What’s up hockey heads? Aero Joe back on the blogging warpath (yes, I know, it’s about time).
Just 6 games left for the Aeros in the regular season, and they probably need 4 wins to secure a playoff berth in 2012. 4 wins would equal 8 points, giving the Aeros 87 points and that probably earns them the 6th or 7th seed. There’s still a ton of uncertainty in the AHL’s Western Conference – can Rockford continue their push and steal a spot, will someone currently in the top 8 slide out, is Lake Erie toast because they only have 4 games left??? – you get the picture…
One thing is for certain however – the Aeros will not make the playoffs if they get into a tie-breaking situation because the first tiebreaker is regulation / overtime wins (ROW). Granted, this is just my opinion, but of the top 12 teams (currently) in the Western Conference, only Rochester (26) has fewer ROW than the Aeros (27). So, the Aeros chances of back-dooring (insert a Marv Albert “YEEEESSS!!!”) into the playoffs is slim.
With that said, here’s 6 things to keep your eyes on over the final 6 games:
1. DEFENDING HOME ICE – It only took the Aeros until January 20 to “figure it out” at Toyota Center but since then, they’ve been on a tear. The club has points in 6 straight at home and 11 of their last 13 in downtown Houston. With 5 of the last 6 games at home and great crowds expected at all of the remaining tilts, the Aeros should have an advantage.
2. MATT HACKETT – The 2nd-year pro, and club’s #1 netminder, must be better than he has been in recent outings. Look, I’m not putting this club’s gradual descent down the standings over the last 12 weeks on Hackett. It’s been a combination of things (see call-ups / injuries in Minnesota), but Hackett has to be lights out in what I figure will be around 5 starts before the regular season ends. He’s just 2-7-1 in his last 10 decisions in a Houston sweater, even though he’s allowed 2 goals or fewer in 6 of those 10.
3. THE PK – In what’s been the club’s Achilles heel most of the season, the Aeros penalty kill units have to be better. The Aeros have been dented for a power play goal or more in seven of the last eight games. It seems like they’ve either been red hot or ice cold on the PK. Getting on a hot streak late in the season would be huge. Here’s my challenge to them: Just 3 PPGA the rest of the way…that won’t be easy with team’s like Chicago, Peoria, Texas and Oklahoma City on the schedule, but let’s see how they fare.
4. A SIMPLE APPROACH – Coach Torchetti has been preaching a simple approach to his team for weeks now. He feels they need a tight-checking, mistake-free game to have success. Stick to the system, win your battles and make the other team beat you, rather than beating yourself. It’s certainly easier said than done, but after some much needed rest this week and a few days of practice, the Aeros should be ready to break out of their recent funk and get back in the win column.
5. VETS MUST LEAD – The names Jeff Taffe, Jon DiSalvatore, Chad Rau, Cody Almond, Carson McMillan and Drew Bagnall must litter the score sheet the rest of the way. Plain and simple. You need the guys that have “been there and done that” to help this team fight its way into the playoffs. In addition to chipping in with points, it’s up to these guys to bring that playoff mentality. Whether it’s blocking a shot, taking a hit to make a play or scoring a timely goal, the vets must lead by example. The Aeros need Coach Torchetti and his staff to be using the following words when addressing the media post-game from here on out: intensity, focus, execution, desperation, passion, sacrifice. The aforementioned group certainly know what it takes to get it done this time of year and the younger players will be looking to them.
6. THE LINEUP – It will be interesting to see the club’s lineup with a pair of 3-in-3’s staring them down to end the season. Will they dress 7 “D” a couple of times like they have in recent weeks? Will Brett Bulmer slide onto a line with “scorers” or “checkers”? Will Rau continue to play on a line with Nick Palmeri or does he go back to centering Taffe and DiSalvatore? Does Hackett start all three games of this weekend set if he’s on top of his game, or does Mike Brodeur get his first game in an Aeros sweater? Can Tyler Cuma (pending he’s sent back down from the Wild after tonight) play 4 games in 4 days at high level? There are lots of new faces around this team – Sean Lorenz, Bulmer and Josh Caron, just to name a few – will they get a chance to contribute, and if so, how will they fare? Will defensemen Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella be sent down on Sunday and arrive in time to play in the last 4 games?
At this point in the season, it’s about execution and emotion, passion and perseverance. You’ve got to find a way to stay even keel, while bringing the right amount of will and skill to the table. It’s not easy, but it’s why we all love the game of hockey…this is the time of year where the stakes are at their highest. And you find out a hell of a lot about a player when their season is at stake.
In 5 of their remaining 6 games, the Aeros will play a team that’s either in the playoffs or battling for their lives, and that lone “non-playoff” game is against a team in the Texas Stars that has a great power play and a lot of hatred for their intra-state foe. It won’t be easy, but at the end of the day as a fan, would you really want it any other way?
This team has fought hard to stay in the race despite all the adversity its faced…6 more to go and then, we’ll go from there…
– Aero Joe