I went out to SLICE today to watch the Aeros practice and to see how the team's looking after a week off without playing an actual game. They learned last night that they'll be facing Milwaukee starting Friday night, and Mike Yeo and the coaches were putting the guys through the mill.
Yeo said after practice that there's a good chance that there will be some personnel changes once the series starts, and to not expect the same lineup as was out there for the series with Peoria. He didn't want to give out any details -- in case there's anybody from Milwaukee reading -- and he also said that it's possible that the lineup might change from game-to-game.
One of the things I'm interested is in all of the time off the team's had this month, and how they stay sharp and in game condition. It will be 10 days between closing out Peoria and playing game one against Milwaukee. And in the month of April, the team's played only seven games.
"It’s impossible to keep that edge the entire time," Yeo said. "We’ve been off for a long time, and we still have a few days to go. It’s impossible, and I don’t think it would be productive for us, too. So certainly there was a drop in that level, and we had a couple of days off after we won in Peoria. But then we picked things up for a couple of days, gave another day off, and as this week’s gone on, we’ve kind of started slow and we’re building towards the end of the week, so hopefully we’re ready to peak come Friday."
I also asked Matt Kassian about this. And I wanted to speak to Kassian about this because he missed a lot of time in March because of an injury, so he's had less game action than most of the team these past couple of months.
"A lot of it comes down to how you practice," Kassian said. "We’ve been a team this year that’s always practiced hard, probably a lot harder than most teams, if not all of the teams in the league. We go hard. And we do it for a reason. We do it for our conditioning, and we do it for situations like this, where maybe – for me as a player, I’ve been out for awhile – to not only get back in shape but mentally be at a pace to where things are happening at a speed you’re used to out there. So it’s the same for the whole team. When you go in a stretch where you’re not playing for seven or eight days, you might have some rust, but at the same time, you work so hard in practice that you try not to get any rust at all."
I also thought Kassian was a good person to talk to because he was on the team two years ago that advanced to the Conference Finals, and I wanted his opinion on the differences between the two teams. And Kassian delivered some good analysis, specifically about the differing mindsets of the two teams, a difference between expecting and hoping.
"I think we expect to do good things, whereas before we kind of went out and it happened," he said. "And we did them and it was because we worked hard. I think now, it’s having knowledge of what we’re capable of, and knowing that we have a good team and if we play we’re going to have a really good chance of doing well."
The team is going to begin prepping for the Admirals, a team they've seen a lot this season, but the big thing I got from Yeo, Kassian, and Warren Peters, is that it's not so much about what Milwaukee does, it's about what the Aeros do. It's about the Aeros concentrating on their game, playing their system, their process. Peter's thoughts on this were, I thought, important seeing as he was a key cog to a Texas team that went to the Calder Cup finals last year.
"You can’t occupy yourself too much with how they’re going to prepared, what they’re going to do," he said. "We know what to expect, as I’m sure they do as well. We definitely have to take care of ourselves first, before we can start worrying about what other teams are doing.
"If you’re stressing and your wasting energy on trying to decode what they’re going to do, it’s pretty tough. You’ve just got to go out there and play your game. Like I said, have confidence in your players and your teammates, and the system that we play, and the way we’ve shown we can play."
And Mike Yeo added this.
"Today we start with a practice. We’re focused on ourselves, and our systems, and making sure that the details are there, and our execution and the speed at which we do it. Tomorrow, there will be some special teams and some areas where we have to focus up on them, and some adjustments that we might have to make. And then come Friday, again, it’s a matter of getting ready for ourselves. We’ll have our pre-scout tomorrow, and go over exactly what to expect of Milwaukee, but again, we’re a team that’s gotten this far by focusing on ourselves and what it is that makes us successful. And after we cover that meeting tomorrow, the majority of it will be with what we have to do."
And the strength of this team, I think everyone will agree, is the incredible depth of this team. Sure, there are two lines of high-scorers that the other teams focus on and have to stop, but the Aeros also have third and fourth lines that, while their focus isn't scoring, aren't afraid to take a shot if the opportunity comes. And more importantly, all of the lines, especially three and four, have those guys who will go behind the net, bang in the corners, and hang out in front of the net, just hoping to get that trash goal.
Kassian laid out the importance and the quality of the depth when it comes to the playoffs.
"It’s huge. A lot of times in playoffs you have teams that will, especially if you have home ice advantage, will try to match-up lines. You look at us, we have the Gillies/Peters/Ortmeyer line out there. It’s a shutdown line, but obviously they’re an effective scoring line as well. As a shutdown line, other teams will do that to us, and it helps when you have so much depth that it doesn’t matter who you’re throw out there that you’re able to get the job done.
"It’s not like, as far as fourth line’s concerned, it’s not like we’re concerned about going out there and scoring goals and making a difference or being a difference. We’re concerned about going out there and doing our jobs, which is don’t get scored on, create energy, be hard on their skill players, be hard on their defensemen, and get offensive zone time and take the puck to the net when you get the opportunity. If the puck goes in, that’s a bonus.
"But when you look at playoffs and teams that are successful, that’s what happens. A lot of times you have your big players being big players, but you have guys who aren’t known for the big goals, and guys who aren’t known for the huge plays, that’s when they step up their game and have an impact.
"Look at McMillan with his overtime winner the other day. Obviously he had a good year and had a decent amount of points, but at the same time, he’s not a guy who would be the first player you’d pick to score an overtime winner. But he goes out there and goes hard to the net and bangs it home.
"For us, as far as we’re concerned, as a team, it’s not about any one guy, it’s about everybody. And any one guy is going to be a hero that night. Whether it’s Hackett in net, or Tordjman if he’s in net, or O’Sullivan – obviously he finished out the series for us with a huge goal – but at the same time, the goal before that, to pull us even, is Drew Bagnall who hasn’t scored all year. He steps it up, and scores a huge goal for us."
Peters weighed in on the subject, with the concentration on the difference his line makes.
"As far as my line goes, I’ve got two great linemates," he said. 'Ortmeyer with all of his experience. But he’s got some ability, and he’s got the ability to put the puck in the net. And Colton plays hard, and he goes in the hard areas, and in playoffs, you get rewarded a lot of times when you do that. And we’ve got three guys that don’t mind going in front of the net, getting banged around in order to get a second chance."
And I asked the guys about how much fun the playoffs are for them. And once again, Matt Kassian came out with some great analysis. And I've got to apologize. We get to speak to Kassian a lot in the tunnels after the game and during practice, but because of time and space limitations with our respective outlets, we don't often get him for quotes, but the guy is just fun to talk to, and he gives really great answers, like this answer to how much the playoffs are.
"The games mean something," he said. "Not that they don’t in the regular season, but they mean that much more. Hockey, and sports in general, it’s just a metaphor for life. The winning, the losing, the ups and downs. Some moments are bigger than others. Playoffs it’s like a honeymoon, or a wedding, or an anniversary. It’s a big thing. A big event. It just means that much more. It’s like a kid’s first Christmas, or as a kid, it’s like Christmas. You’re just so excited, you go to bed at night and you can hardly sleep because you’re just that excited to go out because it means you’re working for something. It’s so much fun, especially when you have the crowd behind you.
"The loudest I’ve heard the crowd all year was that game we won in overtime, when McMillan scored. It was electric. The crowd was great during the game, but in overtime, they kicked it up another couple of notches and it was just unbelievable. So much fun."
So there you go, some notes and quotes from today's practice as the guys prep for Game One in Milwaukee on Friday night.