HOUSTON, Texas – Aeros captain Kirby Law and Matt Foy each scored twice, and Josh Harding made an Aeros regulation playoff record 45 saves, as the Houston Aeros knocked off the Peoria Rivermen 6-1 at Carver Arena to take a three games to none lead in the West Division Semifinals. Checking line wingers Joel Ward and Josh Olson also scored and Patrick O’Sullivan chipped in two assists for Houston, which goes for the sweep, and a berth in the West Division Finals against either Milwaukee or Iowa, in Game 4 on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Carver Arena.
Rookie Chris Beckford-Tseu stopped 19 shots for Peoria, which dropped a pair of overtime decisions in Houston in Games 1 and 2. Blake Evans scored the lone Rivermen goal, and backup Gregg Naumenko allowed three goals on four shots.
The Aeros are 2-0 all-time when taking a 3-0 series lead, sweeping Hershey in the 2002 Western Conference Semifinals, and taking out San Antonio in five games in the 1997 Western Conference Semifinals. Only two of 95 teams in AHL history have won a seven-game series when trailing 3-0 – Rochester in 1960 and Adirondack in 1989. Only 33 of the 95 teams have managed to avoid being swept, 10 have forced a Game 6, and just the aforementioned Rochester and Adirondack teams have pushed it to seven games.
Harding won his sixth straight decision – tying his career-high, and is 12-1-0 in his last 13 decisions since allowing six goals – including five in the third period – of a 6-5 loss to Grand Rapids on January 6. Harding made 14 saves in the first period, 18 in the second and 13 in the third but had his shutout ruined after his own failed clearing attempt with less than eight minutes remaining. Manny Fernandez held the previous regulation record for saves, with 42 in a 5-0 shutout at Chicago in Game 4 of the 1999 Western Conference Finals.
Law, meanwhile, hadn’t scored in 22 games over his last three post-season campaigns, but he has three goals in the first three games of this series. Both Law and Foy were responsible for the Aeros’ first two game-winning goals, both in overtime. The duo became the 25th and 26th players in team history to score two goals in a game.
Law, who scored the game-winner in Game 1’s extra session, got Houston on the board at 7:48 of the first. Roman Voloshenko shuffled the puck along the right wing boards to Erik Westrum in the corner. Westrum backhanded a no-look pass to a cutting Law deep in the right circle, and the Aeros’ captain blistered a shot over Beckford-Tseu’s blocker for his second of the playoffs.
The Aeros scored the first goal in each of the first two games of the series. The team to score first has won 11 of the first 12 meetings of the season.
Beckford-Tseu kept it 1-0 with a dynamite save with seven minutes left. Bryan Lundbohm, who had a goal in each Game 1 and 2, ripped a Ward rebound glove side, but the diving goalie snapped the puck out of mid-air.
Peoria closed out the first period with 1:03 of a 5-on-3, with back-to-back calls on Chris Ovington and Erik Reitz – two of the defensemen most often called upon to kill penalties. The Rivermen appeared to score as time expired, but referee Gord Dwyer ruled that agitator Gavin Morgan kicked the puck into the net.
Powered by a total of four power plays in the second period, Peoria outshot Houston 18-9, but Harding was unwavering.
Harding made three consecutive goal-saving stops early in the second, with the Rivermen again on the power play. Peoria sniper Peter Sejna rifled a shot from between the circles, and Harding made a pad save. Sejna got his own rebound in the left circle and fired on net, but Harding again was there. Without his stick, Harding then was able to cover up Jay McClement’s rebound stab.
Just one second after the Aeros killed off that penalty, Ward gave them a two-goal advantage 3:14 into the second. Ward, double teamed in the left corner, walked out into the circle and snapped a quick shot under Beckford-Tseu for his second of the playoffs.
AHL Rookie of the Year Patrick O’Sullivan let loose of a big slapshot with the Aeros circling on the power play late in the second, but Beckford-Tseu swallowed up the attempt.
Harding robbed All-Star Mike Glumac’s backhander with two minutes remaining in the middle period. Glumac fanned on a point-blank shot in the waning seconds.
The Aeros scored twice in a span of 1:13 early in the third, and four times in 4:42, to take control of the game, and perhaps the series.
First, Law created a turnover just outside the Peoria blueline, took three strides and fired a shot from the blueline by a stunned Beckford-Tseu, ending the rookie’s night at the 2:56 mark.
Foy, who scored Saturday’s Game 2 overtime game-winner, pushed the lead to 4-0 at 4:09. Naumenko poked aside O’Sullivan’s wraparound attempt, but Foy hopped on the rebound and backhanded it by the fallen netminder.
Foy scored on a 5-on-3 just 2:46 later, for a five-goal advantage. Using precision passing, Law, in the right circle, hit Foy at the left doorstep, and the unmarked winger poked the puck into the net for his third of the playoffs.
With Houston still on the power play, Olson finished off a 2-on-1, left-to-right feed from Lundbohm, pushing the Aeros’ lead to 6-0 with 12:22 remaining.
Evans ruined Harding’s shutout bid with 7:35 remaining after the goalie fired a bad clearing attempt right to the Rivermen forward at the right blueline.
Houston finished 2-for-8 on the power play, while Peoria went 0-for-7.