Thursday night, Houston Aeros goalie Anton Khudobin stood on top of the world. He had just shut out the Milwaukee Admirals to put the Aeros up 3-1 in their best-of-seven series. It was his birthday, and he was standing at center ice as over 3,100 people sang Happy Birthday to him.
But things change.
With the Aeros playing for the right to advance to the Western Conference Finals Saturday night, Khudobin was pulled midway through the second period after letting the Admirals grab a 4-1 lead. A lead the Aeros would attempt to recover from, scoring two goals to make the final 4-3 before time ran out, giving the Admirals the win. And last night, with the Aeros once again being just one win away from advancing, Khudobin was pulled midway through the first period after giving up two quick goals on the way to a 7-0 Aeros loss.
But Khudobin's not the only reason the Aeros now find themselves facing a win-or-the-season's-over Game Seven in Milwaukee tomorrow night. The defense hasn't been of much help, the team has continued to make stupid mental mistakes -- including turning the puck over deep in their end. And last night, the team went onto the ice without their star forward, Krys Kolanos, whose absence from the game was so sudden and unexpected that the Aeros play-by-play announcer Joe O'Donnell and his color commentator, injured goalie Barry Brust, were left virtually speechless.
The Aeros said all of the right things before Saturday's game, and for what it matters, after Saturday's game.
"They're a good team," Tony Hrkac said before the game. "They're just not going to give it to us."
And he was right. Milwaukee didn't give the game to Houston. They took the game to Houston, dominating the entire night.
"There are a few things we need to clear up. Not major things, but we've got to start playing down in their end more and not in ours," Corey Locke said after Saturday's game. "That puts a lot of pressure on our defensemen and goalies....we've got to start generating something, and it's got to be down in the offensive end."
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But after last night's lost, it's clear that while there are still a few things to clear up, those few things are pretty major. Khudobin appears to have lost his confidence. Head coach Kevin Constantine is loathe to pull a goalie when the goalie is on a hot streak, but he's got no problem going to the bench when the goalie is playing badly. However, the only other goalies in Milwaukee with the team are Barry Brust, who is injured, and Nolan Schaefer, who has also been injured. But Schaefer declared himself ready to play on Saturday, and Constantine quickly inserted him into the game last night. Schaefer was scored on five times, but that was likely due to his having not seen any game action in over a month.
The offense has looked lost the past several games, and it especially looked lost without Kolanos in the lineup last night -- according to Aeros officials, Kolanos missed the game due to a lower body injury but they are hopeful he will be available for action on Wednesday. And there have been just too many breakdowns on the defensive end.
But the Aeros have one thing in their favor tomorrow night. As a head coach, Kevin Constantine is known for taking underdog teams into opposing arenas and winning game sevens. He's the only coach to do that twice in the NHL. He's done in the lower minor leagues, and he did it just several weeks ago with the Aeros in Peoria.
Does the Aeros season end, or does the team live to face another series? The answer will be known sometime tomorrow night.