"Come gather 'round people, Wherever you roam, And admit that the waters, Around you have grown, And accept it that soon, You'll be drenched to the bone, If your time to you, Is worth savin', Then you better start swimmin', Or you'll sink like a stone, For the times they are a-changin'" are lyrics to the song The Times they are a Changin' by legendary Minnesota musician / singer Bob Dylan. Of course Dylan's song is about the turbulent times of 1960's America but for the Houston Aeros and Minnesota Wild it is how the struggles of one can bring about changes for them all. With the Minnesota Wild now floundering after an ok start to the compressed 2013 NHL season, it has prompted the big club to start making some roster moves, and with those moves means there is a trickle down effect to its American Hockey League affiliate in Houston. This certainly was the case last season when the Wild's injury woes led to near constant call ups that meant the Aeros rarely played with the same line up from game to game. Yet that is the life of a minor league hockey franchise. Simply put you are the whim of the bigger club. They need a player, you send someone and adjust your roster accordingly. For the players themselves its 'call up' they've been waiting for but for minor league coaching staffs / management its all part of the challenge. Just to put it in perspective, over the course of the 2011-12 season the Aeros used 6 different goaltenders and 47 skaters. Needless to say I'd hate to be the equipment manager in a situation like that. Houston has had a few call ups, not even 10 games into this season as defenseman Jonas Brodin and forward Charlie Coyle have been brought up to help the big club. It seems inevitable there will be more, but who will be the lucky one?
The Aeros are fresh off a 2-0 loss against the Grand Rapids Griffins, meanwhile the Milwaukee Admirals should be pretty well rested having not played since last week Friday in a 5-2 loss to arch-rival Chicago. These two clubs used to be bitter division rivals for years before the American Hockey League undertook re-alignment. The Admirals have had their share of call ups, but overall their NHL parent, the Nashville Predators are a little more patient. Houston defeated the Admirals 3-2 on January 23rd, will they be able to earn another victory tonight?
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1st Period Thoughts: Right from the drop of the puck the Aeros were all over the Milwaukee Admirals; with lots of jump in their skates and putting the home team on its heels. The Aeros' forecheck was relentless and the Admirals struggled to deal with the pressure and were giving up easy turnovers. In fact, the lethargic start by the Admirals kind of reminded me of the Wild in recent games; where they looked uninspired (despite being at home) and not mentally ready to go. The Aeros didn't mind and were peppering Admirals' Jeremy Smith with shots early and often. Milwaukee's Matt Liambas (all 5'9" 212lbs of him) took on 6'4" 210lbs Ryley Grantham. Liambas tried to hold on to keep Grantham close so the bigger Aeros enforcer couldn't use his wingspan to his advantage. In a long battle, where both fighters exchanged a few jabs but neither landing much with any kind of damaging effect the struggle would end as Liambas managed to wrestle Grantham to the ice. More or less a draw; although you have to give a nod to Liambas for being willing to fight a heavyweight at his size. Yet with virtually all of the momentum going their way, it would be Milwaukee that struck first. The Admirals finally were able to get the puck out of their zone and go on the attack and Taylor Beck would pass a puck from behind the goal out front to Cam Reid who just managed to sneak it through Matt Hackett to give Milwuakee a 1-0 lead. At this point I was a bit worried that Aeros would be deflated given their recent woes; especially on the road and after having dominated the Admirals 9-2 in shots to this point but now find themselves in a 1-0 hole. However the Aeros demonstrated some terrific resilience and they'd answer right back as 3 minutes after Reid's goal, Justin Fontaine turned on the jets and raced into the Admirals' zone where he'd use linemate David McIntyre for a bit of a screen before letting go a wrist shot that found the twine to tie the game at 1-1. Jason Zucker would get tagged with a roughing penalty late in the period, giving Milwaukee its first power play of the game. Houston's penalty killers did a great job at moving their feet and getting into passing lane and a good effort by Jake Dowell to tap a puck away from Brad Winchester and Dowell would race up the ice into the Milwaukee zone along with Carson McMillan where he swung a pass over to McMillan who chipped a shot up and over the shoulder of Smith to give the Aeros a 2-1 lead on the shorthanded tally. This was a huge goal and you could sense the spirit of the arena had left the building. The Aeros would go into the intermission ahead by one, but there were lots of chirping between the benches as both clubs headed to their respective locker room. Especially between Milwaukee's Michael Latta and Houston's Brett Bulmer. Houston's forecheck was really dominant and the Aeros were getting good efficient break out of their zone from their defensemen. Good effort all around.
