by Andrew J. Ferraro || AHL On The Beat Archive
The Houston Aeros, the defending Western Conference champions, sneaked into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.
They did so on the back of second-year goalie Matt Hackett, and because they were able to win their last two home games against the San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars, they are the only team from last year’s AHL final four to make the playoffs.
The Aeros will be the first to tell you they did not play well down the stretch. They entered the season with a loaded roster full of playoff experience and talented rookies.
But with myriad injuries to their NHL parent team, the Minnesota Wild, and to several key players including No. 2 goalie Darcy Kuemper, the Aeros lost an edge. They did, however, pull out of their dive at just the right time – the last AHL game of the year.
They beat Texas 2-1 after allowing the first goal of the game in the second period. Now, as the No. 8 seed entering postseason play, they’ll be heavy underdogs against the No. 1 team from the get-go, the Oklahoma City Barons.
“It’s a big win for us," said head coach John Torchetti. “It was just a lot of fun watching our guys, watching them celebrate. What we went through this year, not to make the playoffs, being so close … We probably could have fell down and said, ‘Hey, it’s okay, we can make it for another time,’ but that just showed you everything right there.”
Again, Hackett was a big reason why the Aeros were able to sneak in after falling off the pace two months ago.
After being reassigned to Houston on Mar. 28, Hackett started the last nine games of the season. He only won three of those, but he helped them get points in four others.
Those extra points helped the Aeros avoid missing the playoffs for just the fourth time in franchise history (18 years).
“I haven’t seen goaltending like that since, probably (Roberto) Luongo in my first pro win against Boston,” added Torchetti about Hackett’s Sunday performance. “I think he stopped 40 shots. I was like, ‘Wow, thanks buddy!’ I’m proud of him."
Hackett stopped two shorthanded breakaways and was at his best when it appeared that the three-in-three schedule started to affect the Aeros’ mental sharpness.
“We’ve had quite a few bad bounces to go against us the last few games,” said Hackett. “(Sunday) it all came together, and that is very nice for our team and for our confidence going into the playoffs.”
Next up for Hackett and the Aeros a Barons team that won seven of the eight meetings between the two teams and got a point in the game they didn’t win.
If the Aeros are going to move along like they did a year ago, they are going to need to keep winning at home and have Hackett keep playing just like he has down the stretch.