“Probably of all the Friday nights I’ve watched us play lately when we’ve had the week off,” Houston Aeros coach Kevin Constantine said Friday night, “that might have been our better week-off game.”
What Constantine was referring to, however, was the Aeros 4-3 shootout loss to the Quad City Flames on Friday night. And while Constantine might have thought it was the team’s better week-off game, the 8,221 fans inside of Toyota Center just might have preferred something different. Like a win.
The Aeros entered the weekend mired in a big slump, having lost their last four games, all at home. The team had fallen from playoff contention.
Quad City drew first blood when center Krys Kolanos knocked in the first of his two goals for the night at the 7:24 mark of the first period. The Aeros appeared to draw even at the 17:35 mark when center Steve Kelly knocked in the rebound of defenseman Erik Reitz’s slap shot. The goal, however, was disallowed as the Aeros were ruled to be offside on the play.
The Aeros did draw even 1:56 into the second period when center Marco Rosa found himself in the slot between the circles, directly in front of the goalie and about ten feet out, and shot the puck past goalie Curtis McElhinney.
The goal was Rosa’s first since early in the season. “I was in a little bit of a funk,” he said after the game. “And I just started at square one again.”
Quad City would score the game’s next two goals, with Kolanos getting his second of the game at 7:01 of the second and right wing Grant Stevenson scoring at 9:55 of the second. But then something funny happened. The Aeros refused to give up.
Left wing Ryan Hamilton skated past the Quad City goal, toward the glass, then flicked the puck back to right wing Petr Kalus, who was sliding toward the goal. Kalus then deflected the puck past McElhinney to make the score 3-2 at 10:08 of the second. Then, nearly two minutes later, Adrian Foster found himself in a crowd, in front of the net, falling backward, with the puck on his stick. As he fell, he slapped the puck toward the goal where it slid past McElhinney to tie the score at three.
The Quad City coach then pulled McElhinney and replaced him with Matt Keetley.
“It’s one of those things where you know you got to him,” Rosa said about McElhinney leaving the game. But the Aeros didn’t take advantage of the new goalie and the score remained tied for the rest of the game.
The Aeros took the game to overtime, then to the shootout, but couldn’t pull it out as Rosa was the only Aero able to make a goal while two of the Flames were able to get the puck past goalie Barry Brust.
“We were better than we have been,” Constantine said. But better than they have been wasn’t good enough for the win, though the team did get one point on account of the shoot-out loss.
And as Rosa said after the game, “You’ve got to crawl before you walk. You can never be happy with a point, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Not much of a comfort to the fans, or the players for that matter, but still, it was a start, and it wasn’t a loss.
Saturday’s game started with a bit of a shock as Brust was back in goal for the Aeros. Constantine hadn’t exactly been thrilled with his play on Friday.
“I thought Barry let in two bad goals,” Constantine said Friday. “I thought the bad angle goal was a bad goal, and I thought the second goal in the slide shot from about 30 feet was too innocent a shot to let in based on where Barry was positioned. He was way too deep in the net.”
Yet come Saturday night, before 6,268 Toyota Center fans who hadn’t seen an Aeros win in five games, Brust was in the goal.
But even more shocking than Brust starting Saturday’s game was the manner in which the Aeros netted their first goal. Once again facing the Flames, the AHL team with best penalty kill, the Aeros, the team with one of the league’s worst power plays, scored a goal on a power play when left wing Peter Olvecky slipped the puck past Quad City’s Matt Keetley to put the Aeros up 1-0 at 16:47 of the first period.
And for the most of the rest of the game, it appeared that this one goal would be enough to break the slump as Brust stopped everything coming his way. At least, that is, until 17:47 of the third period when, with just 2:13 remaining in the game, Quad City’s Krys Kolanos netted his third goal in two games to tie the game at one.
But with thoughts of another overtime going through the crowd’s mind, Marco Rosa struck. Defenseman Paul Albers fired a slap shot toward the goal. Rosa, who was in front of the goalie, grabbed the puck and knocked it past Keetley to put the Aeros up 2-1 at 18:52. “I made sure I got in front of the goalie,” a happy Rosa said afterwards.
