Hockey returned to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Sunday evening. If only for a night. The Houston Aeros and Rockford Ice Hogs played an AHL game in front of some 11,175 hockey starved fans. The Aeros took the victory 3-2 behind a pair of goals from speedster Johan Larsson and a single tally by Justin Fontaine. Minnesota Wild fans saw many familiar faces as 14 players on the current Aeros roster saw time with the Wild last season. Fans also got to see three players with Minnesota ties on the Ice Hogs. Brandon Svendsen of Maplewood, MN; Alec Richards from Robbinsdale, MN and most notably, Nick Leddy of Eden Prairie a former Wild prospect who left in the now infamous Cam Barker Trade. Minnesota Wild Jerseys were a much rarer sight than at previous Aeros events. Also seen was a fan in a Wild jersey, logo covered with tape, the words LOCKED OUT in big black letters while another had the logo X’d out wearing a chain and padlock hanging from his neck. These were a couple of the more outward signs of fans anger over the current lockout debacle. Wild fan, Steve Stinson of Ramsey, MN refused to wear any Wild related gear at all choosing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey instead. Several fans wore Minnesota Vikings jerseys and even the NBA’s Timberwolves. Aero’s jerseys were quite common and even a fair number of Rockford fans showing their team’s colors were in attendance as well. It was great to see professional hockey being played in St. Paul and it seemed to take fans minds off of Bettman and his cabal of eight team owners holding the NHL hostage. Even if one of those eight is Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold. Also glad to see hockey back were the hundreds game day employees of the Wild and Xcel Energy Center. Area bars and restaurants were packed hours before the game and even street level “ticket brokers” were present. Sights not seen at the intersection of 7th and Kellogg for a sporting event since last April.
This was the second game of a weekend series between the Chicago Black Hawks and Minnesota Wild’s AHL affiliates. The Ice Hogs took the opener Friday night in Rockford by a 2-1 score. Sunday Justin Fontaine opened the scoring with a drive from the top of the slot on the power play. The Aeros seemed a bit nervous in the first period giving up the first 7 shots before settling down and scoring on just their second shot. Houston was outshot 36 to 21 for the game exposing their weakness on defense. With the number of NHL ready prospects on offense and in goal the Aeros can cover a lot of defensive breakdowns with their scoring ability. The top line of Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, and Johan Larrson piled up 2 goals and 2 assists on three shots with a +5 rating. Larsson’s first goal was the result of a pretty passing play that developed when Rockford’s defense lost track of Zucker as he circled behind the net taking the pass from Coyle, his shot was weakly kicked out by goalie Hutton directly to Larsson for an easy five hole tap in to take a 2-0 lead. Larsson’s second goal of the night, a gift, came short handed. At the 10 minute mark of the third period Ice Hogs penalty killer defenseman Adam Clendening lost an edge, coughed up the puck right next to the net. Goalie Hutton came out to try an help but Larsson got their first, scoring an easy backhander for the eventual game winner. Aeros man in goal Matt Hackett turned in a sterling performance with 34 saves many of which came on shots from less than 20 feet. Hackett is clearly getting lots of work in Houston. He appears to be third in line in Minnesota’s goalie lineup. The Ice Hogs scored a pair of goals in the third period to make a close game of it. The first came when Ben Smith scored a power play goal at 9:21with the assists going to Clendening and Martin St. Pierre. That trio also scored the second as well with Clendening, trying to make up for his earlier gaffe on the penalty kill, scoring on a rocket from the point. That’s all the closer the ice Hogs would come with Hackett slamming the door and the aeros defense clamping down. Rockford pulled Hutton with 1:07 to play but were unable to come up with the equalizer. For full game stats click here.
Hundreds of fans lined up after the game to get autographs from Aeros players including the injured Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin. By hundreds I mean there were that many fans at each of several stations! Fans young and old were thrilled to meet the up and coming members of the Aeros and hopefully the Wild. Some players even seemed somewhat surprised by the autograph turnout. The Hockey Lodge, the Wild’s team store, was doing brisk business for the first time this season, with Aeros’ gear popular. Two employees I spoke with anonymously, said it was great to see fans in the building and more hours in their paycheck. The summer explosion of Wild gear, triggered by the signings of stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, had been effectively “chilled” by the Lockout.
Yes pro hockey was back in St. Paul if only for a night and fans were smiling. The “home” team won and for a moment the Lockout was forgotten. Could this be the only pro game at the “X” this season? Only time will tell.