Rampage right wing Matt Watkins scored two goals and added two assists, including the Rampage’s first empty-net goal of the season, for a 4-2 victory over the Houston Aeros at Toyota Center Saturday night. It was the seventh time that the Aeros and Rampage have faced off the day after Christmas in which the Rampage owned a 1-4-1-0 record prior to tonight’s game.
The Rampage took an early 3-0 lead with goals coming just 3:10 apart in the opening period. The first goal came at the 5:55 mark when Watkins skated the puck toward the Aeros net from the right circle and took a shot that was blocked by Aeros netminder Anton Khudobin and landed in front of the crease. The loose puck was then touched by Rampage center Kyle Turris who was unable to fire it towards the net and instead Rampage left wing Brett MacLean was able to pick it up and punch it into the net over Khudobin’s right leg.
Just 11 seconds after MacLean’s goal, Rampage defenseman Sean Sullivan won the faceoff at center ice and punched the puck out to Watkins at the left wall blue line who then passed the puck off to Turris in the slot. Turris then fired a shot that beat Khudobin over his shoulder and into the upper right corner of the net. Immediately following the Rampage’s second goal, Houston head coach Kevin Constantine didn’t waste any time and replaced Khudobin with Barry Brust in net. It was Brust’s first appearance in net for the Aeros since April 10.
The Rampage extended their lead to 3-0 at the 9:05 mark when Rampage defenseman Shaun Heshka attempted to clear the puck down the left wall behind the Aeros net for a line change but instead the puck deflected off the partition to Watkins at the bottom of the left faceoff circle where he scored on an empty net as Aeros netminder Barry Brust went behind the Aeros net anticipating to play the puck.
Prior to tonight’s game, the Aeros had only allowed 17 opponent goals in the first frame which is second-fewest in the league. The Rampage had only scored one goal in the opening period of the previous seven games against Houston.
The Aeros entered the second period hungry for some offensive action and was able to find a spark with a goal from former Rampage right wing Jon DiSalvatore at the 1:44 mark. With the Aeros shorthanded and coming off a Rampage turnover, DiSalvatore skated the puck over the blue line down the right wing wall and took a shot against Pogge that was deflected in front of the crease in which DiSalvatore was able to pick up his own rebound and float the puck in five-hole past Pogge to cut the deficit to 3-1. Nathan Smith was credited with the only assist on DiSalvatore’s goal as the Rampage gave up their ninth shorthanded goal of the season.
Houston tacked on another goal at the 16:00 mark of the second period with a shot by Maxim Noreau from the high slot that made its way through traffic and into the back of the net. Danny Irmen and Duncan Milroy were credited with the assists on the Aeros’ 81st goal of the season.
Through the first 16:30 of the final frame, the Aeros limited the Rampage to only one shot on goal. The Aeros lead the league in fewest shots allowed averaging 24 opponents shots on goal per game.
Constantine pulled Brust with 1:35 remaining in the game to add the extra Houston attacker in hopes of tying the game. Instead, the Rampage recorded their first empty net goal of the season with a shot from center ice off the stick of Matt Watkins at the 19:00 mark to seal the Rampage 4-2 victory.
Rampage goaltender Justin Pogge improved to a 7-0-1 record lifetime when facing the Aeros as Houston netminder Barry Brust was credited with the loss despite making 17 saves on the 18 San Antonio shots he faced.
The Rampage (12-15-3-1) return to the AT&T Center tomorrow to face the Texas Stars at 3 p.m.