Aeros Soar into All-Star Break
The no doubt about it leader of the Houston Aeros is Jon DiSalvatore, the 30-year-old captain in his third season with the team. He's the go-to-go guy for information after the game. He's the unquestioned locker room leader. He's the team's leading scorer, and he's the one constant on a squad that's ever-changing because of injuries both in Houston and with the parent club up in Minnesota.
John Royal Jon DiSalvatore setting the example on the ice.
And for the first time ever in his AHL career, he's playing in the All-Star game. He leads the Aeros with 31 points including 12 goals and 19 assists (Casey Wellman leads the team with 13 goals). He's the top special team player with six power play goals. His name's not on the top of any of the AHL leader categories, but the AHL leader categories don't matter when it comes to the important thing: the Aeros winning games.
The Aeros have been winning games this season -- they're in second place of the AHL's West Division with a record of 21-9-3-9 (54 points), just one point behind the first-place Oklahoma City Barons. They're tied for the second-best record in the AHL's Western Conference, and they're tied for the fifth-best record in the entire league.
That the Aeros continue to find ways to win games despite the huge number of players that have been sent to the Minnesota Wild because of the Wild's injury epidemic is testament to the on- and off-ice leadership of DiSalvatore, the coaching of John Torchetti and the work in goal of the team's other all-star, second-year goaltender, Matt Hackett.
Hackett, with a record of 13-7-4, is having a remarkable year. He backstopped the team to last year's Calder Cup Finals. He's spent time with the Wild this season, earning NHL honors as the second star of the week in mid-December for his play. And with all of the roster and lineup changes, Hackett's been the Aeros' most important player, the one constant, surrendering just 2.34 goals a game.
"I'm just here to develop and become a NHL goalie," Hackett said after Sunday's shoot-out loss to San Antonio. "This past year has been great. Going to the playoffs last year and going all of the way to the Finals is pretty special, and then I go up to Minnesota, and playing there was pretty cool, and succeeding like I did was good for me, good for my confidence to show that I can play there. The All-Star Game is just a credit to my team and how they've played all year."
But the one constant, even more than Hackett, has been DiSalvatore, who has played in every single game for the Aeros despite also spending time with the Wild. DiSalvatore seemingly plays with different guys on his line every night, and it's got to be confusing trying to figure out what somebody's going to do from shift to shift. Only he says that's not so.
"One thing that the organization's done is that they've kept the systems kind of uniform from top to bottom, so guys trying to come in and learn new systems isn't something that you really have to be too concerned with," he said last week. "So guys were able to step in and feel comfortable with their routes and position play out there. So that helps guys' confidence as they go out on the ice."
John Royal Matt Hackett eyes the AHL All-Star game as his next conquest
And veteran leader or not, DiSalvatore is excited about his first trip to the All-Star game. Especially since the game in Atlantic City is close to home, allowing for family and friends to watch him on the ice.
"I've never been selected before," he said. "This is my first time. It's an honor. I'm excited about it. I'm happy to go represent the team this year. I'm looking forward to it. And it's a little bit closer to my home, so I get to see some friends and family when I go back there. And my family's going to come up with me. I'm looking forward to the whole experience."
Before he and Hackett head out to Atlantic City, however, they and their teammates still have to play two games. They'll be in Oklahoma City on Saturday and in San Antonio on Sunday. Those are two key games against two division opponents, and the Aeros really need the wins, especially after losing all three games last weekend -- two in the shootout and one in overtime.
The Aeros will return to Toyota Center next week. They host the Texas Stars at 7:05 on Thursday and the Lake Erie Monsters on Saturday night. The Aeros also host the Milwaukee Admirals on Super Bowl Sunday, but don't worry; since the Aeros game is at noon, you have plenty of time to get to Toyota Center and back before the pregame shows have ended.