Aeros Keeping Their Eye on the Prize
The Aeros' record on Christmas Day was 17-15-1-2. They were in seventh place in the division. They were in the midst of a long stretch of road games. They had been defeated 5-0 by the Hamilton Bulldogs in their most recent game, they had lost five of their last six games and they had failed to score a goal in their last 158:43 of play.
John Royal Jed Ortmeyer, the veteran leader
They were a team going nowhere, and they were going nowhere fast. Then things changed. Suddenly things began clicking. They went out the next night and defeated the Texas Stars by a 4-3 score. Injured players got healthy. New guys joined the team. Suddenly the team that couldn't win now couldn't lose. And tonight, they're playing game three of the Calder Cup finals against the Binghamton Senators, a series now tied 1-1.
"You look around that time," team captain Jon DiSalvatore said on Monday. "I can remember a meeting right around in that time where we said how do we want our story to go. We were going through a real difficult travel schedule, and we had a lot of excuses to kind of just accept where we were, the position in the league. And we said how are we going to use this? And obviously we wanted to write a story of success."
And write a story of success the team has. They brought in with what head coach Mike Yeo was saying. About how they just needed to erase the losses from their minds while not celebrating, too much, the wins. Don't worry about the game tomorrow, the road trip next week, the rematch just down the pipe. They were to just concentrate on what they did on the ice, worry about those battles they could win and things they could control because if they handled those things, the wins would follow.
"Everything just kind of started to mold together," DiSalvatore said. "That's kind of how it all developed, but the structure and the foundation was all based on a process that we put in place and we committed to around that time in December. And it was just every day getting a little bit better and sticking with the process and not just talking about winning a game, but what it takes to win a game, physically, on the ice, structurally, and mentally. It's been a tremendous buy-in factor from the whole group. And that's exactly why we're here right now."
Where the Aeros are right now is Binghamton, the locale for games three through five of this series. The Aeros got the 3-1 win in game one on Friday night behind two goals from Jed Ortmeyer, but lost game two in overtime 2-1 on Saturday. The Aeros have been off since then, using the time to recharge the mental batteries while recovering physically.
John Royal Jon DiSalvatore soaks in the crowd.
And while the team's recovering, they can refocus on what got them to this final series because there have been times in the playoffs when the Aeros have forgotten who they are. This happened against Hamilton, a series that saw the Aeros jump out to the 3-0 series lead before nearly going the route of the Houston Oilers and losing it all.
"We need to take a lesson from the Hamilton series," Ortmeyer said. "We got away from our game that we had success from, and it almost came back to bite us. They took us right down to the end. Game one [with Binghamton] we played the way we wanted to play, and we were able to get the win, and in game two, we started off not playing our style of game."
Ortmeyer was one of the new faces, joining the team right after New Year's. According to many of the players on the team, it has been Ortmeyer's veteran leadership that has been the key to the team's turnaround and the key to keeping the team on track and focused during the playoffs. And while Ortmeyer has been around the professional game for awhile, he's not jaded to the process, and he's having as much fun as anybody on the team.
"This is as far as I've ever made it in the playoffs," he said. "I've been eliminated in the conference finals the two other times that I've made far runs in playoffs. After [Friday's] game, even talking to my wife, it's like this is so much fun. I'm having fun playing hockey. It's still, it's the end of May and we're still playing. Those were my exact words about how much fun I'm having."
The fun is guaranteed to last at least three more games, three more games that will be played on the road. While the Aeros want nothing more than to sweep those three games and come back to Houston as champions, they know that it won't be easy. And if the series should return to Houston next week for games six and seven, the guys won't be too disappointed because there's nothing more they want than to share it all with the fans who have been filing into Toyota Center.
"They've been there all year, and obviously they've come out a little bit more as we've had success in the playoffs, but they're a huge boost," DiSalvatore said. "They raise your spirits. They get you going. At certain parts of the game, there might be a little bit of a lull, but they can bring you out of it. And they've done a great job, and we really appreciate all of the support we've been given and we just look forward to making them proud."
Game three is tonight, and games four and five are on Friday and Saturday night. If games six and seven are required, they will be played in Houston next Tuesday and Thursday.