The Aeros welcomed the addition of two skaters to its bench for the team’s home series against the Milwaukee Admirals, March 20-21.
One was a familiar name completing a three-month battle back from injury. The other was an unknown who didn’t know if he would be playing in an Aeros sweater for one game or two.
Since Jan. 1, Andy Hilbert was a name that fans at the Toyota Center would only hear when it would be announced among the “scratches,” the players on the roster but would not be suiting up, prior to the game. The 29-year-old center had been sidelined with a concussion suffered on New Year’s Day against Milwaukee.
The injury, ironically, came not at the hands of the division rivals, but rather a teammate, when Hilbert inadvertently found himself in the path of a slap shot from D Max Noreau.
Hilbert, a three-time AHL All-Star with Providence in 2002, 2003 and 2005, has scored 16 points, with five goals and 11 assists, in 23 games in his first season with Aeros, after signing a one-year deal with the parent club Minnesota Wild in October, after spending the previous three seasons with the New York Islanders.
Although he made his return to face the very same Admirals team present when he was injured, time had hardly stood still for both Hilbert and his team. Following their 6-2 win on New Year’s Day, the Aeros were in fourth place in the west division and within striking distance of the division leaders.
Going into Saturday’s contest, the Aeros were in seventh place and trailed the Admirals by nine points for the fourth and final playoff spot with hopes dwindling with every game of their current losing streak, which now stands at six games (0-3-1-2) following a 3-1 loss on Saturday followed by a 2-1 heartbreaker in overtime on Sunday. And Hilbert has had to watch the whole thing from the 300 Level Suites at the Toyota Center, dressed in a suit instead of a sweater with an airplane on the front and 91 on the back.
Head coach Kevin Constantine was glad to see the return of a scorer to a team that has trouble scoring, but knows the transition back will not be seamless.
“Andy is one of our top three offensive players so it’s good to have him back,” he said. “He looked a touch rusty, but that’s to be expected after a layoff that long. He’ll be getting better as he gets more time on the ice.”
Hilbert said he has been anxious to return and feels physically up to the task.
“Words cannot express how good it feels to be back,” he said. “It’s been very difficult to see the team struggle and not be able to do anything to help. We’re not out of contention yet. It’s been a nightmare year for me, so I just want to make the best of the games left this season. I’m just happy to be healthy and playing.”
The other addition to the roster on Saturday, although brief, was D Brandon Straub, who was signed to a PTO on March 20 and released two days later. Straub, previously of the Allen Americans of the CHL, brought with him a glaring statistic, having totaled 185 penalty minutes in 58 games this season.
In his first of two games with the Aeros, Straub lived up to his reputation from the start, brawling with Admirals LW Tristan Grant at 3:33 in the first period. For his efforts, Straub received a five-minute major penalty and a loud ovation from the home crowd, who at least wanted to see their team dominate physically if unable to on the scoreboard.
Straub says his style of play has always been in his nature and that the atmosphere with the Aeros gives him room to play his game.
“It goes with the territory,” he said. “At this level of competition, no one will last very long if they don’t have a mean streak. It’s easier to play tough on a team of tough guys and this team has some very tough guys on it.”
Despite his short tenure with the team, Straub proved the value of enforcers and gave the fans a reason to want to see him back in an Aeros sweater again someday.
LW Matt Kassian, the team’s resident fighter who Straub described as “the toughest guy you’re going to find in any league,” testified to the formula that states that tough guys plus tough losses equals aggression increased exponentially.
“It’s a tendency of human nature, to quit when things get tough,” said Kassian. “With the situation we’re in now, some people would just give up. But for guys like me, you have to keep going. We all love to play hockey and we’re not going to quit, especially at this level, where we all are trying to prove ourselves.”
Kassian, who is quickly becoming arguably one of the most popular players in Aeros history, leads the team with 142 penalty minutes in 52 games this season in addition to the 130 minutes in 2008-09. He says his style of play was established early in his career.
“It was during my very first shift of my very first game playing juniors,” he said. “I got into a fight with a guy who was 6’6, 260 lbs. And then my very first shift of my very first game in the AHL, I got into a fight with a guy who was bigger than me as well, so a precedent was set from there.”