"Welcome back, Your dreams were your ticket out. Welcome back, To that same old place that you laughed about. Well the names have all changed since you hung around, But those dreams have remained and they're turned around," are the words to the 1970's sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and in a way the Houston Aeros arrival marks a return of hockey to Xcel Energy Center. It does not mark a return of NHL hockey, but its probably the closest thing we'll see to that this year in North America at least. You could even say the Minnesota Wild has done all it can to promote this game. They have been advertising it almost the very moment the lockout started, 64 days ago. It seems like its been longer than that, hasn't it? In fact, Minnesota's aggressive promotion of today's AHL tilt could almost be interpreted as a sign the Wild did not expect NHL hockey to return. I guess for hockey fans jonesing for their professional hockey fix, beggars can't be choosers. In many ways, the current story of the Houston Aeros is one that Wild fans are painfully familiar with. A few injuries to key players (in this case Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin and Steven Kampfer) and the team is struggling having lost 5 of its last 6 games.
Aeros' leading scorer Jason Zucker
Thanksgiving Day is less than a week away, and people are going to be getting back together with their families. Normally, for myself that meant going to a Wild game on 'Black Friday' so the game itself is a reminder of what we hockey fans do not have, an NHL season. So we have little more than a teaser of sorts. The Aeros will hopefully bring a little cheer to the arena which has to look a little forlorn these days. The concourses will again have hockey fans moving through them and hopefully Houston can add to that by bringing a victory. These days, it may be the only professional victory many Wild fans see this season. Did the Aeros' raise their game and deliver a win?
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1st Period Thoughts: Pretty decent crowd attending the game this late afternoon. The Aeros really stumbled out of the gate. They lacked chemistry and were quite sloppy. The passes were off target and Houston was making lots of needless turnovers that really prevented the Aeros from mounting any kind of offensive attack. Defensively the Wild's coverage was very suspect giving the IceHogs a number of prime scoring chances on Matt Hackett who seemed to be the only Aeros' player who showed up to play hockey. The rest seemed to just be floating around aimlessly around the ice. The Aeros' first power play quickly yielded a breakaway chance for Ben Smith who was stonewalled by a nice save by Hackett. Tyler Cuma was having a hard time out there, being stepped around with ease which is not the kind of play you'd expect from a guy who has been in the minors a few seasons to say nothing of being a former 1st round draft pick. Houston's poor play was personified by not being able to register its first shot on goal until there was just 8:25 minutes left in the 1st period. Even on the man advantage, the Aeros were a comedy of errors with bad passes or being unprepared to receive them squandering opportunities. Justin Fontaine would score on the power play on a beauty of a shot, but the Aeros were being a little too picky with the puck. After Fontaine's goal, the Aeros started to take more chances to put pucks on goal. Houston certainly had the ability to put the IceHogs on their heels as they started to use their superior team speed to open up time and space. As they did so, the ice started to tilt more in the Aeros' favor. Houston rebounded nicely from its incredibly slow start but they needed to do more than they did on the 3 power plays they were given. Chay Genoway and Kris Foucault on the assists of Fontaine's goal.
2nd Period Thoughts: The IceHogs would carry much of the play in the early portions of the 2nd period. Using good speed through the neutral zone they were able to work the puck deep while Houston had difficulty chipping the puck off the boards and countering this aggressive forecheck. Houston would finally catch the Rockford defense and the top line moved in and Charlie Coyle swung a pass to Jason Zucker for a hard one-timer that was stopped by Carter Hutton, but Johan Larsson was there to tap home the rebound to give Houston a 2-0 lead. Rockford would try to answer back as Peter Leblanc would race into the Aeros' end, and he'd fire a shot that was nabbed out of the air by a fine save by Hackett. Josh Caron would drop the gloves against Brandon Bollig, and the youngster held his own as he landed a few nice punches on the more experienced Bollig and the crowd gave an appreciative cheer on the spirited fight. Not too bad for a rookie pro. The fiestiness would continue as Drew Bagnall and Corbin Baldwin would get into it with Rockford's Rob Flick and Wade Brookbank. Bagnall really was looking for a fight but no one on the IceHogs was willing to oblige and he'd end up with a double minor which gave Rockford a power play. On the man advantage, the IceHogs nearly cut the Aeros' lead in half as Ben Smith fired a shot that hit the shoulder of Hackett and then off the crossbar and out. Moments after that another shot would clank off the pipe as Rockford was being snake bitten by the iron. A few minutes later there was an extensive video review and ultimately ruled no damage to the Houston Aeros. Houston tried to apply some offensive pressure late in the period but to no avail. Aeros have to feel a little fortunate to be still leading 2-0 at end of the 2nd period.
3rd Period Thoughts: Aeros would challenge Rockford early in the period as Zucker walked around an IceHogs defender for a pretty chance on goal that he just pushed wide. Houston was carrying the play; and its defense was picking its spots to step up to support the play very well which allowed the Aeros to keep the IceHogs bottled up in their own zone. Brett Bulmer made a nice move to drive towards the slot but his shot was deflected wide by Klas Dahlbeck. Houston continued to pile up the scoring chances. Rockford was also being reduced to settling for shots from the perimeter. A penalty to Genoway would give the IceHogs and opportunity to cut into the lead and they took advantage of it. As Marcus Kruger tapped home a rebound by Hackett, and it was 2-1 Aeros. The game seemed to start to come unraveled for the Aeros as Rockford went right back on the power play as McIntyre was tagged with a tripping call. It looked like the game was destined to be tied, but Johan Larsson would pick up the puck as Adam Clendening lost an edge and fell down and Larsson backhanded an easy goal as Hutton was caught out of position on a huge shorthanded goal. Rockford and Clendening were quick to answer back as he took a pass and fired a laser by Hackett to cut the lead back to one, 3-2. The Aeros' top line of Coyle, Larsson and Zucker went back to work and they hammered a few good shots near the goal as they tried to prevent Rockford from setting up camp in Houston's zone. Rockford tried to push for the equalizer late, but Hackett was aggressive in his crease using his paddle to poke dangerous pucks away. The Aeros would circle the wagons to keep the IceHogs and bay and they'd earn a 3-2 victory.
Matt Hackett was really the strength of the Aeros tonight, making 34 saves to allow Houston to steal a 3-2 win. Rockford had some prime scoring chances, and with the help of the pipe on a few occasions the Aeros escaped but Hackett was the x-factor. Defensively the play of the Aeros' blueline improved but it still left Hackett out to dry far too many times.
Offensively, the Aeros still need to figure out how to generate more shots so that they can reduced the amount of pressure that is put on the goaltender to win games. Yet a win is a win, and this was important for the confidence of this club that is figuring out how to win games without Mikael Granlund. Relish it Wild fans, it could very well be the last professional game you see live and in person this season unless you're willing to drive a fair distance to watch the Aeros play somewhere else.
~ The roster for the Aeros this late afternoon was as follows: Charlie Coyle, Kris Foucault, Jason Zucker, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, David McIntyre, Carson McMillan, Nick Palmieri, Justin Fontaine, Josh Caron, Zack Phillips, Joel Broda, Drew Bagnall, Marco Scandella, Brian Connelly, Corbin Baldwin, Chay Genoway and Tyler Cuma. Darcy Kuemper backed up Matt Hackett. Mike Montgomery was a healthy scratch.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Johan Larsson, 2nd Star Matt Hackett, 3rd Star Charlie Coyle
~ Attendance at today's game at Xcel Energy Center was 11,175.