UPDATE: Warren Peters has been reassigned to the Aeros.
The Aeros are playing their next-to-last three-in-three of the season this weekend. And after this weekend, there are four games left in the regular season. Coming into the games, the Aeros are in second place, one point behind Milwaukee and four points ahead of third place Texas.
Now calling this weekend series the playoffs might be stretching things a bit, but according to the players I spoke with at SLICE yesterday, the playoffs is how they're viewing this weekend series with the Oklahoma City Barons. First, this is a three game series against the fourth place team in the standings -- they're just six points behind Houston. And the Aeros are telling themselves that the best way to treat this game is as if this is the first round of the playoffs. So they've got to win to advance.
"It’s pretty much a playoff series," Robbie Earl says. "It’s like a regular first round match-up against whoever we would be playing. Obviously it’s some big games coming up. We’re going to treat them as must wins, and we definitely need to capitalize on the six points at hand."
And team captain Jon DiSalvatore agreed with Earl.
"We’ve already discussed this, and we’re approaching it like it is a playoff series," he said. "I think it’s important for us. And I think we learned the last game that playoff hockey really is here, and the expectation and the coach and the mentality, everything needs to rise to another level. We’re treating this series like it’s a playoff series. We need to win, and we need to prepare for ourselves – obviously if we win this series we put ourselves in another good spot going into the final two weeks of the season. So that’s our approach. It’s a key series for us, and it’s time to raise our level to that playoff-like mentality."
Now lots of us are worried about the big break in games coming up after next week, where the Aeros are off for more than a week between games 79 and 80 while the rest of the division plays multiple games that can move them past Houston and send them out of the playoffs. But the Aeros themselves aren't worrying about that break because as far as they're concerned, if they take care of business this next week, including this weekend, they'll be getting points and as long as they get points, the pressure is on all of the other teams to keep pace. In other words, the Aeros feel that they control their own destiny.
"I think we’ve done a good job in terms of the last 35 games, or whatever it may be, to put ourselves in a position where we do control our destiny," DiSalvatore said. "Where we don’t necessarily – even though we will be watching what happens that next week because our division is going to be so tight regardless – we do have a situation where we can control our own destiny. And that’s the situation that you want to be in at all times."
And Mike Yeo doesn't want the team worrying about that break. He wants their focus on this weekend and on next week because if they focus on themselves instead of worrying about the other teams and the scheduling break, they should be fine.
"That’s exactly it," he said. "We can’t sit here with 88 points and think we’re in a playoff position right now because we’re not. We’re in a position where we might not have to win as many games as some teams, but the reality is we still have to win games. And we have to get points. And we shouldn’t be satisfied with that anyways. We should try to give ourselves the best opportunity to finish as high as we can, and put ourselves in the best position to get in the playoffs and hopefully get home ice advantage."
One of the things discussed was just how crazy tight not only this division, but this conference is, when it comes to the playoff hunt because, with the cross-over, what happens in the North affects what happens in the West. As of right now, there are 13 teams battling over the eight playoff spots -- the sixth place team in the North is only three points behind the fourth place team, but because of the cross-over rule, the North's fourth place team would currently be sitting home with Chicago crossing over.
Mike Yeo said he's never seen anything like this in his career as a coach or a player. And he uses this as another reason why the team should just concentrate on getting points because, if they get points, they take care of business.
"This is as close as I’ve probably ever been involved in a race," he said. "Quite often you’ll have two or three teams jockeying for position, maybe you’re playing for second or third, or maybe a couple of teams are playing for that final playoff position, but to have – there are so many different scenarios right now that it’s quite interesting. Again you just can’t get caught up in it because if we sit around and look at what’s going on in the [Western Conference] and then the rest of the teams within our division, we’ll drive ourselves crazy. We would be much better served to put all of our thoughts and focus on ourselves and making sure that we’re ready to go for [Friday]."
So that's the mentality of the team as they head into the series with Oklahoma City tonight. If they go out there and play hockey and do their jobs and get points, things are going to be okay. But you should also know this. I was at SLICE for practice yesterday, and the players were having fun because this is the kind of hockey that every player wants to be playing.
"I feel like it’s been like this since December," DiSalvatore said. "It’s been tight, it’s been musical chairs as far as the standings have gone. It’s fun. It’s fun knowing that every single time you go out there you’re playing for a different position in the standings. It could be scary, us putting pressure on teams that needs point right now. It’s exciting that we get the chance on a nightly basis to play for first place, and we take pride in that, and we look forward to the challenge every night."
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES:
Here's a little something for you trivia buffs, courtesy of the team's unofficial historian, Andrew Ferraro. This is the first time in the history of this incarnation of the Aeros that the team has played a three-in-three at home against the same team. The Aeros have, on four other occassions that we can find, played four three-in-threes at home, but each one involved two different opponents. The Aeros are 6-6 in these games, 1-3 in game one, 2-2 in game two, and 3-1 in game three....Also, the word is that one of the four Aeros currently up in Minnesota, but eligible for the Aeros playoff roster, will be returning to the Aeros today.