There was once a pitcher for the Houston Astros known as Jose Lima. Lima had a moderately successful career for the Astros while the team was in the Astrodome, a park ideally suited for his style of pitching, a style which often involved deep flyball outs. Then the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park. It's rumored that, on his first visit to the ballpark, Lima said something to the effect that the designer of the ballpark was no friend of his.
Lima then proceeded to spend the 2000 season, and most of the 2001 season, getting his ass kicked. Those long Astrodome flyballs that used to fall harmlessly into the gloves of his outfielders were now, instead, falling into the Crawford Boxes. And that was happening to a lot of the pitchers on the Astros staff, primarily those who had learned to pitch in the Dome. Then guys like Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt came along. They had never pitched in the Dome, so they had no fear of the Crawford Boxes, and they proved that it was possible to be a successful pitcher at Minute Maid.
This brings me to the Houston Aeros.
The Aeros are currently on a 1-6-1-3 streak. And most of those games have been close losses, often coming on a third-period goal that should have been stopped. You check the stats and you see that the Aeros are actually one of the top teams in the AHL in terms of defense and not allowing goals. But they're also one of the worst teams in the AHL when it comes to scoring goals. So every goal scored is, in a manner of speaking, life or death for the Aeros.
Rumblings from inside the locker room point to the goalies, Anton Khudobin, Wade Dubielewicz, and Barry Brust, letting the team down because their play in the third period is not as strong as it has been in the first two periods.
And the stats seem to back this up as, for the most part, teams take fewer shots at the goalies in the third period, yet despite fewer shots, more of them go in for goals. Goals which often cost the team the game.
So one begins to wonder: is there some kind of psychological thing going on with the goalies? Are they trying so hard to be perfect, knowing that if they are anything less than perfect the team's going to lose, and thus they get so caught up in the mind games that, just like that, the puck is past them and the game is over?
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"If you're with a team for awhile, you do feel [the pressure to be perfect]," Dubielewicz said Sunday. "But I was fortunate to be up with the Wild for a week, so you kind of lose that a little bit. That's why tonight I was hoping to come in here and have a big game and get a win for the guys [instead, the Aeros lost 2-1 in OT to the Milwaukee Admirals]. When you're around it all of the time, it really can seep into your mind a little bit, and when you get a mental break from it for a week, you kind of forget about it. That's why this one's tougher for me even to swallow right now because I thought we really played well enough to win this game, and I thought hopefully we were going to get back on track, and that wasn't the case."
With their current woes, the Aeros have not only dropped out of playoff contention, they've dropped into last place with a record of 29-30-7-4. But while there may only be 10 games left in the season, the guys are still playing as if every game counts. And according to Dubielewicz, this effort is why he and the other goalies care so much.
"That goes to show that this team does have character, and that's special," he said. "That's why it's fun being a part of this team all year. There's no quitting here. And I'm proud of that. But at the same time, this is professional hockey, and we have to make plays, and we have to make saves, and we have to score goals. If you don't do that, you're not going to be around hockey for a long time. It's really disappointing on that level because there's a lot of character in this room. I think with a break or two we could be a different story."
The entire season has been a story of a break or two that has gone the wrong way. And maybe, just maybe, like that Crawford Boxes broke the psyche of Jose Lima, close loss after close loss is breaking the psyche of the current Aeros.