Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Day One-Hundred Thirty-Five: Post Mortem


I promise, tomorrow we will have a COMPLETE change of topic. Tonight, I'm going to officially put the 2008-09 Houston Aeros to rest, WBW-style.

Dave and I attended the first game of the season. Man, that seems like a long time ago, but I've got a very vivid memory of the game. We were playing the defending AHL champion Chicago Wolves. Nolan Schaefer in goal for the Aeros, hotshot NHL prospect Ondrej Pavalec in net for the Wolves. We sat in about the fourth row in the Aeros' defending zone (in "Cal's Corner", incidentally). Despite the off-season addition of proven AHL firepower in the likes of Krys Kolanos, Corey Locke, and Jesse Schultz, the first goal of the year was scored by a rookie defenseman who only played eight games with the team all year, Dane Crowley. Crowley dumped the puck into the zone from the blue line to go off for a line change. The puck hit one of the metal dividers between the boards at just the right angle to suddenly ricochet toward the Chicago net, temporarily vacated by Pavalec, who (rightfully) expected the puck to roll around the boards and behind the goal. Just like that, 1-0 Aeros. It turned out it was the only goal we'd score in regulation, but it was just enough as the team won 2-1 in overtime.

I was also at the second game of the year, I think it was against the Rivermen. This game was notable for two reasons: first, it was Tarvis' first ever AHL game; second, it was one of my all-time favorite Aeros, Cal Clutterbuck's, last game with the team before earning a part-time callup to the NHL Wild that turned into a full-time job (as well as an NHL record for hits in one season. Go figure) We won that one, too.

In fact, we started the season red hot, won four straight, won our first five at home...and then we sucked. Hard. It was embarrassing. And then we were hot-and-cold. On one night, we could beat anybody in the league. The next night, we could lose a four-goal cushion and fall in the shootout. (We weren't that good at shootouts this year) By the All-Star break, we were pretty middle-of-the-pack.

We also had some personnel changes, as is the case with minor-league sports. Benny Pouliot failed to live up to his potential (again) in Minnesota and came back down to play in Houston, where he still hasn't lived up to his potential but has become a pretty good penalty killer. Tomas Mojzis also came down from the Wild pretty early on. GM Tom Lynn made a trade and got rid of Ryan Hamilton, our leading goal scorer of 2007-08 (who wasn't producing as well this year) for speedy Robbie Earl from Toronto, a move I hated for a very long time as Earl didn't do much for us (until the playoffs, that is).

Then we hit this turning point. Some of the players pointed to the rehab stint former-Aero Kurtis Foster spent with the team as the time when we really started to turn it around. We were hot again. We were scoring. We were hitting. We were fighting. We were winning. It was starting to look like, when we made the playoffs, we would have a good shot to beat just about anybody.

And then, Kolanos got called up to the parent Wild (for the third time in the season, I think) along with Big John Scott (of WBW notoriety) and veteran all-around useful guy Petr Olvecky. Those latter two may have hurt us a bit (I really didn't notice us missing Scott on the blue line, though, to be honest), but without Kolanos the offense just sizzled. Our huge lead for the 2nd seed in the playoffs started to shrink, and suddenly we were fighting with Peoria, Rockford, Quad City, and Chicago just to make it in! Meanwhile, Krys wasn't playing much with Minnesota, and when he did play he wasn't doing much. And then things got worse! Not only Schaefer, but backup (and AHL All-Star) Barry Brust BOTH got injured, and in comes ECHL stopper Anton Khudobin, who wins three of ten games as the Aeros lose the second seed to the Rivermen and limp into the playoffs.

My, how long ago that seems.

That Peoria series was something. Anton Khudobin became the Little Goalie that Could. Admittedly, I thought we were a better team than Peoria all season, even if they had taken the second seed away from us in our late-season spiral. Things were set right for the playoffs, however: Kolanos and Olvecky were returned, and we played well enough to earn a split in our first two games in Illinois. Games three and five I've already blogged about, I believe, but it's worth reminding you that both were incredible. In the middle of all this madness, we lose Olvecky (again) and Morten Madsen to Slovakia and Denmark for the World Championships (So, thanks for nothing, Slovakia and Denmark!) We went back to Peoria with a three-to-two games lead and had to win one of the last two to advance and pull off the "upset." So naturally, we lost game six.