Then, just as the buzzer sounded to end the game, a shot from right wing Joel Ward trickled into an empty Quad City net for the goal, making the final score 3-1 and ending the Aeros’ losing streak.
“This is a big win,” Rosa said. “Yesterday we weren’t happy with just a point. We thought it was important to get a win tonight. We played desperate hockey. It was a little tight for comfort. They tied it late in the game. But I was in the right spot at the right time.”
“It’s kind of nice to get a W to remind yourself that the things you’re doing are the right things,” a relieved Constantine said.
And a relieved, and happy squad, started packing their bags in preparation for a return to the road. And while the Aeros haven’t healed all of their wounds, they did pull into a tie with Quad City for the last playoff spot.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS GAME NOTES:
The Aeros record now stands 23-18-2-3 on the season, and they have 51 points, which puts them in a tie for sixth place in the West Division. The team’s record is now 16-1-0-1 when leading a game after the second period.
While he wasn’t happy with the shoot-out loss on Friday, Marco Rosa had thought at the time that it was a small step in the right direction. Coach Constantine agreed with him, saying: “I think he makes a pretty good point. It’s pretty rare in hockey to win when you don’t score first, and it’s probably equally rare to win when you’re down 3 to 1 against a team that’s pretty solid defensively. To get a point out of that would be something that might be important down the stretch.”
Constantine however, far preferred Saturday’s win. “We’re just around a group of guys who really care,” he said. “It’s much different than what people may assume by watching us lose, like we don’t care. We were disappointed with the rust on some of our Friday games. But with each loss the effort level has gone up. But what happens with each loss is that, while your effort level goes up, your confidence level goes down.”
As for Marco Rosa’s improved play, Constantine said: “My personal opinion is that he came here really fired up to be part of this team, and he had a real spark to his game. Then in the course of playing a lot of games I thought he got a little tired. And our centers, unlike our wingers, play every third shift, compared to our wingers who play every fourth shift. So at times our centers I think can get a little tired.”
Standing in Constantine’s office Friday night, it was evident he was disappointed in Barry Brust’s play that night. There was even speculation that Nolan Schaefer would be returning to play on Saturday. But the speculation was wrong.
As to Brust starting Friday over the All-Star Schaefer, Constantine said: “Barry won his last game and played really good. Nolan’s lost four games in a row. That’s ample reason. The one who won the last game should get to play.”
But Brust didn’t get that win, and Constantine wasn’t happy. “He made a ton of good saves,” Constantine said. “Then he shot a puck over the glass. And then he tripped behind out net. Barry’s issues to me are that’s he got this ability to be phenomenal but he doesn’t, to me, have anywhere near as strong a focus as he needs to stay consistent. So he looks brilliant at times.”
As for starting Brust on Saturday, Constantine responded: “There’s two approaches: if the guy doesn’t play well, put somebody else in. There’s another approach to let the player respond to the honest feedback of ‘you weren’t that good.’ Let the player then use that to sharpen, to motivate. In addition, we were willing to say that some of what we saw in Barry was rust.”
Brust was thankful after Saturday’s game. “It was nice to get in there and play a little bit,” he said. “I think the best preparation for a game is to play a game. Thankfully the boys helped me there tonight and bailed me out there at the end.”
Some quick trivia: Can you name the Quad Cities? Moline, Illinois; Davenport, Iowa; Bettendorf, Iowa; and Rock Island, Illinois.
Some more trivia: do you know what Ak-Sar-Ben is? It is the former home of the Flames, who last season played in Omaha, Nebraska, where they were known as the Ak-Sar-Ben Knights.
Now, for some Airing of the Grievances.
First: Is it asking too much to put the Aero Dynamics back in the short skirts instead of the tight pants?
Second: Enough with the school choirs singing “God, Bless America” during the intermissions. Please just let the Aero Dynamics dance.
Third: The disc with “The Cotton-Eyed Joe” really needs to be destroyed. The song was overplayed 20 years ago.
And that was a nice try on Friday night when it came to “Man in the Box.” The sound crew did dip the sound a bit, but “shit” in “buried in my shit” was still audible.
Finally, my condolences to all of you dads at there who dutifully purchased tickets to The Doodlebops for their rugrats. I’m sure things would have been different if you’d known the concert was set for Super Bowl Sunday. -- John Royal
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