One of the things the Tampa Bay Lightning insists on installing in their AHL club is a winning atmosphere. Much like their team attitude at the NHL level, things at the AHL level tend to be kept positive, with eyes always on the playoffs. Playoff hockey at the AHL level is the best development of talent, says the brass. Lightning coach Jon Cooper once said something that the AHL playoffs are the closest AHL players can get to NHL play without actually being in the NHL.
The Syracuse Crunch has been trying to continue the process towards the playoffs it started at the beginning of January. The team has a long way to go to climb out of the basement of the East Division, but it is making progress. Syracuse lost Saturday night to the Binghamton Senators, but it was the Crunch's first regulation loss in the month of January. That was definitely progress for a club that saw 7 regulation losses during the month of December.
However, the way Syracuse lost Saturday night is concerning. The team they lost to is almost even more worrying.
One of the facts of life in the AHL is that teams in the same division tend to play each other a lot. The league tries to minimize travel costs, so teams that are near each other tend to see each many times. At the start of the 2013-2014 season, Syracuse was scheduled to play its East Division foes 36 times. Norfolk and Hershey appeared on the Crunch's docket 8 times each, while Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (WBS) and Binghamton were scheduled to see the Crunch 10 games each.
Syracuse has now reached the official mid-way point of the season. Their series with each of these teams stands as follows (W-L):
- Crunch vs. Norfolk: 2-3
- Crunch vs. Hershey: 2-1
- Crunch vs. WBS: 2-4
- Crunch vs. Binghamton: 1-7
Last year, Syracuse basically dominated the East Division, winning the title during the final weekend of the regular season and becoming the eventual champions of the Eastern Conference. Obviously, one of the ways the team accomplished that was by winning games against teams in their own division. Syracuse had a 17-13 edge against teams in the East Division.
This year, however, the Crunch is obviously struggling against their divisional rivals. Right now, the the Crunch is 7-15 against those teams. And, also obviously if one looks at the numbers, no team in the league has stymied the Crunch quite like the Binghamton Senators.
Binghamton is third in the Eastern Conference and first in the East Division. Their 25-12-0-3 record is fifth-best in the league. They have two players in the top 10 scorers in the AHL, three in the top 20, and that talent level was never as obvious as it was Saturday. During that game, they managed just 17 shots against the Crunch and still won 6-3. Syracuse, meanwhile, put up 38 shots in a losing effort.
Binghamton has outscored Syracuse 36 to 22 in the seven games the two teams have played this year. Everything seems to fall apart when the Senators are involved. Syracuse has pulled their starting goaltender the last two times the teams have played. In their last four games played against the Senators, Syracuse has allowed one short-handed goal and eight power play goals.
Crunch players and coaches can talk all they want about being better than what the standings say. They can insist the playoffs are still in their sights. They can absolutely point to strong games from the past few weeks as proof of their improvement. The team has made strides. But, despite those strides, they still cannot seem to solve Binghamton.
However, the problem here isn't just Binghamton. The problem extends to the entire East Division. Teams who are now in this division have a tenancy to do well in the post season. In the last 10 years, five Calder Cup championship teams have come out of what is now the East Division. Hershey has won three times, Binghamton has won once and Norfolk has win once (as Tampa's affiliate, of course). Further more, during years East Division teams didn't win, four of the runners up for the Calder were from the East: Syracuse once (last year), WBS twice and Hershey once. In the past decade, there has only been one finals match-up that didn't feature a team from the East Division.
Solving a team like Binghamton is going to be a key to playoff contention. If the Crunch wants to show they're serious about this, then the guys have to start figuring out ways to compete against those in the East Division and teams like Binghamton. Although they only have one more chance against the Senators, they have three more against Norfolk, five more against Hershey (two coming up this weekend), and four more against WBS. If the boys are looking at any games as "must win," they need to start with those games.
Latest Stats for the Syracuse Crunch:
Regular season record (wins-losses-OT losses-SO losses): 17-15-2-4
Place in the conference standings (top 8 make the playoffs): Twelfth, down one from last week
Place in division standings: Fifth, same as last week
- Top scorer: Vladislav Namestnikov, 12-16-28.
Top scoring defenseman: Dmitry Korobov, 0-15-15
Top defenseman, +/-: Jean-Philippe Cote, +6
- Top defenseman, +/-, still active with the team: Dmitry Korobov, +2
Top rookie: Nikita Kucherov, 13-11-24
- Top rookie still active with the team: Cedric Paquette, 11-14-25
Other Syracuse Crunch Player notes/transactions:
-Maxime Langelier-Parent (C) was re-assigned to Florida of the ECHL
-Riku Helenius (G) was re-assigned to Florida of the ECHL
-Cedrick Desjardins (G) was re-assigned to Syracuse by the Tampa Bay Lightning
-Syracuse Crunch forward Brett Connolly netted his second career hat trick Saturday night
-Saturday's loss snapped a season-high six game point streak for the Crunch
-Tanner Richard's first multi-point (2 assists) game of his career was Friday night
Syracuse Crunch media highlights:
-After playing in his 21st consecutive game (a career long), the "effervescent" Eric Neilson reflects on his recent success, including an assist and a fight Jan. 17 vs. Hershey. The 29 year old talks Bruce Springsteen, Olympics, Lake Placid and more.
-Syracuse Crunch vs. Hershey Bears (Jan.17, 2014) (via Syracuse Crunch):
-Syracuse Crunch vs. Binghamton Senators (Jan. 18, 2014) (via Syracuse Crunch)