Believe it or not, conditioning stints in the American Hockey League can be dangerous.
Yes, the player on the conditioning stint assignment could get hurt. If the stint is injury-related, then there's always the concern that playing a game in an unfamiliar arena with an unfamiliar team could lead to the player re-injuring themselves. But, that kind of danger is kind of expected with hockey. Hockey is a rough sport, and injuries and re-injuries happen despite the best preparation.
But there's also a different kind of danger that lurks out there. This kind of danger mostly affects the fans, and it is just as real as an injury-related concern: the danger of pre-stint inflated expectations and post-stint free fall.
Fans mean well, of course. They want their team to do well, and when things aren't going as planned, they look for ways to make it right. A well-timed conditioning stint can look like the perfect solution, but the expectations can get out of hand with one of these things really quickly.
It starts as soon as a well-meaning person says something like, "This is great, the Crunch could really use a spark!" Then, it's all downhill from there. Fans need to realize something: conditioning stints aren't for the team. They're for the player.
Johnathan Drouin didn't come to Syracuse to save the Crunch from itself. He came to get his NHL pre-season in. And, really, playing in the AHL at the beginning of the season is kind of like an NHL pre-season. Teams are trying to gel, are trying to figure what works and what doesn't. Everyone's in the same boat, more or less. The talent's a little raw, but there's always potential.
Drouin came here to get himself conditioned to go play hockey in the NHL. That he helped the Crunch get into the "W" column for the first time this season is just an added bonus. It's a pretty added bonus, especially from a Crunch fan's perspective. But, in the grand scheme of things, that's all it is. It's a bonus.
Sometimes, conditioning stints work out well for both parties. Two seasons ago, PC Labrie came down to Syracuse at a time of struggle for the Crunch, and his mere presence in the locker room seemed to turn things around. He scored some goals, made the fans laugh, and went back to Tampa.
But, again, the part of all of this that needs to be stressed is that he went back to Tampa. Yes, he just happened to leave an energized team in his wake. But, he was here to get in some playing time to get him ready to jump back onto an NHL roster when the team was ready.
Drouin's stint is meant in the exact same way, though obviously the players in question are very different from each other. Drouin is here to make sure he's ready to jump onto Tampa's roster as soon as he gets back. He absolutely helped the Crunch win this past weekend, and he'll hopefully/probably help them do it again this weekend, when Syracuse faces its first three-in-three of the season. The Tampa organization is a big believer in winning to develop, so anything that can help their developmental team succeed is a positive.
But then he'll go back up to Tampa. The Crunch will have to find a way to win without him. This is where conditioning stints can be dangerous if fan expectations rise too high.
The good news? Syracuse looked more like a team this past weekend than they did for the majority of last season. Sure, Drouin had a hand in that, but he didn't score every goal, he certainly wasn't in goal, and he wasn't on the ice every second. The Crunch can survive without him, and as long as they keep pushing as a whole like they did Friday and Saturday, they absolutely should survive without him.
Friday night, Syracuse faced divisional rival Springfield for the second time in two weeks. The Falcons had rather embarrassed Syracuse during the Crunch's Opening Night the Saturday before, taking advantage of a listless, sleep-walking Syracuse. This past Saturday, however, the Crunch came out hard, putting up 18 shots on goal in just the first period and managing 38 total by the end of the night. Three of those shots found the back of the net, which was enough to win the game.
The Crunch's first line clicked like crazy. Jonathan Marchessault scored in the first, Cedric Paquette gave the Crunch an fighting chance with a tying goal in the second, and Drouin pitched in with his first professional goal to ice the cake. Syracuse goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy's 27-save performance got him his first professional regular season win.
After such a performance, Syracuse had every reason to be pumped up going into Saturday's contest against regional and conference rival Binghamton. Binghamton trounced the Crunch during the AHL per-season, outscoring Syracuse 11-3 in two contests in Lyon, France. The Senators also dominated Syracuse last season, winning seven out of the eight games the two teams played. The Crunch's confidence should have been high after Friday's performance, and the team should have been happy to be facing such a tough rival so quickly after a game with so many positives.
However, the Crunch looked more like the Syracuse of the middle of the 2013-2014 season than ever during the first period of Saturday's contest. The defense, which was changed by Crunch head coach Rob Zettler prior to the game, left starting goalie Kristers Gudlevskis hung out to dry way too many times for comfort. Friday night, prospects Jake Dotchin and Dylan Blujus saw ice time and helped to hold Springfield to 29 total shots on goal. Saturday night, Zettler and assistant coach Trent Cull decided to healthy scratch the two of them in favor of veteran defensemen Joey Mormina and Matt Corrente.
It's unclear what was the reason for the blue line's struggles, but it could be that those substitutions caused more havoc than expected. The blue line looked incredibly disorganized and allowed a season-high 19 shots on goal in the first period. It was a miracle that Binghamton only scored once during that frame, and Gudlevskis was definitely the star of the period. Zettler and Cull would spend most of the game juggling blue line combinations, a situation that was exacerbated when both Mormina and Luke Witkowski went out with injury mid-way through the game. Witkowski returned to finish the game; Mormina did not.
Unsure of what to expect from the rest of the contest, Crunch fans braced themselves for a repeat of last season's snowballing tendency, where one bad period/goal basically ruined the team's concentration for the rest of the game. However, fans were pleasantly surprised when Syracuse came out with a renewed attitude for the second, with Marchessault and Joel Vermin, who potted his first of the year, scoring for Syracuse. The Crunch then showed a clear and strong resolve to win in the third. Mike Blunden and Corrente scored for Syracuse during the final period, pushing Syracuse to a 4-2 victory over the Senators.
Drouin finished the night with two assists, one on Marchessault's goal and the other on Corrente's tally. Gudlevskis stopped 43 of the 45 pucks he saw. He earned the game's third star of the night with his applaud-worthy performance. Drouin was the game's second star, and Blunden, who had the game winner, was the first. As long as the team keeps working together and is able to push past bad periods/moments better than they did last season, then a Drouin-less Crunch certainly has the potential to go far this season.
The Crunch goes on an Eastern Conference tour this upcoming weekend. They play the Worcester Sharks on Friday, the Portland Pirates on Saturday, and then close out the weekend at Springfield on Sunday. Worcester and Portland are in the AHL's Atlantic Division, while Springfield, as previously discussed, is a member of the Crunch's Northeast Division. Syracuse has played Springfield every weekend so far this season, but won't see them again until December after Sunday.
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