The Admirals Sink Houston As Aeros Fall Out of First Place

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John Royal
The Aeros celebrate Patrick O'Sullivan's first period goal
The Houston Aeros led the Milwaukee Admirals by a score of 4-2 with 16 minutes left in the third period. And while they hadn't been playing their best hockey, they did seem to be in control of the game. Then it was as if someone hit a big red button on the Aeros bench and the team went into self-destruct mode, because less than four minutes later Milwaukee was up 5-4.

This was a game the Aeros needed to win. They were tied with the Admirals for first place in the division, and were just mere points ahead of the competition for sixth place. So a game like this, the Aeros needed to play their best hockey. Needed to put forth their best effort. Needed to keep their composure.

None of that happened. Three of Milwaukee's goals were flukes, with the Aeros directly knocking in one, deflecting another and so effectively screening goalie Anton Khudobin that he wouldn't have been able to see a full moon coming toward him even if he was near lunar orbit.

"That was a weird game, first of all," head coach Mike Yeo said after the game. "The way pucks were bouncing all over the place. I'm not making any excuses, but it was just kind of a weird game the way things were bouncing back and forth for both sides, for what it matters."

The game had been a sloppy affair through two periods, with the Aeros lucky to see the score tied at 2-2. They had numerous shots hit off the pipe of wide open nets, or players in great position with the puck just squirting past on a bad pass. But then Patrick O'Sullivan got the puck on the fly at center ice at 1:16 of the third period, and there was just no way he was going to miss on the breakaway, putting the Aeros up 3-2. Warren Peters then got a tip-in off of a shot from the corner at 3:57 to put the Aeros up 4-2, and it seemed like the horrors from earlier in the game, the missed nets, the missed passes, the sloppy defense, would just fade away into memory.

Milwaukee scored 22 seconds later when Aeros defenseman Justin Falk screened Khudobin's view of the puck and the play in front of him, making the score 4-3. Then at the 7:50 mark Khudobin blocked the puck, and the puck bounced in the air off of the chest and stick of Aeros defenseman Kris Fredheim into a wide open net, tying the game. Then Milwaukee went in front to stay at the 7:50 mark, scoring off of another rebound.

"At no point did I feel that that game was under control," Yeo said. "Obviously you get up two goals, but the way we had played the game didn't really give us a sense that it was a lock. Still, you get up at that point, you've got to buckle down and you've got to come away with the win."

The Aeros, who just two weeks ago were the hottest team in the AHL, having won six straight and having gone 10-2-0-1 in January, have cooled off. This loss was their fourth in the last five games, as a team that was seemingly doing everything right can now do nothing right.

John Royal
Robbie Earl charges after the puck
"Every good team, every team that's ever won a championship for that matter, has gone through spells like this," Yeo said. "It's how you get through it that's what's important. Do you let it drag you down and continue to build bad feelings, or bad thoughts, or bad habits, whatever it is, or do you use it as a tool to recognize that this is how we have success and let's get back to it? Hopefully this is a good thing for us."

And, as Yeo says, this period of play was probably inevitable. Teams get on streaks and runs, and it's not only how they handle the good times that is important, but how they handle the bad streaks. The Aeros played awful hockey in December, then went on an incredible hot streak. They're now back to playing bad, sloppy hockey.

The problem this time, unlike in December, is that time is running out. The Aeros now have only 20 games remaining in this season. They're in second place by one point, and they're two points out of first place. But they're only two points ahead of the team in fourth place, three points ahead of the team in fifth and four points ahead of the team in sixth. If they go into a prolonged funk, in a division this tight, with nearly every team battling for a playoff spot, then the Aeros could be in some big trouble.

If they can snap out of it, and snap out of it quickly, if they can remember what they were doing in January and get back into that type of hockey, then the Aeros can once again be an unstoppable force. But they don't have a lot of time, so they better decide pretty quickly on a proper course of action.

A MISCELLANEOUS NOTE: The Aeros are off until Friday when they host the Texas Stars. They play in Oklahoma City on Saturday, and host Rockford on Sunday. And for those who are interested, the Stars are the team in third place, and Oklahoma City is the one in sixth place.

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