BY: Bruce Berlet
Connecticut hockey fans had more to cheer about Wednesday than just Hartford Whalers icon Kevin Dineen being named coach of the Florida Panthers.
South Windsor native and Houston Aeros captain Jon DiSalvatore scored only 68 seconds into the game and had the primary assist on Nate Prosser’s winner in a 2-1 victory over the host Binghamton Senators in Game 3 of the Calder Cup playoffs Wednesday night.
The Aeros took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Games 4 and 5 on Friday and Saturday nights at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, on Tuesday and next Thursday nights in Houston.
DiSalvatore knocked in his own rebound for his sixth playoff goal, then Prosser picked up a loose puck and beat Senators rookie goalie Robin Lehner at 12:51 of the second period. Patrick O’Sullivan got his second assist of the game on the winner.
Senators captain Ryan Keller scored his ninth goal of the playoffs at 2:52 of the third period, but Aeros rookie goalie Matt Hackett (28 saves) shut down Binghamton the rest of the way to improve to 14-7 in the postseason. The Senators, who had 21 goals in a four-game sweep of Charlotte in the Eastern Conference finals, have only four games in the first three games against the Western Conference champion Aeros, who are seeking their first title since 2003.
But the fans thought the Senators had tied it with 24.5 seconds left on a goal by former Wolf Pack center Corey Locke, the AHL’s MVP and leading scorer (86 points) this season, during a late flurry after pulling Lehner. But referee Terry Koharski waved his arms to signal no goal, leading to many in a sellout crowd of 4,710 to rain plastic bottles and cups on the ice.
“(The puck) was on its edge, but it didn’t go over (the goal line),” Hackett said. “With the (Senators) goalie pulled, it was pretty intense. People were blocking shots with their faces, with any part of their body, and they did a great job.”
Senators coach Kurt Kleinendorst didn’t dispute the no-goal call but was upset his team wasn’t as intense as the Aeros.
“These are the Calder Cup finals, and you would expect your group would show up and give you an honest 60 (minutes),” Kleinendorst said. “I think we can do better. We have to give credit to Houston, but at the same time, I know this group, I know my guys, and we’re not quite where we need to be. We’re close, but close isn’t going to cut it. We’re going to have to fight for every little inch.”
And that’s about by how much the Senators failed to tie it late, but there is no video replay in the AHL because not all arenas in the 30-team league are equipped for it.
“That’s hockey,” Senators forward Mike Hoffman said. “Sometimes that happens. The chances were there, we just had to capitalize, and we didn’t. That’s why we lost the game.”
Instead, the Aeros regained the home-ice advantage and hope to return home with the Calder Cup. The Senators, now only 4-5 at home in the playoffs, hope to get back to Houston in a bid for their first title.
DiSalvatore was thinking otherwise.
“We’re striving for two more wins,” he said. “We can’t go flying high on this win and forget what we need to do. We have to look at tape from this game and look at things we can do to get better.”
DiSalvatore has been better than ever this season, having scored a career-high 28 goals during the regular season and now helping put the Aeros within two victories of another AHL championship. It has been 11 years since the Wolf Pack won the only title in Hartford hockey history, though Dineen had sure tried hard to get one earlier. After all, there are loads of reasons that his number (11) and that of Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander (12) are in the XL Center rafters.