Here's the thing about this Aeros team: they only seemed to play their best hockey when absolutely necessary. It felt like we won more games coming from behind than we did from getting an early lead. We blew SO many leads. We came back to win SO many games in the third. It was Bizarro-world logic. (Or Looking Glass world, if you prefer; it comes down to about the same thing)

So, here we go into game seven, on the road, in a building we've had trouble winning in all year, with our third-string goalie, and even the universe and the laws of physics conspiring against us, and we pull out a 5-2 win. And we move on to play *gulp* the Milwaukee Admirals, who finished twenty points ahead of us in the standings.

However, I actually felt pretty good going into the Milwaukee series. I knew they were better than we were, but I also knew that we had played them well all year long. We'd actually won the season series against them, just barely, and I knew our guys were on a high after the heroic game seven in Peoria, so off we went to take on a rested Admirals team.

In this case, rest = rust as once again we jumped out to a 1 game to 0 lead in the best of seven. Milwaukee bounced back with game two (as well they should have) and we returned to Houston tied at one game apiece.

Suddenly, Khodobin goes ape nuts on these guys. He holds them to one goal in two games, including a shutout on his twenty-third (I think) birthday that ends with 3,000 Aeros fans singing happy birthday to the kid on what Anton calls his best birthday ever.

Now pay attention, kids, cuz this part is important: The Aeros led the series 3 games to 1. One more win to clinch, three more tries. Meanwhile, the Manitoba Moose had already swept past their second round opponents and were resting up, waiting for the winner. The Aeros' problem all season had been closing out opponents in games when they had the chance; the same problem manifested itself once again, as we let Milwaukee back into the series, failing to close the door on home ice in game five and getting blown out on the road in game six. We win a tense game seven to move on, but as far as I'm concerned, our failure to shut down the Ads earlier and get our injured players some rest cost us the conference finals.

After playing two physically grueling seven-game series', the Aeros spent a whole day traveling to Winnipeg the day before playing games on back-to-back nights against the team with the best record in the AHL, a team that had been resting and preparing for this series for a FULL WEEK. After dropping both games, we hopped a plane back to Houston on a travel day and then had to play them again. We were tired, they weren't. We were banged up, they were fine. We were a rugged team that needed to be at our best to have a shot against a skilled team like Manitoba, but we had simply worn ourselves down in the Milwaukee series. You don't fall down three games to zero to a team like the Moose and come back to win the series. Period.

Credit our boys, though. They never did quit. All year long, they never quit. I said they played their best hockey when they absolutely needed to, and with their backs against the wall they played two spectacular games at home, winning one in overtime and one in double-overtime, giving us the fans one last hurrah with our boys. But once we got back on enemy ice, well, it was just clear who the better team was. And it wasn't us this year.

So there's my take on things, anyway. I enjoyed this season. It's probably been the most fun team to follow, even with all the frustration throughout the year, since I've been in Houston. Major kudos and props to The Third Intermission, one of the best hockey blogs I've found. Four passionate bloggers who love the game and this team and are constantly looking for ideas they can use to make the blog more interesting and/or informative. I look forward to following that site for years to come.

Of the current Aeros, the following guys are under contract to the Aeros/Wild next year: Brust, Khudobin, Madsen, Falk, Noreau, Kassian, and Rogers. Guys whose contracts are up include Schaefer, Kolanos, Olvecky, Schultz, Albers, Pouliot, Locke, Lundbohm, Mojzis, Earl, and Stoner. I think we'll see Earl and Stoner back, hopefully a couple of the other guys, but I expect most of them will be gone. That's the way the AHL works. Some guys who were mostly Wild property this year but may see time in Houston could be Colton Gilles, Craig Weller, and Scott. Potential prospect I want to see in Houston full time: Testwuide, Almond, McMillan, and TYLER CUMA! Plus, you never know what the summer will bring in in terms of free agents. (And Hrkac said he's going back to coach, but may be interested in coming back for the playoffs again)

So there you have it. You'll have no more Aeros blogging on this site till the fall (unless something MAJOR happens at some point this summer, which I doubt). As Robbie would say, "All done Aeros."

Time to turn our attention fully to the Penguins in their second straight Stanley Cup Final after sweeping the Canes right out of the Eastern Conference Finals. (Sorry, cute kids with your stinky Penguins video)