2nd Period Thoughts: The 2nd period would start with a moment of ugliness as Brett Bulmer was crunched with a vicious hit from behind by Daniel Bang. Immediatey, Bang was jumped by Stephane Veilleux but rather than just throwing big punches Bang held on and both players fell to the ice earning coincidental roughing minors. Bang got an additional 5-minute major for boarding. This meant the Aeros would go through 2 minutes of 4-on-4 play before having a 3-minute power play. By the time Houston got to the power play they seemed a little disorganized. They set up their point men, Steven Kampfer and Chay Genoway but couldn't seem to get those 2nd chance opportunities. Ultimately their power play was cut short by a phantom high sticking call on Johan Larsson. The Aeros' Paul Mara would take a lazy hooking penalty that would give the Admirals a short 5-on-3 power play and then almost a full two minutes of 5-on-4. The Admirals' power play was atrocious; mishandling the puck, unable to hold the zone and Houston would get the big kill. To Houston's credit their penalty killers; like Carson McMillan and David McIntyre were denying time and space well and forcing the Admirals to make mistakes. Both clubs seemed to be a little more cautious and Houston would continue to dictate the pace of play. The Aeros would strike late in the period as Zack Phillips, Larsson and Zucker would catch the Admirals flat footed and Phillips dished it over to Zucker who took the rolling puck and got off a quick shot that sort of fluttered up and over the shoulder of Smith to give Houston a 3-1 lead. Another big late-period goal that again helped crush the spirits of the Admirals and their fans. The Aeros' dominance to this point was rather complete, as evidenced by Houston's extreme shot advantage 29-15. Scary moment towards the latter half of the period as Kirk MacDonald got into a collision with Milwaukee's Taylor Aronson. Aronson's hit got MacDonald wanting to scrap as his glove came off; but Aronson's skate would strike the top of MacDonald's hand and immediately the Aeros' forward covered the wound and raced back to the bench where he was hurried to the locker room. He would not return. Sitting as close to the bench as I was for the game there was talk that the cut was pretty bad. I hope MacDonald just needs stitches and that no damage to tendons, etc was done.
3rd Period Thoughts: You knew the Admirals were going to want to press early as they were down by two but it was the Aeros would strike quickly to start the 3rd period. As the Aeros counter attacked, Kyle Medvec would sort of fling a shot towards the goal and it would perhaps deflect off a defender and sneak by Smith just 36 seconds into the period as Houston now leads 4-1. It was a cheap goal, but a sign of how the Aeros simple approach of funneling pucks on the goal was being rewarded. The Wild could certainly learn from this. The Admirals would then go on the attack, as Austin Watson, Chris Mueller and Taylor Beck were getting double shifted as Milwaukee tried to claw itself back into the game. Yet Houston would have a scary moment as Brad Winchester (who was -5 last night) crashed into the net that sent Hackett violently into the crossbar. Winchester would earn a roughing call in the scrum that would ensue after the play. The Aeros' power play really was about killing time rather than adding to their lead and after Milwaukee got the kill they'd go back on the attack. A slashing penalty on Veilleux gave the Admirals the window of opportunity they were looking for. The Admirals would cut the Aeros lead to two, on a point shot by Victor Bartley that was stopped by Hackett but Mara wasn't able to sweep the rebound away before it was pounced on by Watson who buried it to make it 4-2. The Aeros' hustle would again factor in keeping Milwaukee to the perimeter and Hackett made some clutch glove saves down the stretch as his team was playing rope-a-dope. At times the Aeros had a little trouble alleviating pressure as their attempts to clear the zone failed and the team ended having some really long shifts. Each time it was Hackett that bailed his team out by freezing the puck. In the final two minutes, Admirals' bench boss Dean Evason pulled Smith for an extra attacker but it was the Aeros who would find the back of the net. After some hard work along the boards the puck would be poked out by Fontaine who took off to the Milwaukee end to bury the empty netter to seal a 5-2 victory.
It was a solid performance by Matt Hackett, who seemed to really be laboring a bit after his collision in the 3rd period to help deliver the Aeros an important victory. Personally it was perhaps even more important for Hackett who ended his 7-game personal losing streak. Defensively, the mobility of the Aeros' defense made a big difference last night. Especially the play of Kris Fredheim, Steven Kampfer (who looked silky smooth skating with the puck at times) and Chay Genoway that allowed the Aeros a way to quickly get the puck out of their zone. I thought Kyle Medvec had a good game; and was physical and played well at the point too.
