by Andrew J. Ferraro
HOUSTON - The Aeros' winless opening weekend is well in the rearview now, as the Wild's AHL affiliate is smokin' hot with points in five straight games. After dropping back to back games against Charlotte and San Antonio to open the season, the Aeros have won four of their last five games, with the only blemish being an overtime loss to Milwaukee in game Nov. 5.
Last weekend, the Aeros powered their way past Oklahoma City on the road, knocking out Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' teeth in the process before returning home on Oct. 27th to shutout Milwaukee 4-0. Darcy Kuemper spelled Matt Hackett with the Aeros trailing 3-2 at OKC and led the Aeros to a 6-4 win in the first of three road games in two weeks at the Cox Convention Center. Kuemper earned another start against the Admirals, survived an early barrage and helped the Aeros avenge the overtime loss from a week before.
Aeros head coach John Torchetti was pleased with his goaltending last weekend.
"We got some big saves early, and for us that was big," said Torchetti. "We handled a big storm that they threw at us and then we got our legs. We kept it simple, and once we started playing our checking brand of hockey, we got more opportunites to score and had better puck possession time.
"I thought Kuemper had a big game for us. I thought that was great. He came in last night in OKC when we were down, and he did a really good job. Because of that, we wanted to come right back with him. He deserved the opportunity."
The Aeros are quite fortunate to have two young and equally determined goalies at their disposal. It's still early, but Kuemper has the better numbers early on. Hackett's last two starts have been sub par, but the defense in front of him in the overtime loss to Milwaukee was mostly to blame. The Aeros got a 2-0 lead in that one and played like all they had to do was go through the motions for the win. Chad Rau's last-minute goal in that one saved them a point, and the OT goal was a power play score.
Houston will play three more games this weekend, the first two in OKC and you can bet Hackett will get a chance to redeem himself in one of them.
After the win at OKC, the Aeros bused home immediately following the game. Depending on how fast you drive, that is about a seven-hour trip on the road, and it took the Aeros a little while to get going Saturday night before settling down. Kuemper said he is glad the Aeros don't have too many of those long drives, but he didn't looked fazed by the travel. Kuemper made 33 saves in the game, including 15 in the third period when the Admirals did anything they could to get back in the game.
"The guys really did a great job with that bit of adversity," said Kuemper. "We've gone over a lot of video, and I think it really showed out there. Despite all the penalties, we did a great job of limiting shots, and limiting chances, and I never really doubted that we were going to walk out of here with a win tonight."
Clearly the team is riding a confidence high right now, and what is most impressive about them to this point is their ability to learn from mistakes and go for the throat when they have that opportunity.
"That is the development of the players," said Torchetti. "I just think overall, we just have to keep the understanding that we have to come in here and play solid defense. If we keep our emphasis on that, and supporting each other, we'll be fine.
Added Kuemper, "We just doing a great job of limiting the chances and keeping the shots from the outside.
That is one thing that will benefit the goalies going forward. But Kuemper said that there is an element of competition inside that lockerroom that will fuel the fire to be successful.
"Our defense is so strong; we've got eight guys that can play," added Kuemper. "It's unfortunate that someone has to sit out every night, but it keeps everyone sharp. You know you have to do your best at every game, every practice or you are going to be the be the next guy to sit."
Scoring in bunches
Sure it's early, but Houston is second the AHL with 11 first-period goals, outscoring opponents 11-6 in the opening frame. They have scored first in six of their seven games, going 4-1-1-0 when jumping ahead 1-0. (.750). The Aeros are in the top ten for goals for per game at 3.86 (4th) and goals against per game 2.71 (9th).
We asked Kuemper what it's like getting to face the likes of Mikael Granlund, Marco Scandella and Charlie Coyle every day at practice. He smiled and basically said that it will only make him better.
"It's fun to practice against these guys; you really get better every day," said Kuemper. "You're going to the rink to face some of the best players in this league; you have to be sharp, and really it make me better, so I like it and look forward to it."
Speaking of Granlund
The rookie center leads the team in scoring with three goals and seven assists for ten points in seven games played. Granlund also leads the team with a +6 rating and six power-play points. He has a point in six straight games (3-7-10), the second longest streak in the AHL.
Next on the docket
The Aeros will play three games in three nights for the second time this season. They'll play back to back games at Oklahoma City Friday and Saturday and then travel back to Houston for their first game of the season against the Grand Rapids Griffins. Barons coach Todd Nelson chided his team for a lack of desire, focus and mental preparation, so I'd be surprised to see another 10-goal game between these two teams. The Barons are coming off a 4-2 home win against Texas, and the Griffins will play in each of the Texas cities this weekend, visiting San Antonio and Texas, respectively, before dropping in at the Toyota Center.