Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Aeros win Western Conference championship, advance to Calder Cup Finals

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: May 25, 2011 - 9:03 AM

Updated:

Well, the Houston Aeros made it more interesting than they originally intended (a four-day road trip to Hamilton turned so long for Aeros GM Jim Mill, he had to go shopping for new clothes), but nonetheless, the Wild's minor-league affiliate has advanced to the Calder Cup Finals. The Binghamton Senators will be the opponent.

The Aeros and Senators (Ottawa's affiliate) did not meet this season.

The links between these franchises are plentiful.

First of all, Aeros coach Mike Yeo and Senators coach Kurt Kleinendorst were 1-2 for the Aeros' job. Kleinendorst and Mill, the Wild's assistant to the GM, are good friends. Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr came to Minnesota straight from Ottawa, where he's extremely tight with Senators GM Bryan Murray and assistant GM Tim Murray. And of course, Bryan Murray was Wild GM Chuck Fletcher's longtime mentor in both Florida and Anaheim.

Most recently, Ottawa won the Stephane Da Costa sweepstakes over Minnesota.

The Aeros nearly coughed up a 3-0 series lead. In Game 6, not even 61 shots on goal was good enough to knock off the stubborn Hamilton Bulldogs. But the Aeros finally did away with the Bulldogs with 1:13 left in the third period last night when captain Jon DiSalvatore flew in and pitch-forked the puck in for the winner after Patrick O'Sullivan sent the puck to the net and Chad Rau tried to jam it home.

Here's the goal, which the Bulldogs vehemently contested

As you can, referee Terry Koharski (Don's bro) is right in position, so I think it was probably a good goal. Regardless, I watched the last 15 minutes of the third period and the Aeros completely dominated. Hamilton could barely get into the offensive zone, let alone get a shot on goal, so justice probably prevailed.

"You get what you deserve eventually," said Mill. "You hope if you keep showing the hard work, perseverance and resiliency that you get rewarded. That's what happened. The guys really battled. They showed character and pride. The official made the right call. They were back on their heels. We said it would take the Game 6 effort again to win, and we did that."

Mill lauded Yeo and the coaching staff, as well as several players, like Colton Gillies, who's continued to be a rock and will undoubtedly make a case to be on next year's Wild club, and Nate Prosser, who went down and saved a goal with 30 seconds left.

But he was particularly pleased with Casey Wellman, who scored two goals after being challenged by Yeo with a fourth-line assignment next to Carson McMillan and Jean-Michel Daoust.

The Wild has enough energy guys in the organization. It needs shooters, and the Aeros have been trying to convince Wellman to shoot the puck more. He scored the Game 7 winner in the second round by shooting the puck on a 2-on-1, and last night scored two goals with NHL-caliber shots.

"He responded to the challenge and has to continue to do that," said Mill. "He's a young player, who like all our young players, is learning how to win. It was a brave move by Yeosie, an important move by Yeosie and the right move by Yeosie.

"This is a learning process for Casey. He's learning what it takes to play playoff hockey."

(By the way, and this is Russo talking, not Mill, but holding players accountable is another reason why "Yeosie" is making a big case for himself to be considered for the Wild coaching job with experienced vets Michel Therrien, Ken Hitchcock and Craig MacTavish. I'd be shocked now if the coaching hire for the Wild comes before the Aeros' season is over. Yeo's undoubtedly going to get an interview).

Back to Wellman: Remember, this was a college kid last year. This is his first year pro, so it's got to be a grind with the number of games he's played. Plus, he suffered two big injuries during the regular season, so all that work last summer to get stronger was thrown out the window. He's growing as a player, will still need to get stronger, but this is an invaluable experience for the youngster. Like I said, if Wellman's going to make it, he'll have to add offense at the NHL level. His strength is shooting the puck. If he continues to shoot and show off that impressive speed, he should be OK. But he's got to shoot, and last night he heard "Yeosie" loud and crystal clear.

I've watched a lot of games during this playoff run, and Prosser looks to me to be a player. McMillan's turned himself into a third-or fourth-line NHL prospect, too. Chuck Fletcher challenged him in last year's exit meeting, and he used last summer to get in shape. He came to camp ready to play and he's put himself on the Wild's radar.

The other guy who's been impressive is O'Sullivan. After being demoted to Houston from the Wild in January, he went down with the right, mature attitude. He's been a Godsend for a team that's not very skilled. He's so impressed the Wild with his attitude that at the very least, the Wild should qualify the restricted free agent to retain his rights. However, O'Sullivan will have some European offers this summer, so it'll be up to him as to whether he wants to stay or go I'd think.

Mill says Binghamton is a "very skilled, talented team. It'll be another challenge, another battle."

Anyway, that's it for now. I'll be on 1500ESPN tonight at 6:15 p.m. and I'll be on Sports Wrap Sunday night with Joe Schmit on Channel 5.

Here's the boxscore

Here's the AHL release forwarded on by the Wild.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. ... The Houston Aeros have won the Robert W. Clarke Trophy as the American Hockey League’s Western Conference champions for 2010-11, advancing to the Calder Cup Finals with a 4-3 victory over the Hamilton Bulldogs in the decisive Game 7 at Toyota Center in Houston on Tuesday evening.

Aeros captain Jon DiSalvatore scored the winning goal with 1:13 left in regulation as Houston regrouped after seeing a 3-0 series lead wiped out by the North Division champion Bulldogs. Casey Wellman added two goals and Chad Rau collected a goal and an assist for the Aeros and goaltender Matt Hackett made 24 saves.

The top affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, Houston was 46-28-1-5 for 98 points during the regular season, finishing second in the West Division and sixth in the overall league standings. Led by rookie head coach Mike Yeo, who won a Stanley Cup as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, the Aeros defeated the Peoria Rivermen in the division semifinals (4-0), the Milwaukee Admirals in the division finals (4-3) and the Bulldogs in the conference finals (4-3) to reach the Calder Cup Finals for the first time since winning the championship in 2003.

The 2011 Calder Cup Finals – the AHL’s 75th championship series – will begin Friday in Houston, with the Aeros taking on the Eastern Conference champion Binghamton Senators. The complete series schedule is below.

Established in 1990, the AHL’s Western Conference championship trophy honors the late Robert W. Clarke. Mr. Clarke served as the Chairman of the AHL’s Board of Governors from 1967-94, and in 1956, he played an instrumental role in the formation of the Rochester Americans, one of the most successful franchises in AHL history and themselves a seven-time recipient of the Clarke Trophy.

2011 Calder Cup Finals (best-of-seven)
W2-Houston Aeros vs. E5-Binghamton Senators
Game 1 – Fri., May 27 – Binghamton at Houston, 7:35 CT
Game 2 – Sat., May 28 – Binghamton at Houston, 7:35 CT
Game 3 – Wed., June 1 – Houston at Binghamton, 7:05 ET
Game 4 – Fri., June 3 – Houston at Binghamton, 7:05 ET
*Game 5 – Sat., June 4 – Houston at Binghamton, 7:05 ET
*Game 6 – Tue., June 7 – Binghamton at Houston, 7:05 CT
*Game 7 – Thu., June 9 – Binghamton at Houston, 7:05 CT
*if necessary

 

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