PEORIA, Ill. - Erik Westrum scored the game-winning goal with 47 seconds remaining and Josh Harding was outstanding with a career-best 47 saves, as the Houston Aeros handed the Peoria Rivermen their first loss of the season, 3-1, at Carver Arena. Kirby Law also scored, and he and his linemates Westrum and Roman Voloshenko accounted for five points (2-3=5). Peter Olvecky added an empty-net goal and rookie Patrick O’Sullivan chipped in an assist in his pro debut.
The Aeros (2-1-0-0) play the middle game of a five-game road trip Saturday at 6 p.m. in Grand Rapids.
Colin Hemingway scored a power play goal and Curtis Sanford finished with 22 saves for Peoria, which won its first three games of the season.
Peoria outshot Houston 16-9 in the first, 15-5 in the second and 17-11 in the third. But Hemingway’s early second-period, power-play goal was all Harding allowed, and he got the help he needed late.
The Aeros top trio got the game-winner with 47 seconds remaining.
Curtis Murphy floated a headman pass from inside his own zone. Voloshenko battled ahead in the left corner to free the puck from Peoria’s Dennis Wideman. Westrum picked it up and skated in on Sanford. He went forehand-backhand-forehand-backhand, deking a defenseman to the ground in the process. The puck slid in the net as Westrum eventually crashed into the goalie for his second goal of the season.
Olvecky scored his second goal, an empty-netter, off an O’Sullivan steal, with three seconds remaining to seal the victory.
Westrum and Law each have seven points, matching the best three-game start in Aeros history. David Oliver had seven (3-4=7) in the 1999 Turner Cup championship season. Westrum and Law are just one point each off the early AHL scoring lead. Voloshenko, meanwhile, has five points (3-2=5).
Harding, whose previous career-high in saves was 44, stopped all 17 shots in the third period.
Harding stopped all comers on back-to-back Peoria power plays midway through the period.
After Bill Kinkel tangled with Rocky Thompson in Houston’s first fight of the season, Mike Mottau went off for hooking, and the Aeros scored 39 seconds later. And it was no surprise who led to the goal.
Westrum won a battle for the puck along the right wing boards and backhanded a pass off the boards to Voloshenko in the circle. Voloshenko quickly slid a pass across the low slot to a wide open Law. The puck eluded a sliding defenseman, and the Aeros captain roofed a shot by Sanford for his third goal at 12:09.
Law helped keep the game tied with six minutes left in the first and Peoria on the power play. Harding was down, and Law took away a wraparound attempt and cleared it out of the zone.
The Aeros misfired on an early power play in the second, and it ended early when Law went off for holding the stick. The Rivermen took advantage, getting Hemingway’s third goal at 1:55. Mottau fired a shot from the left point. The puck hit some bodies in front and popped to Hemingway at the right doorstep. Hemingway easily put the puck into the open net.
Westrum snapped a shot just over the crossbar with Houston on the power play midway through the second.
When that power play expired, Peoria’s Blake Evans broke in 2-on-1 on Harding, but the second-year netminder made a nifty pad save.
After Peoria went on its ninth power play early in the third, an exhausted Harding fell backwards to stop a wraparound attempt and freeze the puck.
Hemingway nearly got the game-winner with 2:30 left, although it appeared he broke in offside. He skated in alone and wristed a shot over the crossbar.
Houston finished 1-for-5 on the power play, while Peoria went 1-for-9.
The Aeros scratched Seamus Kotyk, Chris Heid, Anders Myrvold and Mark Rooneem.
O’Sullivan and fellow rookie forward Joel Ward each made their debuts for the Aeros. Ward, signed to a PTO earlier in the week, was aggressive on the penalty kill and got quality minutes in the third period.
Former Aero Derek Boogaard (2003-05), who had nine points (1-8=9) and 466 penalty minutes in two seasons with the team, picked up his first NHL assist tonight in only his third game with Minnesota.
Harding had 44 saves in a 3-1 loss to Cleveland November 18, 2004.
The Rivermen had led after one period in each of their first three games.
Houston last visited Peoria on February 9, 1996, when the teams were in the IHL.
The Aeros have won two of their first three games for only the fourth time in their 12 seasons. The last time they did it, they actually won eight in a row to begin their 2002-03 championship season.
This was the first game for either team that wasn’t decided by one goal.