John Royal Kris Foucault appears to be a bit shocked that he scored.
Yesterday, playing their last game of the regular season, playing the league's last scheduled game of the regular season, the Aeros needed to do one thing to make the playoffs. The team needed to win.
And as has been the case all season, the Aeros didn't do things the easy way. They gave the Texas Stars the lead in the second period. But Kris Foucault tied the game minutes later. Joel Broda put the Aeros up 2-1 31 seconds into the final period. And from there they found a way to hold on, getting the win and earning the AHL's final playoff spot as the clock hit zero.
"It's a big win for us," head coach John Torchetti said. "And I'll tell you what; it's just a lot of fun watching our guys, watching them celebrate. What we went through this year, not to make the playoffs, being so close...we probably could have fell down and said, hey, it's okay, we can make it for another time, but that just showed you everything right there."
With the win, the Aeros now have the chance to follow through on their slogan "unfinished business." That's the slogan they adopted for this season, the unfinished business being the winning of the Calder Cup, which they just missed out on last season.
The Aeros will have to travel a hard road to make it to the Calder Cup finals this season. Whereas last season they went in on a high and were one of the teams nobody wanted to face, this season, the Aeros made it by the skin of their teeth. And whereas they had the home-ice advantage for every round but one, this year around, it's going to be nearly impossible for them to get a home-ice advantage.
The playoffs start on Thursday night when the Aeros host the Western Conference's number one seed, the Oklahoma City Barons, at Toyota Center. The second game of the best-of-five series will also be in Houston on Friday night before the final three games of the series, if needed, are played in Oklahoma City next week.
The Aeros and Barons have faced off eight times this season, and the Barons have been the victors on seven of those occasions as the Aeros went 1-4-0-3 against them. But though the Barons won the regular-season series, the results were close, and the Aeros feel they can beat them, and are sure of what to expect from them on the ice.
"Everybody knows each other," Torchetti said. "You're not really going to hide much."
It's going to be simple for the Aeros. They can probably beat the Barons, season record against them aside, but to do so, the Aeros will have to excel defensively and the offense will need to score some goals early so as to take off some of the pressure that goalie Matt Hackett's been under lately. Then again, Hackett was under intense pressure throughout last season's playoff run, and he excelled in the spotlight.
"The boys are excited," Hackett said. "Tonight was a huge character win. We're going to feed off that and go for a nice long run in the playoffs."
So on the last night of the season, in the absolutely last game of the season, the Aeros overcame the bad bounces, the defensive breakdowns, the injuries, the call-ups. When the team most needed to play their best game of the season, when they most needed to get the win, when they knew it was all in their control, that if they won they were in, they came together and got the win.
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This team isn't as good as the squad which went to the AHL Calder Cup Finals last season. The emotional leader of that team, Jed Ortmeyer, is gone. And Patrick O'Sullivan, the man who had the ability to seemingly score at win, is gone. This team's a bit more blue collar. These guys are not flashy. They just go out and play hockey.
There's a long road ahead. And that road, starting with the first round match-up against Oklahoma City is a tough one. Very tough. But who knows, the Aeros are in the playoffs. And anything's possible in the world of the AHL playoffs.