“It should be an interesting finish to the season,” Coach Kevin Constantine said from his office following Saturday night’s Houston Aeros 3-2 victory over the Milwaukee Admirals before a season-high Toyota Center attendance of 11,831.
“In our situation, we’ve got to just win,” Joel Ward said. “We can’t control what other teams do.”
The situation coming into the next game was this: The Aeros, the Admirals and the San Antonio Rampage were all tied for third place of the West Division, and all had one game left. The Rockford IceHogs, also with one game remaining, were a mere two points ahead. If the Aeros were to lose, they would be either the fourth-seeded team in the West, opening the AHL playoffs in Chicago against the Wolves, an offensive machine, or they would be the fifth-seeded team, playing the North Division champs Toronto Marlies, another offensive machine.
Were the Aeros to win, they would be guaranteed the third-seed, no matter what San Antonio did, and if the IceHogs were to lose, the Aeros would become the second-seed with home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
If. If. If.
The Aeros had only themselves to blame for this situation of coming down to the last game of the year without knowing their position in the playoffs. They’d lost 1-0 to the Quad City Flames on Wednesday night, and they had lost to 3-2 to the Admirals on Friday night. Win any of these games and they’d be tied with Rockford with 96 points. And since the Aeros would have actually had more wins than Rockford – which is the first tiebreaker – it would have been the Aeros the other teams were trying to catch.
But the Aeros don’t do things the easy way. That’s why they had to go to a shootout on Sunday afternoon against Milwaukee before sealing the 3-2 win before 9,739 fans and getting the third seed.
“It was almost appropriate, the way us and [Milwaukee] played in the last month that it ended up in a shootout,” Constantine said Sunday night. “It was almost fitting that it ended up that way.”
The Admirals grabbed the quick lead, scoring 1:32 into the game as center Mike Santorelli got the puck past goalie Nolan Schaefer for the score. But the Aeros struck back at 10:58 of the first as right wing Joel Ward fired the rebound of a Serge Payer shot past Milwaukee goalie Pekka Rinne to knot the score at 1-1. Then, at 15:20 of the first, left wing Colton Gillies fired a cross-ice pass to right wing Milan Gajic who stuffed the puck past Rinne for a power play goal and the 2-1 lead. Milwaukee battled back and tied the score on the power play at 5:15 of the second. And that’s where things stood for the next 39 minutes and 45 seconds of play.
“I felt a little rusty out there tonight,” Schaefer said after the game. “I finally settled in the third period. Thanks to the guys…I’m just really happy that they came out to play tonight.”
With the score still 2-2 after overtime, the game went to the shoot-out. At this point, the Rockford game had ended in a Rockford victory and the two teams were playing for the third seed. After Santorelli missed on his shot, Gajic got the puck past Rinne to put the Aeros up 1-0 in the best of five shots shootout. Milwaukee left wing John Vigilante got his shot past Schaefer, and center Steve Kelly missed his shot. Admirals right wing Matt Ellison missed his shot and in came defenseman Shawn Belle for the Aeros. Belle, who seems to have a special ability to find the net on the shootout, put the Aeros up 2-1 after three skaters.
"I can’t really explain it,” Belle said. “Most times, if I go down on a rush, I can’t score. When it comes down to it, I just take the [the Aeros] goalies advice on where to shoot and just kind of watch [the opposing goalie] and have a plan when I go down.”
Milwaukee defenseman Janne Niskala missed his attempt and it came down to one shot. If Aeros center Morton Madsen could make his, the game would be over. If he missed, each team would have another. But Madsen didn’t let that happen, pulling a pretty stop-and-go move that froze Rinne long enough for Madsen’s shot to get into the net for the victory.
“It’s kind of my move to go first and fake a shot then go back and forward,” Madsen said. “I know if I do that the goalie will freeze for a second, so that’s why I do it.”
The game over, the players mobbed Madsen on the ice, then retreated to the locker room for a little celebration. “It was a good finish,” Constantine said from his office.
It was a good finish indeed.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
The Aeros finished the season with a record of 45-29-2-4 (96 points). They finished in third place in the West Division, and they will be facing the Rockford IceHogs in the first round of the playoffs.
Rockford will have the home-ice advantage, and the first two games will be played in Rockford on Friday and Saturday. Games three through five will be in Houston, but they do not yet know when those games will be held, as the Houston Rockets control the dates in Toyota Center, and their playoff schedule is not yet known. The current thinking is that the Aeros home playoff games will be held next week, sometime between Monday and Friday.
******************* As to the team’s health situation, Constantine was pretty honest: “We’re banged up. We’ve gotten banged up in the past month.” Ryan Hamilton was injured during Saturday’s game. Steve Kelly was injured while up with Minnesota. Marco Rosa, Adrian Foster, Peter Kalus and Clayton Stoner are also injured. Kelly and Stoner managed to play Sunday, but are still day-to-day, and Constantine is hopeful that all of the others will be available come Friday.
******************** The Aeros finished the season having surrendered only 183 goals, the lowest amount in the AHL. As a result of being the league’s best defensive team, the Aeros were awarded the Harry “Hap” Holmes Award for team goaltending.
The award “feels great,” Schaefer said after Sunday’s game. “You’ve got to give credit to the whole team. It’s really a team accolade. It’s something we’re all proud of in here and we really worked for it this season.”
Shawn Belle agreed: “It was pretty important to us to get that ‘goals against’ trophy.”
Constantine said the team set that as a goal about five games ago, when they realized it was within reach.
Rookie Colton Gillies, playing in only his tenth game, got his first goal AHL goal Saturday night as he scored at 6:09 of the first period to put the Aeros up 1-0.
Joel Ward continued on his hot streak, contributing three goals over the weekend. Ward also finished as the team’s leading scorer, netting 21 goals to go along with 20 assists. “I just try to make the best of my opportunities to shoot the puck,” Ward said Sunday.
********************* The Aeros are facing Rockford in the first round. They faced each six times during the regular season, with each team winning three games. The Aeros won two of the three games that were played in Rockford.
“It’s going to be a physical series,” Belle said.
“They’re a really good team,” Schaefer said. “They’ve got lots of skills, but if we stick to the game plan we should be all right. I faced them last year when I was with Norfolk, and they’ve got a lot of the same players, so I kind of know what to expect, as a goalie, going into the series.”
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And Morten Madsen seemed happy at the thought of taking on the IceHogs: “We get to play Rockford in the playoffs which is pretty good for us.”
Joel Ward summed up the upcoming series thusly: “They’ve got a great team over there. We know what we’re coming up against.”
Rockford finished the season at 44-26-4-6 (98 points). They were 23-14-1-2 at home and 21-12-3-4 on the road. The Aeros finished up 23-14-1-2 at home and 22-15-1-2 on the road. Rockford scored 247 points on the season compared to the Aeros 205, but the Aeros only allowed 183 points compared to Rockford’s 231.
It should make for a good series. – John Royal