Sunday's Houston Aeros game at Xcel Energy Center was like some tasty leftovers after a big holiday meal. If Saturday's Hockey Day Minnesota stuffed hockey loving stomachs all around The State of Hockey, the Aeros match-up against the Peoria Rivermen in St. Paul gave 9,104 puckheads in attendance a chance to snack lightly -- and catch a glimpse of some future Wild players at the same time.
Wild fans did their best to encourage their future stars, but the Rivermen escaped St. Paul with a 3-1 victory -- snapping Houston's six game winning streak and moving to within a point of the Aeros for first place in the Western Conference.
"Speaking on behalf of myself, yeah I was a little nervous," said Aeros forward Chad Rau
, an Eden Prairie native. "Especially early in the game, I don't think the flow was there the way we wanted it to be."
"There were nerves all game long I think," said Aeros head coach Mike Yeo. "I don't think there needed to be. The way we've been playing, all we really need to do is go out there and do what we need to.
"But that's human nature. I think we wanted to come out and make a good impression and it led to some very uncharacteristic mistakes on our part."
Peoria led throughout, scoring first on Chris Porter's short-handed breakaway midway through the opening stanza. Following a holding the stick penalty on Phil McRae, a loose puck was gobbled up by Porter in the neutral zone and the University of North Dakota product raced in on Houston goalie Anton Khudobin, firing a wrist shot high over the glove of the Aeros netminder for a 1-0 lead.
That was the only scoring of a rather tepid first period. Both teams were credited with just six shots on goal.
"I think the beginning of the game, not being our best, may have been the difference," Rau said. "But give them credit, they came out and played well tonight."
Peoria extended their lead to 2-0 early in the second period thanks to some puck luck. Rivermen forward Dave Spina wheeled around the net and slipped a shot through the crease but wide of the net. But the puck deflected off the skate of crashing Aeros defenseman Tyler Cuma
and into he open net at 2:37. Porter was credited with an assist for his second point of the night.
That was just the beginning of a nightmare few minutes for Cuma. Less than two minutes after the goal, Cuma, the Wild's first round pick in 2008, was wheeled off the ice on a stretcher after a horrific skates-first collision with the end boards, reminiscent of former Wild defenseman Kurtis Foster
's injury in San Jose in 2008. Cuma was evaluated at the arena before being taken to a local hospital with what the team described as a left leg injury. Cuma had major surgery on his left knee two years ago.
"Very scary," Yeo said. "In his young career, he's already had to battle through a lot of adversity. It's a shame. I've been very proud with his progress this year. He's been going in the right direction. Hopefully this doesn't set him back too much."
The injury and the score momentarily deflated the Aeros, but they were given new life after three straight Peoria penalties gave Houston extended power play time, including over a minute and a half of 5-on-3. After the Rivermen killed an initial 1:15 of Houston two-man advantage time, Peoria took another penalty and gave the Aeros an additional 26 seconds of it.
This time, the Aeros took advantage as Cody Almond
slammed home a rebound from point blank range for his 12th goal of the season to make it 2-1. Jon DiSalvatore
and Robbie Earl were credited assists.
The game remained a one goal contest for much of the third period, including a stretch where the Aeros skated with an extra man for four minutes, until the Rivermen added an insurance goal on a power play goal with under five minutes remaining.
"The result wasn't what we wanted it to be, we had a nice little streak going there with six wins in a row, but we gave it everything we [had]," said Aeros defenseman Nate Prosser
, a former Elk River Elk. "It's been a long road trip, this is the last day of it, so we may have been a little tired. We can't use that as an excuse, though."
The loss dropped Houston to 32-20-1-3 on the season. At 68 points, the Aeros are one ahead of Peoria, two ahead of San Antonio and three up on Milwaukee in the West Division race of the Western Conference. There is just one point difference between each of the top six teams in the division.
"It's tight, we can't afford to take a night off," Rau said. "One win or loss can make a big difference, so we'll have to bring it every night."