Houston Aeros 1994-2013: Thank you for all the great memories and two decades of great hockey and entertainment.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hey Look, It's Playoff Media Day

Joined some of my fellow media members out at SLICE for practice today. For what it's worth, the guys looked loose, I saw laughs and smiles, and the beginnings of playoffs beards were evident all around, except for Jon DiSalvatore, who we discovered last season can't really grow a beard, and John Torchetti, who was clean shaven.

The Aeros were a team that struggled this season. They struggled at times because of injuries in Houston. They struggled often because of injuries with the Wild. The team's best scorer was traded at mid-season and not replaced. The emotional leaders of the team, Jed Ortmeyer and Warren Peters spent most of the season with the Wild (where they weren't quite appreciated by that team's fandom).

Matt Hackett was good in goal, when he was here, but he spent lots of hours on airplanes between Houston and Minneapolis-St.Paul. But amazingly, even when Hackett was gone, the goaltending excelled. And if the Aeros are going to make a run for it this season, the key is going to be the play of Hackett. The players know it, Torchetti knows it, and Hackett knows it.

"He’s going to probably be the key [the Barons are] going to focus on as well," DiSalvatore told us today. "He’s got to be a huge leader for us in the playoffs. We’re going to lean on him. He knows what it takes to get all of the way there. It’s not going to be a surprise for him. Maybe he’ll be a little more comfortable in that setting right now. He’s a guy that’s got to be determined to outplay [Barons goalie Yann] Danis, and I think he’s up for the challenge and excited about it. It’s another year of maturity for Hackett, so I think you can expect good things out of him."

John Torchetti was big with the Hackett praise, as well: "He’s a big reason why we got in. That third period [Sunday], he won us the playoff spot. He was fantastic in every situation. And last year his experience, coming through as a rookie playing all of the way to the finals. And we all know what a hot goaltending can do to a team."

And Hackett gave his thoughts on taking what he went through last season and using this time around: "Playoffs are always the same. It’s always intense, everything’s a lot more amped. I played a lot last year. I played 24 games, something like that. I have experience. I know what to expect. Last year I was a little nervous starting off, but I’m sure I’ll be fine this year."

To a man, they're convinced that all of the roster shakeups during the season will play to their advantage. The young kids had to play in big situations, get big minutes they hadn't been expected to get. And with the rosters set, with the Wild unable to take anymore players away, the guys will get to experience some continuity.

"We’ve been talking about this all year," DiSalvatore said. "It’s been a struggle for guys that come in and out of the lineup to get comfortable. That’s what you have to do. You have to try to get guys as comfortable as possible. Guys that might not have played high-end minutes, they’re getting the opportunity. They’ve grown. We have a lot of guys who have grown and matured this year, so we feel like that experience is going to help them with this next level of pro hockey, which is playing in the playoffs. So we feel like that’s going to help them. And hopefully they feel comfortable enough, and they feel confident enough, that they can just go out and do their job."

"I just think that there’s been a lot of opportunity here this year," Drew Bagnall added. "We’ve obviously had to deal with a lot of injuries, most teams do, and we’ve had guys kind of benefit from it. They’ve been able to play in pressure situations that, maybe without those injuries they wouldn’t have been able to play in, so hopefully moving forward that can help them to contribute more in the playoffs when there is more on the line and they have to assume an even bigger role."

Bagnall also pointed to something that everybody senses. The guys love playing at Toyota Center, and they love the crowds, but as great as the crowds are -- more on that in a minute -- it's the conditions inside of Toyota Center which are the biggest help for the Aeros.

"Also, I think the fact that it’s a warmer building, it’s not an easy rink to play in, conditioning-wise, that might give us an edge, too," he said. "We’re used to it. We know the kind of preparation you need to have going in, and if we can get even that little bit of an edge on them – if they’re not ready, that could really help us. So we have to be prepared and take care of ourselves."

And the players are all depending on the folks in attendance to help out.

"I really like the fact that we got to play here at the Toyota Center," Bagnall said. "I love playing there. The atmosphere is great. We’ve had terrific support all year, and last year in the playoffs, it was almost deafening in the building, and for a  building that size to be that loud, it was really impressive."

"I think we have the best fans in the league," DiSalvatore said. "The support I’ve experienced here in Houston has been phenomenal. They are an extra player. I look at them as an extra player for us. They bring an energy to our team. They lift us up; they keep us going. We use them. It’s a major advantage for us to be able to start out at home and maybe jump out ahead in this series right off the bat."

 So I get the feeling they're hoping for a packed building tomorrow night.

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