I feel the need to eulogize the Aeros a bit. With as many words as I've spent on their incredible Calder Cup run up to this point and as many hours of intense playoff memories as they've provided me this spring/early summer, I figure I owe them a couple of words.
Dave and I were at game six last night. The night the magic ran out. The Aeros took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but an early powerplay goal by the BSens tied the game at two. And somehow, at that point, I knew it was over. You could see the heart and the hustle our guys wanted to give, but they just didn't have anything left. Two series' worth of game sevens and three key injuries finally caught up to them. The tenacity with which they were somehow able to eke out clutch goals against three superb goalies in Ben Bishop, Jeremy Smith, and Drew MacIntyre wasn't enough to beat red-hot nineteen-year-old Robin Lehner. In the playoffs, you need your goalie to steal a few for you, and I think it's fair to say Lehner stole at least one game this series. That doesn't take anything away from the speed or the top-end scoring talent on the B-Sens team, but with a lesser tender between the pipes the Aeros still probably grind their way to a Calder Cup.
Grind. That's a good way to describe the Aeros this season. They were in a dogfight from day one. The West Division was probably the toughest I've ever seen it. Every team had a winning record. Through most of the season you had as many as seven teams separated by five or fewer points. At no point this year was there such a thing as a meaningless game. The Aeros were pretty much playing playoff hockey from December on. They finished with the second (or third, I can't remember) most wins in the entire league. They won a game seven on the road in Milwaukee, always a tough building for Houston to play in. They nearly blew it against the Bulldogs, letting a 3-0 lead turn into a seven-game affair. Maybe if they had taken care of business there, they would have had the legs to match the Senators' speed in the final. We'll never know. But they fought tooth and nail till the last gasp and came really freaking close to tying it with a minute left.
In the end, however, it just Binghamton's year. And you can't say enough about a team that barely made the playoffs and then rallied from down three games to one in the first round taking the rest of the playoffs by storm to win their city's first ever pro championship. That's just awesome.
But these Aeros were pretty awesome in their own right. There was something magic about the team, and it didn't rely on a Magic Shirt, Magic Baby Spit-up, a Magic Double-Overtime Pizza, or any of those other awesomely ridiculous superstitions that make being a sports fan so dang much fun. This team was special. They way they played for one another was special. The way someone different was always stepping up, taking turns being the hero, was special. That I can't point fingers and say, "This guy didn't pick up the slack" at any one of the guys on the ice is special. And, judging from sound clips from interviews, these guys knew it, too.
You know what? It sucked watching another team skate around with the Calder Cup on our ice on a night where over 10,000 fans filled the lower bowl and half of the upper bowl at the Yo. It sucked watching our guys skate back to the dressing room after the handshake line while league officials were setting up the table. It sucked to see the guys sitting on the bench or kneeling on the ice after the buzzer sounded while jubilant visiting players tossed their sticks and gloves in the air and mobbed one another. It sucked as a fan, but more than that, I was hacked off for the players. Because I thought they deserved better. All the heart and sweat they poured into this city all year, and I wanted a better ending for them. I wanted Captain D to get his first title. I wanted Sully to have something to celebrate at the end of what was a rough year for him. I wanted Hackett to have the last laugh on his critics who said he wasn't a championship caliber goalie. I wanted Noreau's five years in Houston to really pay off for him. I wanted Orts to win. I wanted Falker to win. I wanted Daoust, Marco, Rau, Earl, and Gillies to win. And they didn't. They just stood huddled to one side, waiting for the obligatory handshake, and there was nothing we could do about it. So I started up a "Thank you Aeros" chant, and it actually picked up some steam in my corner of the arena. I was glad for that.
I'm pretty certain we'll have a fairly solid team again next season. DiSalvatore and Rau are already signed for another season. So are Peters, Cuma, Kassian, McMillan. We'll have Hackett and Keumper between the pipes, and that's a solid tandem. I imagine one of Gillies or Almond will make the Wild, but we will likely have the other. A lot of guys are RFA's, and I think most of them will be back. I don't know if we'll get Coach Yeo again; the Wild have been holding off hiring a head coach until after this playoff run ended so I'm fairly certain they're seriously considering promoting him, too. And we'll get a couple of new Wild draft picks next year. I hope management brings back some of the UFA's. But no matter who is back, it'll be different next year. It always is. We probably won't make the Calder Cup Final again. It's awfully hard to repeat as conference champs, especially in the minors. But hey, whatever happens next year, we had the Calder Cup run of 2011, and folks, there's just nothing like it.