The Aeros play at home this Friday against Grand Rapids at 7 p.m. and Saturday versus Utah at 7 p.m. Saturday is Rickard Wallin Mousepad Night (3,000).
Wallin's Return Boosts Aeros' Offense, Teammates
Houston, TX - It wouldnt have taken the NHL2Night duo of John Buccigross and Barry Melrose to forecast that the return of Rickard Wallin would have an immediate impact on the Houston Aeros. However, the tremendous effect the return had on two Aeros in particular fellow Europeans Mika Hannula and Christoph Brandner may have stunned even the keenest of hockey minds.
The trio has combined for 16 points in seven games since Wallins return from a 17-game absence due to a leg injury. Its also no surprise that the Aeros are unbeaten in three games overall and are 3-3-1 since inserting Wallin back in the lineup. Houston is averaging 3.67 goals per game nearly 1.50 goals above its season mark in the three-game unbeaten streak.
Their games are all different yet the group has one thing to share adjustments from the larger European ice surface to the North American game.
Wallin, 23, is the playmaker on the line. A big reason why Kyle Wanvig and Stephane Veilleux put up the numbers they did in 2002-03, Wallin may have the best eyes and the best mind on the team. The Stockholm, Sweden native, in his second season in Houston, got a head start on the adjustments to games on this side of the Atlantic.
Brandner, meanwhile, is a 28-year-old sharpshooter who gave up a wildly successful career in his native Austria a country with as many California governors (Arnold Schwarzenegger) hailing from it as NHL skaters and then the German DEL to come to the United States. Brandner spent the first three months of the season with the NHLs Minnesota Wild, notching nine points (4+5=9), but he admittedly struggled with the new game and didnt get as much ice time as he would have liked.
Hannula, 24, is a mixture of the cerebral Wallin and the gunslinger Brandner. Hes got nine goals and 24 points, and hes great with the puck and away from it.
The adjustment away from the European game didnt come easy for any of them.
I think its just that you dont have as much time here as you have on the big ice, said Wallin, who enters this week tied for third on the team in scoring with 30 points, including 13 goals. You have to figure out when that time is there. That was the adjustment for me, knowing that I had to make plays quicker. Obviously, the rink is smaller and the guys are bigger here. Theres no space. You have to create it.
Wallin and Hannula (Huddinge, Sweden) were new to being teammates this season, but not to each other. They played against each other since juniors in Sweden. We kind of grew up seeing the same kind of hockey, so we know what the other is thinking a lot, said Wallin.
Perhaps Brandner is the biggest benefactor of Wallins return. The winger was assigned to the Aeros three days after Wallins injury on January 9. Brandner scored twice in his debut, and then had just one goal and two points over the next 16 games.
Enter Wallin, picked up by the Wild in exchange for Joe Juneau from Phoenix in an expansion draft deal in June, 2000.
We were looking for a way to get Chris Brandner the puck more, said Aeros head coach Todd McLellan, noting that Hannula and Wallin had success alongside Jeff Hoggan earlier this season. Chris has a tremendous shot but needs the puck at precisely the right time. Wallys able to hold onto it until Chris is ready. Wallys vision is very good and he creates a lot of good things.
I think it works pretty well with him on our line, said Wallin, who scored a goal on his first NHL shot with the Wild last season but then missed more than a month after breaking his arm in his fourth game. Its my job to give them the puck. (Brandner) needs to have the puck to be effective. Hes not going to go get it and power his way through to the net. He needs the puck, and someone needs to give it to him.
They read the play very well, added Brandner. Its fun to work with them. Weve only played a few games and it was a good time to come together. The chemistry is good.
Just how fantastic has this line been since February 18? Consider the following:
- In Hannulas 18 games without Wallin in the lineup, he has five points, or .28 points per game, and just one goal.
- In Hannulas 39 games with Wallin on the ice, he has 18 points (.47 per game) and eight goals.
- Brandner, meanwhile, has one more point five since Wallins return, than in his first month in Houston. More importantly, Brandner has 25 shots and two goals in seven games since Wallin got back. In the previous eight games, Brandner was held to only 10 shots.
Wallin said that, despite not being on the ice with Brandner for all of January and most of February, he still tried to help out.
Its a different thing to come down to the AHL compared to the NHL, said Wallin, who has yet to suit up for the Wild since his injury last season. At first it doesnt look like its going to be as hard as you think to score, but its hard because the players are still so skilled and play so hard. I think hes done good job the last couple games. You have to talk to him and let him know hes not the only one
his confidence is coming back.
I was kind of looking forward to coming to Houston, said Brandner. It was nice to be up there but in the beginning it was hard and I was struggling. But its getting better and better here. Its fun to play with two Swedish players.
There are lots of things that the fans and even we as coaches forget players coming from overseas have to go through, said McLellan. Culturally to begin with, and were talking families and little ones too. It all weighs on the ability to perform. By this time of the season, the adjustment is better. Were purely targeting hockey aspects now.
It wasnt just Brandner that Wallin took by his side to assure everything would be okay. Wallin and Hannula formed a bond early on.
Wallys a great person, said McLellan. I think Rickard would do that with just about anyone not just his countryman. The fact hes been through something so similar, I think, Rickard made a special effort for Mika to feel comfortable.
Hannula is thankful for the guidance. It was a hard transition, but he definitely helped me, he said. Its a different game over here. But we think the same. We play the same kind of hockey.
While Hannula may have entered the season with less notice than his new linemates, his contributions are not lost on his head coach. Mika would be the energy and speed of the line, said McLellan. Hes not afraid to go into the corners and work for it, and he usually gets there first because hes so fast.
The trio also plays together on the power play, which has been clicking on all cylinders since Wallin came back, scoring six times on 27 attempts (22.2 percent), about 10 percent higher than the teams average. Wallin was welcomed back February 18 when he picked up the second assist on three power play goals, all within a team-record span of 1:49 as Houston whacked league-leading Grand Rapids 4-1.
Thats one of the things Im supposed to help with on the power play is moving the puck around, said Wallin. When we get to play together for a few games, weve had more success. The power play is a lot about confidence once you get confidence, you feel like you have more time with the puck to make better plays.
The scary thing down the stretch for opponents is that these three are getting better by the game. That, and Wallin shooting the puck extremely well scoring three times in three games last week.
You have so much ice to work with back home, you can always find someone whos open, said Wallin. Its an adjustment to come here and look to shoot more. But it can be an advantage. They figure out the style, and sometimes I figure they take the pass away so I have to work on shooting the puck.
Wallins three recent goals were all enormous. With his team in a battle for a playoff spot, he gave the Aeros a 3-3 tie with a goal late in regulation against Milwaukee, and then earned his first two game-winners of the season in back-to-back games against San Antonio.
If you look at Wallys shot totals, they are not poor, said McLellan. He does shoot the puck, its just that he has it so much and for so long, especially on the power play, you wonder if hes ever going to shoot it. But hes got a great shot.
And if theres one more feather in Wallins cap down the stretch its that hes fresh at least in the lungs department.
Theres nothing bad at the middle or end of the year about getting a break, but on the other hand I have to get my legs back under me, he said. Thats the hard part. The guys here have played so much that you can hardly breathe between games. Its an advantage for me, because I want to play as much as I can so I can get my legs back in shape. The best part for me is that I really wanted to get back, and I thought it was fun to get back and play a lot right away.