|Aeros 4, Wolves 3
| Official Box Score HOUSTON, Texas – Patrick O’Sullivan scored his 40th and 41st goals, becoming just the second rookie in the last 15 seasons in the AHL to reach the 40-goal plateau, and fellow All-Star Erik Westrum chipped in a goal and an assist, as the Houston Aeros completed a two-game sweep of the Chicago Wolves with a 4-3 victory at Toyota Center. Rookie Miroslav Kopriva made 27 saves in his return to Houston, and AHL leading scorer Kirby Law and Curtis Murphy each finished with two assists for Houston.
The Aeros (44-16-1-2) increased their lead over second-place Milwaukee to six points, and they still have a game in hand. The Aeros’ magic number to clinch a playoff spot is nine points, a combination of points gained by Houston and points lost by Iowa, which won 3-2 in San Antonio tonight. Houston has won four straight against the Wolves for the first time since a five-game run from April 9, 1995-January 11, 1997.
Houston begins a four-game road trip Sunday in Omaha at 5 p.m. It starts a stretch of nine road games out of 10 for the Aeros, who play just one home game the rest of the month (Sunday, March 19 against San Antonio).
Justin Morrison tallied two goals and an assist, Kip Miller added a goal and two helpers and Tuomas Tarkki made 25 stops for the sixth-place Wolves, who had their four-game unbeaten in regulation streak (3-0-0-1) end. Chicago remains are four points behind Omaha for the fourth and final playoff spot in the West Division.
O’Sullivan has 41 goals this season – the second most in a single season by any Aero, trailing only Jeff Christian’s 45 goals in 1998-99. O’Sullivan has 67 points (38-29=67) in his last 47 games, has 20 points (13-7=20) in the last 12 games and 22 goals in the last 22 games. He tallied a hat trick in Tuesday’s 5-4 shootout win over the Wolves, and he has seven goals in a season-high four-game goal streak. O’Sullivan’s 41 goals are third-most in the AHL, trailing Grand Rapids’ Donald MacLean (48) and Binghamton’s Denis Hamel (42). O’Sullivan is fifth overall in the AHL in points with 74 (41-33=74).
Law, meanwhile, kept his two-point lead in the AHL scoring race. He now has 90 points (34-56=90), two ahead of Westrum (31-57=88). Westrum leads Law by one in the assist race. Law has the third-highest point total in a single season by an Aero, while Westrum is fourth. Brian Wiseman notched each a 109- and 98-point season.
Houston improved to 20-5-1-2 for 42 points in 28 one-goal games, while Chicago is 9-7-3-7 for 28 points in 26 such games. Houston’s 20 one-goal wins are the most in the AHL, and only Cleveland has fewer wins (7-6-2-2) in one-goal games than the Wolves.
Voloshenko got things started with his 29th goal of the season, at 8:05 of the first period. Law picked Brian Maloney’s pocket in the left circle. Law’s shot was knocked down in front, but Voloshenko roofed the rebound over Tarkki.
Westrum made it 2-0 with 2:38 left in the first. Law hit Westrum in stride from the left wing, and Westrum skated in on Tarkki, faked the netminder to the ground and slid a backhander under the fallen goalie for his 31st goal of the season.
In their last 13 victories, the Aeros have outscored their opponents 27-11 in the first period. In the last 28 games overall, Houston has a 41-21 goal margin in the opening 20 minutes. Overall on the season the Aeros are an AHL-best plus-31 (76-45).
O’Sullivan’s first of the night, on the power play, extended Houston’s advantage to 3-0 at 9:14 of the third. Just after his snapshot from the right circle clanged off Tarkki’s mask and into the protective netting, O’Sullivan took a Westrum feed in the right circle, skated in and wound up a vicious slapshot that went by an unmatched Tarkki.
Kopriva stopped Jared Ross on a mini breakaway with 8:40 left in the second.
Morrison’s 12th of the season got the Wolves within 3-1 with 6:50 remaining in the middle period. He tipped Mark Popovic’s attempt by an unsuspecting Kopriva, with Chicago on a 4-on-3 power play.
O’Sullivan scored his second of the period and team-leading 41st of the season, with Houston again on the power play, with 2:32 left in the second. Murphy, at the right point, sent a pass to O’Sullivan at the left doorstep. The dynamic rookie redirected the puck into a near empty net.
But it took Chicago just 27 seconds to respond, as Morrison converted a left-to-right feed from Miller.
Murphy has generated another $200 for I Have a Dream as part of “Murphy’s Mission”. A local donor is pledging $300 per Murphy goal and $100 per assist for the remainder of the season. The program has raised $600 in two weeks. His first assist was also his new team defensemen record 110th as an Aero.
Morrison set up Miller’s goal, 5:10 into the third, a tally that got the Wolves within 4-3. He kept the puck along the right wing boards and left a drop pass for a cutting Miller. The NHL veteran skated unmarked between the circles, deked left on Kopriva and slid the puck inside the right post for his 14th goal of the season.
Law clanged the puck off the post with 12:28 left in the third. Josh Olson hit the post four minute later with a shot that first glanced off Tarkki’s glove.
Kopriva made a nifty glove save on Kevin Doell’s backhander from close range with 6:08 remaining.
The Aeros got a power play with 4:07 left when Morrison was whistled for boarding, but it was Doell who blocked Murphy’s shot at the blueline and went in on a shorthanded breakaway. But Kopriva made the save with Murphy backchecking.
Kopriva made two key saves with 1:47 remaining after the man advantage was over.
The Wolves pulled Tarkki at that point with a faceoff deep in Houston’s end. First, Kopriva kicked out Morrison’s slapper from the right circle. O’Sullivan just missed the empty netter for a hat trick with 35 seconds left, and his attempt from the blueline was tipped high with 10 ticks remaining.
Houston finished 2-for-7 on the power play, while Chicago went 1-for-6. The Aeros are 24-5-0-1 when scoring at least two power play goals. Houston has scored two or more in 20 of its last 38 games.
Notes: Not dressing for the Aeros were Colin Peters, Bill Kinkel and Andrei Nazarov. Kinkel sat out the third game of a seven-game AHL suspension. Aeros centerman Petr Taticek, property of the Florida Panthers, was traded today to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Defenseman Shawn Belle, dealt to the Wild by the Dallas Stars organization this afternoon, arrived at Toyota Center during the game. He was in San Antonio with his Iowa Stars teammates. Houston improved to 42-4-0-1 when scoring three goals or more. Murphy had been tied with Greg Hawgood with 109 assists. Rookie centerman Adam Courchaine, recalled from ECHL Pensacola yesterday, appeared in his first game as an Aero since December 23 and just his eighth of the season. The Aeros concluded their 15th set of back-to-back games against one opponent with their ninth sweep. They are 12-1-1-1 in Game 1, and 12-3-0-0 in Game 2. Houston has swept nine of 15 opponents in back-to-back sets, including the last three and six of the last eight. Kopriva, recalled from CHL Austin after Josh Harding was summoned by the NHL’s Minnesota Wild yesterday, is 5-2-0 with the Aeros this season.