Aeros Rush Past Rampage, Make Final Playoff Push
The Aeros could feel it Saturday night. It's been a long season. They've been in a tough playoff race, playing playoff-caliber hockey since Christmas. Nightly they've been facing off against the other teams in their division, all teams in the same mode as the Aeros. And no matter what has happened, the Aeros have not been able to pull away from them.
John Royal Drew Bagnall is pushed away as the action gets dirty on Saturday
Things changed on Saturday night, and the Aeros felt it. The Aeros were sitting in second place, three points out of first place, much like they have this past month. But they were just three points ahead of the team in third place, four points ahead of the team in the fourth, six points ahead of the team in seventh. And with just 10 games remaining in the season, the Aeros couldn't just keep waiting for the other teams to start losing. The Aeros had to start making things happen on their own.
So, on Saturday night the Aeros faced the seventh place San Antonio Rampage in the first of a weekend home-and-home series. This was the chance for the Aeros to finally begin to separate themselves in the standings from those teams below them, and separate they did.
The Aeros won a physical, fight-filled marred contest by the score of 5-1 on Saturday night. The game was scoreless after one period, though the Aeros had decisively won the two fights in the period. Then the offense exploded for four goals in the second period as offensive studs Patrick O'Sullivan and Robbie Earl made the kind of shots that make even jaded observers in the press box go wow to put Houston up 2-0. But that was nothing as Carson McMillan, one of the gritty, grind-it-out players who doesn't do the wow things, scored two goals within 19 seconds late in the second to put the nail in the Rampage coffin.
"That's the way you draw it up right there," head coach Mike Yeo said of the team's second period. "I thought the first period was good, too, actually. We had a game plan, and the guys were committed to it right from the start. We didn't bury pucks in the first period, but we started to tilt the ice, and when you do that, you put yourself in a position to do what we did in the second period."
And as happy as Yeo was with the team's second period, he was even happier with McMillan's play because while McMillan's been doing the dirty work all season, Yeo thought it was time he got to experience some of the glory.
"I'm happy for him," Yeo said. "The thing is, he doesn't need to score to have a great game. He understands that. That's one of the reasons why I think he's really put himself on the map as far as being a prospect in this organization this year. He's a guy that - he's just a great role player. Whatever his job is he's going to go out and do it that night. The reason I'm happy for him is, he's been a guy who's moved up to top lines and moved up in the lineup, and he's scored some goals and he's got some points, and the next thing you know he's back on the fourth line. But whether he's on the fourth line or the second line he's equally as important to us. I was happy to see it. Every time he's handled it with unbelievable attitude and I was happy to see him get rewarded."
John Royal Jarod Palmer lets San Antonio know who the boss is
The Aeros then came out on top in another physical contest yesterday, coming from behind to defeat the Rampage 3-2 in the shootout. The win allowed the Aeros to move into first place with a record of 41-25-1-5 (88 points). But more importantly, the win gave the Aeros some more breathing room over the other teams fighting for playoff spots, as Texas, Peoria, Oklahoma City, and Chicago all dropped games over the weekend. Milwaukee's in second place, only a point behind the Aeros, but with the other losing, the Aeros are now six points up on Texas, seven points ahead of Peoria, Oklahoma City, and Chicago, and nine points ahead of San Antonio.
This separation is important for the Aeros as the team will be off for eight days between their last two games of the season while everybody else in the playoff hunt plays multiple games in that span, giving them an opportunity to catch up to the Aeros unless the Aeros can get a cushion.
The Aeros saw the opportunity to get that separation this weekend, to get some cushion. And they took that advantage of that opportunity, getting two big wins. The playoffs aren't secured for the team yet. But with just eight games left, the Aeros are almost there.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
The Aeros play the Texas Stars in Austin on Tuesday night, then host the Oklahoma City Barons for games on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Toyota Center....The Aeros went 6-4-0-0 against the Rampage this season....With their win on Saturday night, the Aeros have now won 40 games in a season for the 10th time in franchise history.