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 a 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.
Hamilton had been trying to become just the third team in the AHL’s 75-year history to win a best-of-seven series after dropping the first three games.
DiSalvatore stuffed in a rebound off a mad scramble to the right of Bulldogs’ goaltender Drew MacIntyre for the game-winner. Former AHL rookie of the year Patrick O’Sullivan and Chad Rau picked up assists on DiSalvatore’s fifth goal of the postseason.
The Aeros blasted off to a quick start, as Rau scored 7:03 after the opening face-off and rookie Casey Wellman buried an unassisted goal just nine seconds later.
But Hamilton was quick to answer. Dustin Boyd cut his team’s deficit in half at the 9:13 mark, and defenseman Mathieu Carle cashed in on a power play at 13:21 to knot things up at 2-2.
Wellman put Houston back on top 2:42 into the second period, only to see Aaron Palushaj make the Bulldogs 2-for-2 on the power play just over seven minutes later.
The 3-3 deadlock would hold until DiSalvatore’s heroics late in the third. Hamilton put tremendous pressure on Houston rookie goaltender Matt Hackett in the final minute, but the Bulldogs ended up on the losing end of Game 7 in the conference finals for the second straight year.
The 21-year-old Hackett (12-6) captured the win with 24 saves on net, while MacIntyre made 30 stops in the losing effort, dropping to 10-3 in Calder Cup Playoff games for his career.
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.