HOUSTON - Ever since a four-game slide in late January, the Aeros have quietly become one of the best teams in the American Hockey League. No, they're not the most skilled group, and injuries to both the Wild and their own roster kept them from rocketing up to the Top 5 in the standings.
But every cliche about the team clicking at the right time seems to be true about this 2013 squad that will leave Houston at the end of the playoffs and pack up for Des Moines, IA.
Just a few more than 24 hours after the team said it needed to come out physical, have a fast start and play good special teams, the Aeros did just that in Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinal series against the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit).
The Aeros picked up a solid 3-0 thanks to two goals by Justin Fontaine and a shutout by Darcy Kuemper in his first AHL playoff game.
The Aeros will have one more home game Sunday before the series shifts to Michigan for Game 3, and Games 4 and 5 if necessary. To save money on travel costs and to maximize weekend dates, the opening round is just a best-of-five.
"With the way the guys started the game, I just wanted to do my part and not let them down," said Kuemper. "Everyone had each other's backs, and that is why we came away with game Game 1."
Mikael Granlund started the game with a huge hit and was a monster with the puck. Paul Mara was his usual huge, veteran self and looked after the rest of the team while they were looking for the right opportunity to strike first.
They did just that in the middle of the second period on a goal by Marco Scandella. Then, with the Aeros killing a 4-on-3 situation, Kuemper made three spectacular saves giving Fontaine the chance to score the first of his two goals. He took a 40-foot pass from Steven Kampfer, stayed onside and beat Mrazek 5-hole.
"I was just flying up the middle and had a good look," said Fontaine. "The puck wouldn't settle - I made a move and I kind of missed the puck - but I got enough of it, and I will take that bounce for sure."
Grand Rapids turned up the heat in the third period, but Keumper was cool, turned everything away and after the Griffins pulled Peter Mrazek with three minutes to go, the Aeros weathered the storm and iced the game with an empty-netter by Fontaine.
The Aeros dictated play, forced the Griffins into desperation mode and shut the door when they needed to.
"That was a good game, and we got some big saves," said Aeros head coach John Torchetti. "(Kuemper) was just nice and poised, even when we had a turnover behind the net; he knew where the shooter was and keeps just keeps things calm for us.
"They did not get a lot of rebounds, and that really makes our job easier."
According to Mike Russo, the Wild will send down Carson McMillan and Jake Dowell and recall Stephane Veilleux and Jason Zucker. If that's the case, Wild fans hope that they get the same Steph Veilleux that played in Houston on Friday. He was incredible, and save for a little extra penalty for roughing in the middle of the third period, he was just about flawless against the Griffins.