Tonight begins the final chapter in the history of the Houston Aeros. After 19 consecutive seasons, and really, a long-standing tradition that goes back much further than that, the lights will go out on hockey in Houston at some point over the next two months. Like all of you, I certainly hope that occurs after the Calder Cup is lifted high above the head of team captain Drew Bagnall some time around the middle of June.
I’ll digress for now, with the promise of posting another blog, an obituary of sorts, once this playoff season comes to an end. In the meantime, let’s focus on the present, which begins tonight as the Aeros host Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Grand Rapids Griffins.
This is the best time of year to be a hockey fan, and it’s not even close. The stakes are raised, the on-ice intensity is unmatched, your (fan and broadcaster) nerves become frayed and ultimately, a champion is crowned. The Aeros parent club in Minnesota will be watching closely to see how the young kids handle the intensity and scrutiny that comes with every shift of playoff hockey. It’s the time of year where some players can earn themselves a big, off-season contract, or, a shot in the NHL.
With all that said, here are some things to look for tonight in Game One:
- Rusty Pipes? Saskatoon native Darcy Kuemper will get his first taste of the Calder Cup Playoffs tonight, as he starts in net for the Aeros. Kuemper was absolutely on fire at the AHL level until his NHL recall a couple months back. There should be no concern about his ability or his compete level. However, he hasn’t seen a whole lot of game action lately with Niklas Backstrom carrying the load for the Wild. Tonight will be Kuemper’s first AHL action since April 2nd (ironically enough against Grand Rapids), and just his second appearance at any level since April 18th.
- The PK: With Jake Dowell and Carson McMillan on NHL recall, the Aeros PK will need its depth to emerge to the forefront. They’ve got plenty of guys with PK experience, but when you lose your top forward “pairing”, obviously that creates a hole. The penalty kill was outstanding over the tail half of the regular season, posting an 87.5% efficiency over the last 36 games. They’ll need that type of performance in this series to give themselves a chance to advance. (Kudos to Josh Fisher for digging up that PK nugget).
- Puck Decisions: When I talked with John Torchetti yesterday, he stressed making smart decisions with the puck. The Griffins are a highly skilled team that thrive off giveaways. As David McIntyre told me just moments ago, “Get it deep and go to work.” So keep your eyes peeled on the Aeros ability to make the Griffins “D” turn and chase pucks, and the effectiveness of the Aeros forecheck.
- The Granlund Factor: I’m confident that guys like Jason Zucker, Justin Fontaine and Dan DaSilva will find ways to generate offense in this series, which is why Mikael Granlund could be a huge “X” factor. If he’s willing (and able) to get to the net, create plays (5-on-5) and find some success on the power play, it will give the Aeros another scoring dimension. That’s not a knock on Granlund, who has historically been a big-game player in international competition. But, plain and simple, it’s harder to score this time of year. Thus, scoring depth can be a huge difference-maker in winning or losing a series. Last year, the Aeros had one line that generated basically all of their postseason offense (Nick Palmieri, David McIntyre and Brett Bulmer). That has to change in the spring of 2013.
Here are some quick stats for ya…
- The Aeros are 54-51 all-time in Calder Cup playoff games
- The Griffins finished the regular season with a 4-4-1-1 mark over the final 10 games (read: they didn’t exactly set the world on fire)
- The Aeros enter the playoffs with 337 games of professional playoff experience on their roster (that includes guys like Dowell and Fredheim, etc.).
- The Griffins are appearing in the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Enjoy some playoff hockey, Houston! You deserve it.
– Aero Joe