The Aeros Are This Close to Clinching a Playoff Spot
It was a playoff atmosphere inside of Toyota Center this weekend as the Houston Aeros battled the Oklahoma City Barons in a rare three-games-in-three-nights situation which saw the Aeros playing all three games at home against the same team. The playoff atmosphere arose because the Aeros had yet to clinch a playoff spot and the Barons were one of the teams just below them in the standings.
John Royal Jed Ortmeyer providing the team leadership
Last week, before the series started, the Aeros players decided to treat these games like the playoffs. One of those first-round matches where they have three games in the same location. And if they could win the "playoff" series, they'd be that much closer to clinching a real spot in the playoffs.
So deciding to take control of their own destiny, the Aeros went out and did more than just win the series this weekend. They went out and swept the series, getting the 4-1 win on Friday night, the 6-5 shootout win on Saturday night and the 5-4 regulations win yesterday.
"We're treating this series like it's a playoff series," team captain Jon DiSalvatore said on Thursday afternoon. 'We need to win, and we need to prepare for ourselves -- obviously if we win this series we put ourselves in another good spot going into the final two weeks of the season. So that's our approach. It's a key series for us, and it's time to raise our level to that playoff-like mentality."
The Aeros didn't play their best hockey this weekend. They didn't put together a single game of complete hockey. But they did what all good hockey teams find they must do during a season. They played some crappy hockey, but they found a way to win each and every night despite some of the worst officiating seen since the advent of glasses and contact lenses. The play was brutal to watch at times, especially when it came to the beating the Barons were administering to Patrick O'Sullivan every night -- he took multiple shots to the head that the officials missed - and both O'Sullivan and Robbie Earl missed most of the third period yesterday because they were cramping up from the abuse. O'Sullivan missed the entire period.
"They're a very desperate team, and we're obviously a very desperate team, too," DiSalvatore said after Saturday's win. "We talked before the weekend started that these points are so crucial. We have [third place] Texas that's breathing down our throat. [Oklahoma City] are battling with three or four other teams for fourth place. The emotion and intensity are at a playoff level right now, and we turned this into a playoff series. And at this point, we won the series, but we want more. And these guys -- they need every point that they can get. So whether the emotions turn into frustration, they turn into physical play, they turn into great goals or whatever, it's going to result in something. You're starting to see a little bit of everything out there, and that's based on the situation that we're all in."
John Royal Jon DiSalvatore called this weekend a playoff series.
The Aeros threatened to lose the Saturday and Sunday games with some lazy play and with what head coach Mike Yeo referred to as some naive play -- playing nice and not continuing to apply pressure. But Yeo and DiSalvatore credited that win, and the weekend, to the play and leadership of Jed Ortmeyer, who played his 500th pro game this weekend. And when it looked like the Aeros were doing everything possible to lose Saturday's game in the second period, Ortmeyer stepped up during the second intermission and set the agenda: The team was going to win.
"He was the guy who stood up in the locker room before we went out for the third period, and said, 'We're going to go do this. We're going to win this game,'" Yeo said Saturday night. "But it's one thing to say it. It's another thing to go do it. And you could tell, right from the first shift, he went out and had a huge hit at center ice, and really woke the guys up. And with the way he was blocking shots and paying the price there, you could tell he was all in for his teammates."
DiSalvatore, himself a veteran, agreed with the accolades being handed out to Ortmeyer.
"You have a guy like that, who's been around, who's played a lot of NHL games, who's been around winners, it speaks a lot," he said. "It speaks a lot to where guys need to put their minds going out."
To Ortmeyer, it's just part of the job. And the job is winning games and getting into the playoffs. To get into the playoffs, the mind-set has to be that every game can be won.
"At time we need to have that mind-set," Ortmeyer said. "We're a confident group, and we can't just ease into things. We need to believe that we're going to go out there and win every night, and things weren't going well in the second period [on Saturday]. We were a little frustrated and we had a chance to regroup and catch our breaths in between periods, and go out there knowing we had the chance to win this game, and be confident that we're going to win."
There are four regular season games remaining for the Aeros. Despite a stellar 44-29-1-5 (94 points) record, they've yet to clinch the playoffs. But one more win, one more win out of the four, and they're in for sure. And then it's the playoffs for real.