Although the Syracuse Crunch still clearly struggle for stretches of time, and although they're still trying to thread too many passes through clogged lanes, and although they're still getting too fancy sometimes, and although they still spend too much time looking for the perfect pass, they are also finally starting to look like a cohesive unit. This is great news, for sure. Their wins may not always be pretty, but luckily ugly wins count just as much as beautiful ones.
Syracuse is undergoing its first true development year under the Tampa affiliation. As Eric Neilson pointed out last night during Dan D'Uva's post-game show, only three players currently on the Crunch's roster were a part of the Norfolk Admirals team that won the Calder Cup in 2012 (Neilson himself, Mike Angelidis, and J.P. Cote). The Crunch does have vet/older power in other players like Matt Taormina, Evan Rankin, Dana Tyrell, Joey Mormina, Geoff Walker, and Philippe Paradis, but everyone else on the team is pretty young.
For instance, yes, J.T. Brown is playing his second season in a Crunch uniform, although he missed a good majority of last season with a broken collar bone. Brett Connolly, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Demitry Korobov are also second year players on the Crunch. But, Brown is only 23, Namestnikov and Connolly are 21, while Korobov is the oldest of this group at 24.
The rest of the team has a median age of about 21 years. Most of those players, such as the entire Russian contingent, are 20 years old, while a few of the others are 21 or slightly older. That's a lot of players under 23 on an AHL team, and with so many total in their first year with the Crunch, the team is undergoing much growing and learning.
A lot of good stuff came out of this past weekend, and, as they say, there's nothing better for development than winning. The Crunch is now on a three-game winning streak thanks to last weekend's away win in Binghamton, a shootout win over the Utica Comets this past Friday, and Saturday's fun free-for-all over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Syracuse is now back in playoff contention thanks to their strong weekend.
Friday night was almost another fruitless, frustrating game, but thanks to some surprising razzle-dazzle during the shootout, the Crunch managed to eek away with two points. Syracuse's starting goalie Cedrick Desjardins stopped 19 of the 20 shots he faced during regulation and OT, letting in only one goal (on the power play). Joacim Eriksson, who was in net for the Comets, faced 34 shots through regulation and OT, and also only let in a single regulation goal (also on the power play). Eriksson was definitely the star for the Comets that night, frustrating Crunch shooters who put up a game-high 16 shots during the third period.
The shootout went 6 rounds and got off to a worrisome start. Comets forward Benn Ferriero scored on Desjardins in the first round, while the Crunch didn't manage to get the equalizer until Tanner Richard saved the day during the fourth round. Cedric Paquette would then breathe more life into the Crunch's hopes as the first shooter during the sixth round, scoring a goal that put the Crunch ahead 2-1. Desjardins was then able to shut the door on Utica's Alex Biega to secure the win. Although it wasn't pretty, the team and the crowd of away fans who came to watch were obviously relieved with the win. Showing class yet again, many members of the Crunch acknowledged the pockets of away fans as they left the arena.
On Saturday night, Syracuse welcomed the Sound Tigers to their only visit to the Onondaga County War Memorial with a rock 'em sock 'em second period that saw five Crunch goals -- as period-high total for both this season and all games dating back to February 2013 -- and Neilson's first fight of the season. Cote, Namestnikov, Taormina, Rankin, and Paquette all scored for the Crunch. Defenseman Luke Witkowski and forward Nikita Kucherov both netted two assists during that period, while Cote also had a multi-point night. He registered an assist on Paquette's goal. Syracuse put up 39 shots during the game, with 22 coming during the second alone.
Although the five-goal second period was certainly impressive, what can't get lost here was that Saturday also marked the AHL debut of goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis. Gudlevskis was recalled earlier this week to the Crunch after Riku Helenius suffered an injury last weekend at Binghamton. Gudlevskis was perfect in his first game out, stopping all 22 shots he faced and making some key saves that kept the Crunch rolling. The goalie was almost eerily calm in his first outing with the Crunch, showing amazing poise and a knack to be at the right place at the right time.
As fun as the weekend was, it can't be ignored that the Crunch played the two worst teams in the AHL. Utica sits at the bottom of the Western Conference without a win yet this season, while Bridgeport is at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with only one win. A better assessment of how the team is doing will come this Wednesday when the Crunch travel to Albany for the first time this season. Albany is in 6th place in the Eastern Conference with a 5-2-0-1 record.
Latest Stats for the Syracuse Crunch:
Regular season record (wins-losses-OT losses-SO losses): 4-2-1-0
Place in the conference standings (top 8 make the playoffs): Eighth
Place in division standings: Fourth
Top scorer: Nikita Kucherov, 6-5-11
Top defenseman, +/-: Luke Witkowski, +4
Top rookie: Nikita Kucherov, 6-5-11
Home Game attendance: 10/18: 4,867
Syracuse Crunch Player notes/transactions:
-Kristers Gudlevskis (G) was recalled.
-The Crunch now has a season total of 10 power play goals.
-Taormina is riding a six-game scoring streak.
-Namestnikov has points in five straight games.
-Cote now has 100 career points.
-Witkowsk's points Saturday night were the first two of his professional career.
-Neilson reached a career highlight Saturday night, hitting the 700 PIM mark in 237 career games.
Video: Syracuse Crunch vs. Bridgeport:
Syracuse Crunch vs. Bridgeport Sound Tigers (Oct. 26, 2013) (via Syracuse Crunch)