Offensively, the Aeros did a great job of keeping it simple and working their forecheck effectively. All of their lines had moments where they really bottled Milwaukee up in its own zone and did their fair share of getting pucks on goal. I was very impressed by the overall hustle of the team and it was good to see the Aeros fight back from the early goal that could've sent the team emotionally into a tailspin considering its struggles as of late. This was a game the Aeros should've won and it did.
Having been as close to the bench as I was I was really struck by the activity and constant communication of the Aeros coaching staff. Head Coach John Torchetti and assistant coach Mike Van Ryn were constantly talking to the players and helping them out wherever. This is the sign of a great teaching coach and the players seemed to have a very good relationship; as there wasn't any bickering or confusion. This is exactly what the Minnesota Wild should want from its AHL affiliate. A quality win, and now the Aeros continue their extended road trip with a game in Rockford tonight.
~ (LW) Jason Zucker – He was clearly one of the best players on the ice as he was last time. Speed, good hands, a willingness to shoot (5 shots) and he communicated real well with the coaching staff all game long and played smart. Good puck pressure and even doled out a few nice body checks too. His late 2nd period goal really was big for the Aeros as it gave them some much-needed breathing room. This kid deserves an NHL shot.
~ (C) Justin Fontaine – The last time the Aeros played in Milwaukee, Fontaine looked disconnected and tired. He just sort of went through the motions and was even careless as he took some lazy penalties. It was completely different tonight as he was all over the place, using his speed effectively to create scoring chances. The former UMD star also played well defensively and his superior hustle was a constant pain for the Admirals. Fontaine's two goals led the charge, but he played like the leading returning scorer for the Aeros like the team needs him to be.
~ (F) Zack Phillips – Phillips certainly has tremendous hands and looked pretty good one-on-one. He played reasonably well along the boards and was able to work the puck to his teammates. Yet there are certainly places where he needs to improve. Most notably his skating. While he certainly had more of a forward lean he just couldn't seem to get moving as fas as he needed to more often than not. Especially where he had to have a quick start it wasn't pretty for the former St. John Sea Dogs star. Yet in the other aspects of the game, he's highly skilled. He has a fairly quick release and if he continues to play more on the 1st / 2nd line I think he'll start piling up some more points. The Fredericton, New Brunswick-native had an assist tonight.
~ (C) Johan Larsson – He was not as noticeable as he was on January 23rd. He still had a solid game; and isn't afraid to go into the corners and battle for the puck but he just didn't stand out for me. Larsson is not tremendously fast but he moves well enough to get where he needs to be; and his terrific core strength makes him strong on the puck. He also showed a little tenacity last night as he was afraid to trade barbs with the always ornery Michael Latta.
~ (LW) Brett Bulmer – He had a terrific game on the forecheck on a line with Jake Dowell and Stephane Veilleux. That line caused Milwaukee all kinds of problems throughout the 1st and 2nd period of the game. Bulmer would not return to the bench in the 3rd; perhaps because of the damage he got from that hit from behind in the 2nd period. I am not sure if that was a precautionary measure or if something more is wrong with the rugged winger. Yet Bulmer was strong on the puck and down low along the wall. He moves well and looks like an ideal 3rd liner; although I wish he'd shoot the puck a bit more.
~ (G) Matt Hackett – The goaltender looked solid between the pipes. While he didn't get nearly as much activity during the early part of the game he came up with some big saves down the stretch in order to give his team the win. 28 saves, many of them made with lots of traffic near the paint was impressive.
Before I end the article I'd like to thank Houston Aeros' radio play-by-play voice Joe O'Donnell for meeting with me before the game. O'Donnell does a terrific job, providing excellent game details without trying to be over the top. The conversation was a lot of fun; talking about both the Aeros and the Wild and I have to say I was very appreciative of his candor and willingness to meet a fan / blogger like me. I hope I can have the opportunity again someday.
~ The Aeros' roster tonight was as follows: Justin Fontaine, Carson McMillan, Kirk MacDonald, Ryley Grantham, Chad Rau, David McIntyre, Jake Dowell, Stephane Veilleux, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, Zack Phillips, Paul Mara, Steven Kampfer, Wes O'Neill, Kris Fredheim, Chay Genoway and Kyle Medvec. Darcy Kuemper backed up Matt Hackett. Kane Lafranchise and Nick Petersen were the healthy scratches.
~ The 3 Stars of the Game were: 1st Star Justin Fontaine, 2nd Star Jason Zucker, 3rd Star Austin Watson
~ Attendance was 4,894 at Bradley Center.