Last Friday night I took in the Houston Aeros professional ice hockey contest against the Rochester Americans.
It was my first AHL game of the season.
I've been to a few Amerks games and they're fun, if generally sparsely-attended.
Theirs is an older barn, two tiers of seating, not a bad seat in the house for hockey. It's beer-stained and well-used. I've never seen it anything approaching full for a hockey game. But, until this season, the Amerks were not associated with the "local" Buffalo Sabres during my tenure in Rochester, to be fair. It did seem like the building was more full than it had been for my previous Amerks games, so maybe a combination of the new Pegula-era Sabres/Western NY hockey craze and Friday night. Either that or the people just wanted to see the Calder Cup Runners-Up live and in action.
I had family duties that meant I was unavailable for pre-game fellowship with the locals, which is too bad. But I did wear the trusty white Wild jersey that has brought me so much luck, most recently at the Aeros/Baby Sens game I attended this spring. It wouldn't let me down, even if I didn't get a chance to see how the home team fans reacted to it.
Not a lot of pre-game pomp and circumstance at the Amerks game. Mostly just "sing the fuckin' song(s)" and get on with it.
My seat was nearly perfect. Lower section, center ice, top of the section, just inside the center red line, on the aisle. The only drawback (and it's a minor one) is that the view of the corner to my right was obstructed by the railing around the wheelchair-accessible seats to my right. But even I am not going to complain about wheelchair-dependent hockey fans.
The Aeros had on road sweaters that were decidedly ugly. Unless you're into sort of a Euro-transformers mash up, paean to industrial might kind of theme in your jerseys. They were dark green and gray. Yeah, exactly.
It was goalie Darcy Kuemper's first start of the season, which was among the interesting tidbits I learned from the irreplaceable peeps over at T3I - not even at the game, and they're still schooling me and adding value. That's some seriously awesome awesomeness, sports fans.
I endeavored to keep an eye on Kuemper.
The Amerks were geeked to start the game, and came out with gusto. They were skating right around the Aeros defense on the entries, and creating chances off of that pressure. Kuemper was a little nervous perhaps to start the game, and his inability to handle rebounds along with poor play-reading set up the Amerks twice fairly early in the first. I noticed how Kuemper's feet never seem to get set. His footwork hurt him on the first Amerks goal when he was late to see the play move from his right to his left and then took an interminable amount of time moving over, and not before the Amerk winger buried it in the half-open net.
Torch took his time out after the second Amerks goal and, while he was visibly excited, did not appear to be tearing guys heads off and crapping down their necks.
The last negative thing I'll say about Kuemper is that he was too eager to give up the high part of his crease. I don't know if that's the way he plays - relying on his size - or if he was somehow back on his heels in his first start in the AHL this season.
However, the whole team reacted positively to the time out. Including Kuemper.
The Aeros transition to offense in a flash, and attack with numbers wide across the zone. The alacrity with which they move up ice with the puck is impressive. Play had evened out by the end of the first period.
In the second, the Aeros make quick work of evening the score. First with a greasy goal then creating a chance out of good work below the goal line.
Sidebar: in the seat across the aisle from me was an elderly lady who appeared to be a regular at Amerks games. She was sitting with either a much younger daughter or a granddaughter, or an orderly or something. This lady was possessed of great spirit, if poor dental hygiene habits. Her joie de vivre manifested itself in her literally yelling obscenities at people who ran afoul of her sense of decency at the hockey game.
The list of infractions was as long as the threshold for inclusion was low. For example:
*Sitting down (too slowly)
*Booing an *Aeros* goal
*Descending/ascending the stairs too slowly
*Cheering too loudly within a 50-foot radius of her
*Being an usher
*Being a human being
*Having more teeth than her
These were all offenses that drew an immediate, forceful and profanity-laced verbal correction from her. One exchange with a 20-something gentleman (bald, leather jacket and jeans, if you take my meaning) who was insensitive enough to walk down to his seat when she did not want him to went like this:
Crazy Mabel (my nickname for her): "HEY! Sit the fuck down, what are you stupid? This is a hockey game, not a..."*
Butch (my nickname for him): "Excuse me?"
Crazy Mabel: "You heard me! Move your ass, asshole!"
*It almost killed me that she didn't finish her sentence. "Not a what?!?!"
Honestly, "Butch" regarded Crazy Mabel with a "am I really going to have to kick this old lady's ass?" look for a minute before discretion overwhelmed his baser instincts and he just proceeded down to his seat.
She was really something to behold.
Anyway, the Aeros and Amerks would trade goals from that point and the 2nd would end at a 3-3 deadlock. But, looking back, the tide had turned against the Amerks. Their third goal was also the result of them beating the Amerks D wide with speed. But, for whatever reason, the Amerks stopped doing that, and it seemed like the Aeros made a backchecking adjustment that made it harder for the Amerks forwards to build up speed through the neutral zone in the first place.
Regardless, the Amerks attack really atrophied and stagnated in the third with the result being that the Aeros had little trouble batting them aside until the big push by Rochester at the end of the game.
Once Kuemper settled in, he was very solid. I still didn't love his footwork, but he was on his angles, limiting rebounds and showed enough athleticism on broken plays that you can see why he's a highly touted pro.
As for the Aeros in general, I was impressed. They just ground the Amerks down over the course of the game. They got down early, but didn't panic. Torch was wise to call the TO when he did and the team focused and rallied from there. Maybe the Aeros' legs weren't all the way engaged at the start of the game, but once they got going it was like the scene in "A Fish Called Wanda" where Ken is running down Otto in the cement roller. Slow, inexorable, awesome.
In fact, it was very much the type of stubborn refusal to deviate from the game plan and fervent conviction that the Wild exhibits.
Harmony between the NHL team and its AHL affiliate, who knew?