The Houston Aeros are not the most skilled or talented of hockey teams. They win hockey games by playing smart, executing the fundamentals, and by not being stupid. Even then, they still struggle to pull off the win more often than not.
"It started off in the first period. We weren't ready to play," Corey Locke said after Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Peoria Rivermen. A loss which the Aeros might still have been able to avoid if Locke, who had pulled the Aeros back into the game by getting a goal to make it 3-2 at 16:11 of the third, hadn't committed a stupid penalty with a little over two minutes left in the game. A penalty which forced the Aeros to play most of the final two minutes of the game a man down and unable to pull goalie Nolan Schaefer for the extra attacker.
"I took a stupid penalty to put us down at the end," Locke said.
And coach Kevin Constantine was in full agreement with Locke. "I didn't like our lack of discipline at the end of the game," Constantine said.
But it wasn't just the lack of discipline at the end of the game that got to Constantine. He spoke of the team's play being awful, too cute, without an edge, and a team not playing to compete.
"I thought that after winning four games, we looked like a team that hoped going through the motions would be good enough," he said. "Without a real passion to do the work really necessary. They were hoping they wouldn't have to do that. I'll tell you where the real obvious problem was, our power play. That was awful. It was awful because the guys didn't want to work."
Saturday's loss was even more disappointing coming off of Friday's 5-2 victory over the Rivermen in which the Aeros only had to battle the Rivermen and not with their own demons. At the end of the second period on Friday night, John Scott got into a tussle with Peoria's Cam Paddock that was joined in mid-fight by Peoria's Jeff Cowan. After Scott finished off the both of them, he attempted to skate off the ice, only to be jumped by Peoria's Matt Foy, who came off the bench to attack Scott.
"I don't know what happened. They just all seemed to want to beat me," Scott said. "I didn't expect Foy to come off the bench. I don't know what he was thinking."
Friday's fight-filled win marked the fourth in a row for the Aeros, which made Saturday's loss even more disappointing seeing as how the team was on a roll and attempting to put some distance between themselves and their playoff competition.
A win Saturday night would have put the Aeros into sole possession of second place in the AHL's West Division. Instead, they find themselves in third place by mere percentage points with a record of 21-18-1-7 (50 points). The Rockford IceHogs are in second place with a record of 23-19-0-4 (50 points). The Aeros are a point up on the Iowa Chops who sit in fourth place with a record of 22-18-2-3 (49 points). Peoria is in fifth place with 48 points, and the AHL's defending Calder Cup champ Chicago Wolves are in sixth place with 47 points.
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Thirty of the Aeros remaining 33 games are within the division and against teams they'll be battling for playoff spots.
"There are no excuses," Kevin Constantine said. "We control our own destiny."
And it's a destiny that will be better controlled if the team doesn't make stupid errors and comes ready to compete. The more they come out fighting like Friday night, the better their odds. The more often they come out not ready to play, like they did Saturday night, then the worse their chances.
But it's all under their control.