Aeros Hope the System Will Save Them
This is a tough time for the Houston Aeros. They've been playing playoff caliber hockey since right after Christmas. They've gone 19-10-0-2 since then, and they've made a steady climb up to the top of the AHL West Division standings to second place with a record of 37-15-1-4 (79 points). Yet with the season coming to an end, the Aeros find themselves in a seven-team fight for a playoff spot.
John Royal The Aeros' Pascal Morency goes for a little spin
But with all of this going on, the Aeros find themselves beat up physically -- Matt Kassian, Drew Bagnall, Cody Almond, Jeff Penner, Jamie Fraser and Tyler Cuma are currently injured -- while at the same time, several of their key players -- Casey Wellman, Warren Peters -- are up with the Minnesota Wild because of injury problems with that team. Their primary goalie for the season, Anton Khudobin, was traded last week.
In short, a team that has risen and soared based on teamwork and chemistry now finds itself missing many of its primary parts. But the Aeros, who managed to win only one of three over the weekend -- a 3-1 victory over the Syracuse Crunch on Friday night -- are going to proceed based on the veteran leadership in place with the team and on the basis of their faith in the system of hockey employed by head coach Mike Yeo.
Friday's win over the Crunch was a prime example of this. With Almond injured and Wellman with the Wild, Yeo moved Brandon Buck up to his primary line, joining Jon DiSalvatore and Patrick O'Sullivan. Yeo also shook up his second line, moving Jarod Palmer to a line with Robbie Earl and Chad Rau. And it was this line that broke out on Friday as Palmer scored two goals and Rau contributed the other.
Palmer credited veterans Earl and Rau with his success on the night, speaking of how they directed him about the ice to be in just the right place, at the right time, on shift after shift throughout the game.
"Those guys, they help me out a lot by just talking to me," Palmer said Friday night. "Coming off the ice every shift, around the bench, they're telling me where they wanted me, where I could have been to be in a better spot, where I could have passed the puck to get it to them in a better spot. Just small details that they mentioned to you that you've got to listen to and pay attention to. If your teammates are talking to you, it makes everything a lot easier."
But Yeo was pleased with more than just their offensive output on the night. He liked the defensive game they played because their defense allowed them to open things up on the offensive end. And he was pleased that Palmer took advantage of the abilities of Earl and Rau to open up things on the ice.
The key for the Aeros from now through the rest of the season is going to be the contribution from guys like Palmer, and from the influx of new guys joining the club from the ECHL while the Aeros battle the injuries here in Houston and with the Wild. That's going to be difficult because there hasn't been a lot of practice time for the new guys to learn their teammates, but Yeo thinks the system and the identity of the team will be a big help in helping the newcomers acclimate to the team.
John Royal Aeros captain Jon DiSalvatore takes in the action
"We do as much as we can to make sure guys understand what it is that they're supposed to be doing," Yeo said. "And I think that we do have -- we know exactly what our system is, we know exactly what our identity is. And I think when you have that, it's easier for other people to come in -- it's easy to go into Detroit with the Red Wings and you're going to follow suit because that's just what they do. And I think that's sort of where we're getting to."
Palmer agrees with his coach, but he also believes that, along with the system and identify of the team, the leadership of the team is what will aid the Aeros over this final stretch.
"I think we have a lot of structure as far as where we're supposed to be and what we're supposed to do," he said. "It's well known. It's preached constantly by the leaders on the team. A lot of the guys walk the talk, and that helps a lot."
The Aeros hope to keep rolling this weekend when they host the Manitoba Moose on Friday and Sunday. Then they'll deal with the Milwaukee Admirals and San Antonio Rampage, two of the teams they're battling for the playoffs, next week.
A MISCELLANEOUS NOTE: The team is hopeful that Drew Bagnall will return to action this week. Matt Kassian has a lower body injury and is out for a couple of weeks, and we haven't been informed as to the timetables for the returns of Almond, Fraser, or Penner....The team's Clear Day roster will be announced today. This is the roster of players who are eligible for playoff action.