body. I saw it, and I didn't want to use my hand, so I just kept moving towards the net. I just skated into it," Kolanos said. And Kolanos gave the credit for the goal to his teammates, especially Marco Rosa. "It was just good vision by Rosa to see me breaking. I laid a hit on [Chicago defenseman Jason Rivers], and he wasn't able to recover. And I saw the lane and I was able to just shoot out, and Rosa put it right on my skate. You couldn't have asked for a better pass."
And the Aeros played perhaps their best game in a month when defeating Grand Rapids on Thursday in a win that came about when Jesse Schultz got the game winning goal on a lucky puck bounce.
"I didn't want to turn it over," Schultz said. "I just tried to go to the middle and throw it on net. I saw [teammate John] Lammers going to the net, and really it was just a lucky bounce. It [the puck] never got there. I think it hit Lammers' skate and it came back to me and I saw the goalie go down so I just tried to out wait him and go to my back hand."
Coach Kevin Constantine attributed that the win, and the team's superior play on Thursday, to fear of Grand Rapids.
"It is fairly common that you will be a better player when you are somewhat fearful of, and respectful of, how good the other team can be," Constantine said Thursday. "Fear is generally a pretty good motivator, and fear of another team being able to thump you, sometimes you rise to the level of that competition."
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SOME MISCELLANEOUS AEROS NOTES:
For any of you who read my bit about Kurtis Foster several weeks ago, you might be happy to discover that Foster played his first NHL game in nearly a year on Saturday afternoon. Foster, who still quite isn't in NHL playing condition was forced into action through injury and illness on Saturday.
****************** Jesse Schultz' goal on Thursday night was his 20th goal of the season. That gives the Aeros three 20-goal scorers as he joined Krys Kolanos with 22 and Corey Locke with 20. The last time the Aeros had more than two skaters with 20-plus goals for a season was in the 2005-2006 season.
****************** The Aeros head into this week in second place in the AHL's West Division, and they are one point up on the third place Rockford IceHogs and three points ahead of the fourth place Chicago Wolves. The Aeros four games in the next seven days, starting tomorrow night at Toyota Center against the Quad City Flames. They also play the Flames in Toyota Center on Friday night, then they play the San Antonio Rampage in San Antonio on Saturday night before closing out the stretch on Sunday with an afternoon game in Toyota Center against Rockford.