After a full seven months of struggle and frustration during the 2013-2014 AHL regular season, it was unnerving for everyone when this season looked like it was headed in that same direction. However, the Syracuse Crunch can finally start breathing a little easier again, as can its fans. It's probably safe to say that nearly everyone is enjoying hockey season in Syracuse again, secure in the knowledge that the Crunch is, yet again, one of the best in the American Hockey League.
This time around, unlike two seasons ago when the Tampa Bay Lightning moved their farm team to Syracuse and plopped a bunch of Calder Cup champions in the city, the Crunch's climb to the almost - top of the AHL has happened quietly. Before, the team was expected to excel, and it did, in spades, pushing the team to its first Calder Cup final in its history. This time around, high expectations had been dampened by the frustrations of a dismal October and early November, but now the team is again reaching for that high-set bar. It's kind of funny in comparison, but the Crunch's rise has happened so quietly that some fans are even surprised at numbers like the following:
The @SyracuseCrunch are 12-3-2-0 since Nov. 1, collecting 26 of 34 possible points, a .765 points%, with a +14 goal differential (62-48).— Dan D'Uva (@Dan_DUva) December 13, 2014
The Crunch is playing hockey. Good hockey. A lot of the players on the team are doing things right and are picking up speed at exactly the right time. Yanni Gourde is one of the hottest players in the AHL right now. Jonathan Marchessault is just as hot, coming out every night with an obvious thirst to play and energy to spare. He and Gourde sit atop the Crunch's top scoring list with 22 points each. JP Cote has shown a complete renewal of pep and drive, and played some of the best hockey he's played in his three seasons with Syracuse this past Friday. Mike Angelidis, one of the more mature players on the team, has been looking like one of the younger prospects, excited and ready for each and every game. He is one goal behind Gourde for the team lead in goals scored. Angelidis has 10, Gourde has 11.
And then there's Andrei Vasilevskiy.
After going between Vasi and Gudlevskis, Vasilevski seems to have taken the #1 job. Has raised AHL SV% 20 points in a week.— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) December 13, 2014
I think it's probably safe to say that Syracuse has found its number one goalie, although Kristers Gudlevskis showed he isn't down and out just yet with a fantastic performance against the Utica Comets this past Saturday, letting in just one goal and helping the Crunch to an overtime win. But, many feel Vasilevskiy has pulled ahead of Gudlevskis in terms of playing performance. Although Vasilevskiy's transition to North American hockey may have been more gradual than some fans wanted it to be, he's now showing everyone what he can do. He had two shutouts in a row, blanking the Rochester Americans and then keeping the Eastern Conference leaders Springfield off the board this past Wednesday. Although his shutout streak ended Friday, he still only let in one goal over that three-game span.
Vasilevskiy's save at percentage and his goals against average both improved significantly during the past two weeks. Vasilevskiy had a .898 save percentage and a 2.88 goals against average. He now has a .918 save percentage and a 2.34 goals against average. He is looking more poised, more confident, and, as usual when goalies are in that zone, the rest of the team is following suit.
Granted, the Crunch is certainly benefiting from the return of Vladislav Namestnikov, who was told to bring his NHL-caliber speed and play-making ability back to Syracuse to get more ice time. It's assumed that his stay will only be temporary, so, much like the situation the team found itself in when Jonathan Drouin came and went, the Crunch will have to find a way to live on once he is gone. One of the things that will help there is if the team really starts to look at how it can cash in on rebounds. If there's any weakness to the Crunch right now, it seems to be in that area. The goalies the team has faced in the past couple of weeks have given up a lot of juicy rebounds that the Crunch has not been able to score on. The Crunch's players needs to start hanging out in front of the net and taking the abuse that comes along with being there. Doing that will help their good fortunes and winning ways continue once the Crunch loses the services of Namestnikov, who has two goals and five assists in four games with Syracuse.
For now, the Crunch is doing things right. Their annual teddy bear toss this past weekend was a success, with Angelidis setting off the storm of stuffed animals that will be cleaned and then given to the Salvation Army. That organization will then distribute them to needy children in the Central New York area. In that game, Syracuse was victorious against the Hershey Bears, a win which continued their season-long undefeated streak against Hershey. Syracuse is also giving very talented teams in the AHL a run for their money on a regular basis. Springfield had been on an 11-game winning streak before the Crunch rolled into town last Wednesday, and leads the Eastern Conference with 37 points. Saturday, the Crunch beat a Comets team that currently sits atop the Western Conference.
The Crunch is now two points behind AHL Northeast Division and Eastern Conference leaders Springfield. Needless to say, it's extremely nice to be able to consistently talk positives again.