The Aeros Get Healthy, Prep for the End
It's the homestretch for the Houston Aeros. Just over a month left and 17 games. If they survive this patch they're in the playoffs. But surviving this patch, getting through these 17 games, that may be the tough part.
John Royal Casey Wellman reacts to his game-winning goal on Friday
A hockey season is a grind. Especially minor league hockey. Constant bus trips. Games played after hours spent on buses. Three games in three nights while jumping over borders and handling customs. Then there's the major league club and their need for fresh players as their guys go down due to injuries.
The Aeros, in this regard, were the recipients of some good luck last weekend. Normally, the Aeros are bleeding players to their parent club, the Minnesota Wild -- and the Aeros did lose key players like Warren Peters, Cody Almond and Jed Ortmeyer to the Wild last week (Almond and Ortmeyer have since rejoined the team) -- but two key skilled players returned from injury over the weekend, and their impact was felt right away as the Aeros won two of the three games they played.
The impact of center Casey Wellman was felt immediately, and most obviously as he scored the game-winning goal in Friday's 4-3 overtime win over Texas. He also assisted on the goal that tied the game late in the third period. He also got another goal and an assist in Saturday's 5-0 win over Oklahoma City, and he scored another goal as the Aeros lost 3-2 to Rockford on Sunday afternoon.
Wellman hadn't played since January 26, when he suffered what the team called an upper-body injury. His loss has been tough for the Aeros as he's one of those skilled guys who have the ability to make things happen on offense, and those types of guys are always needed on the team, especially seeing as how head coach Mike Yeo plugged him into the top line with Patrick O'Sullivan and Jon DiSalvatore.
"It felt great to get back out there," Wellman said after Friday's game. "I was getting pretty antsy watching these guys. I wanted to make sure I was ready to go, but tonight was the night and it was exciting."
The other returnee was defenseman Marco Scandella, returning after a stay with the Minnesota Wild where while excelling, he suffered a concussion that has kept him out of action since January. Scandella was cleared to play hockey last week, and he returned to play for the Aeros. And with the injury earlier in February to defenseman Tyler Cuma, Scandella's strong physical presence was a major necessity for the Aeros.
John Royal Marco Scandella returns to action
The weekend was a major test for Scandella, what with the Aeros playing three games in three nights and Scandella not having been able to play for weeks. But he appears to have passed the test, and he appears not to be suffering any effects from the concussion.
"The head's good now. I got cleared to play," Scandella said Sunday. "The head's 100 percent, now it's just getting back into the rhythm of playing hockey. The details right now, I've been out for long enough now where -- sometimes, it's not automatic and it has to get back into my game. But I feel like I'm back. It's a tough weekend, three-and-three. It'll be better next week."
There was perhaps nobody happier to see the return of Wellman and Scandella to action than Yeo. His team's mired in a tough battle for a playoff spot, and he needs healthy players. But along with healthy players, he needs skilled players. Players who can make things happen on the ice.
"I thought both guys were very good," Yeo said. "Casey, for a guy who hasn't played a lot of time at center, especially how he defended in his own zone, was very impressive. Quite often, a guy like that, he's circling, or he's in bad position and before you know it, you spend 40 seconds in your own zone. I thought he was coming back in, he was making the right reads, he was playing the system well. Because of that, we were able to generate a few chances off of the rush coming off of the defensive zone.
"And Marco, for a guy who's been out for a long time, and not only that, coming back from the NHL, sometime the speed of the game's a little bit different. I thought he adjusted really well, and I thought his game was very strong, too."
Their games are going to have to be strong. The Aeros, with a record of 35-23-1-4 (75 points) are tantalizingly near to a playoff spot. They're in second place, one point out of first place. But the West Division is still so tight -- the two teams tied for sixth place are just six points out of first place -- that the Aeros can't afford to let up off of the gas. And hopefully, with Wellman and Scandella back in the fold, the Aeros are in a great position to go all of the way.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: The Aeros return to action tomorrow night when they host the Rockford IceHogs at Toyota Center. They also host the Syracuse Crunch and the Abbotsford Heat on Friday and Sunday while traveling to Austin to play the Texas Stars on Saturday....Anton Khudobin, the Aeros' primary goalie for the past two seasons, was traded to the Boston Bruins by the Aeros' parent club, the Minnesota Wild, yesterday. Matt Hackett appears to be the number one goalie for now, and Josh Tordjman, who has AHL experience -- including with the Aeros earlier this season -- will likely join the team.