Let's hear it for the Houston Aeros. The team appeared doomed by a difficult December schedule that found them playing nearly every other day, with most of the games on the road, while traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Canada. They dropped in the standings, suffered injuries and, at times, just appeared to be beaten down.
John Royal Max Noreau leads the team onto the ice Saturday night
Things change. And after this weekend, when they won two of three games and lost the third in a shootout yesterday, that change has definitely been for the better.
They got a break over Christmas. They rested up, got healthy, got some additional players. And this month they've been like a new team. Aggressive, attacking. Taking early leads, applying pressure. The Aeros are 6-1-0-1 in January. They've won four of their last five, five of their last seven, six of their last eight, seven of their last 11.
The streak has pushed their record to 24-18-1-3 and has put them back into the heart of the playoff race. They've climbed from seventh place in the AHL West Division to third place -- they're only two points out of first.
Lots of credit goes to head coach Mike Yeo, who has believed in his players and has gotten them to buy into his style of play. Credit goes to the improved defense, the improved play on offense, the improved goaltending. New additions like Jed Ortmeyer and Patrick O'Sullivan also deserve credit.
However, there's this one guy that most Aeros fans probably take for granted. Not because he doesn't contribute, but because his level of contribution is the same game after game, season after season. But just because defenseman Max Noreau might be taken for granted by the fans (or by management in Minnesota who continuously overlook him for call-ups) doesn't mean that he's taken for granted by his coach or by the AHL.
"It doesn't matter what the situation calls for, he's the guy that we can put out there," head coach Mike Yeo says. "If we need a goal, we know that we can put him out there. If we need to prevent the other team from getting a goal, a penalty kill, a power play, whatever the situation calls for. I really cannot say enough about what he's done this year. I think that his game as grown a lot. He committed himself at the beginning of the year to try and improve himself as a defensive player, as a defender, and I think he makes fewer high-risk plays. I think that he does a better job of keeping the play in front of him. I think he's more of a solid defender than he was before. At the same time, his offensive numbers haven't dropped off."
The offensive numbers. It's always about the offensive numbers. And those numbers are outstanding. Noreau is the team's second leading scorer with 27 points, and he leads the team with 20 assists. His five power play goals are tied for second amongst AHL defensemen, and he ranks in the top ten in scoring for AHL defensemen.
His offensive numbers have always been outstanding. It's been his defensive abilities which have been holding back. And it's his defensive abilities that he's been working on this season.
"Obviously, defensively is a big part of the game now," Noreau said. "Maybe that was the knock on me a couple of years ago, but working with [former head coach] Kevin [Constantine] obviously helped that a lot. And now, with [new assistant coach] Darryl [Sydor], there's a respect factor. When he tells you something you're going to go in and do it. He's got like 1,300 NHL games, so there's no reason why you shouldn't be listening to him. So hopefully I keep playing like this and Minnesota gives me a chance."
John Royal Noreau prepares to make a play on the puck
But for now, Noreau's focus is on the Aeros. And while he's honored to return to the All Star Game, calling it a reward for all of the work he's been putting into his game, the reward he's more concerned with is a team one. Making the playoffs.
"It's definitely a great honor," Noreau said. "Two years in a row. I think that shows all of the hard work guys put in in the summer. Hopefully guys get rewarded like this year. And now we're trying to make a playoff push. So it's nice to be rewarded with that. I'll go there and have some fun with some other people in the league. But we're going to come back and go to work for the last two months."
Despite their current run of good play, the playoffs aren't guaranteed for the Aeros. Every team in their division is above the break-even mark. And the seventh-place team is only five points out of first place. Every game truly does count for the Aeros, and if there's one thing they can depend on, it's that Max Noreau is going to be there night after night, doing whatever is needed.