Most really good teams aren't born whole. It's impossible to throw together a bunch of guys with different styles and attitudes, tell them to do good, and have them actually win. Most teams have to go through some kind of adversity or challenge to really form them into a complete and total unit.
The Syracuse Crunch's record of 26-11-5-0 doesn't exactly scream adversity. Fans of other AHL teams have actually expressed frustration when Crunch fans have tried to explain what has worried them, pointing to Syracuse's record as proof-positive of a good American Hockey League team.
To be fair, yes, that record is really good. In fact, it's good for first in the AHL's Northeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference. TheCrunch is safe in those spots until the AHL All-Star break is over. Then, league play will resume and the second half of the AHL's season will be underway.
In a lot of ways, the second half of a season is more important than the first half. A team could start out really strong in the first four months of the season but then experience pitfalls and not make the playoffs. A team could also be in the basement to start, but then get the right pieces to surge forward and make a good run. There's a reason the cliched "it's not a sprint, it's a marathon" exists.
The Crunch did have some high moments during the first half of this season. The organization's Frozen Dome Classic gave Tampa Bay's prospects an experience they won't ever forget. Syracuse had that 10-game winning streak during the months of November and December. The team got some help from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the form of Vladislav Namestnikov, who was sent to the Crunch on December 5th and has mostly stayed in Syracuse, missing only one game due to a brief call up. The Crunch's goalie tandem of Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis has mostly been able to hold down the fort, turning in some amazing performances that has inspired the fans and gave the players confidence.
However, Syracuse has also had its share of troubles during that time. At the beginning of the season, fans in both Syracuse and Tampa were left wondering how such a talented roster could be so mediocre. Recently, Syracuse's defense was weakened considerably by the recalls of Nikita Nesterov at the end of December and Luke Witkowski on January 16th. Although the addition of Namestnikov certainly helped the Crunch's first line find their stride - both Namestnikov and his line-mate Jonathan Marchessault were named AHL All-Stars - many will admit that Syracuse just doesn't have the firepower at this moment to make a serious Cup run:
Syracuse needs at least 2 scorers to be added or developed quickly if the team is going to go at least 2 PO rounds.— Bolt Prospects (@BoltProspects) January 25, 2015
Any additions needed might be forthcoming, of course. Although certainly no rumors have been heard or anything, the Lightning has developed a habit of making trades that benefit the Crunch, such as when Marchessault and Yanni Gourde were traded to Syracuse from Springfield last season. One never knows when Steve Yzerman will get the ball rolling.
However, any of that is still clouded in the future. What Crunch fans know at this moment is that they witnessed something special this past Saturday night, after Syracuse grinded out a physical win versus the Hartford Wolfpack. The War Memorial was 20 people short of a sellout that night, so the place was hopping. The atmosphere was thick and the fans were into it. The whole affair had the air of a playoff game.
Well, to those in the stands, anyway.
The Crunch itself seemed to be struggling a little bit for most of the game. Although they got on the board early, with Mike Blunden scoring his 13th goal of the season a minute and a half into the game, a late-period goal by Hartford deflated Syracuse. A scoreless second seemed to be doing little to get the team going until line brawl broke out at the 14-minute mark. Hartford's Steve Spinell high-sticked Marchessault, and every Crunch player on the ice took exception:
ICYMI Video: Here's the brawl in the second, where Corrente fought Allen and Dodero fought Bourque http://t.co/AjJlfVemak— Jeremy Houghtaling (@JGHoughtaling) January 25, 2015
The Crunch buzzed for the rest of the second, and although an early goal by Hartford in the third could have ruined the party, Syracuse captain Mike Angelidis decided he couldn't allow that. The score was tied at 2-2. The second Crunch goal was thanks to Blunden's second of the night, but since that moment Syracuse had gotten little in terms of any real pressure going. Then, Angelidis scored what would eventually be the game winner while on the power play with a little over ten minutes remaining in the game. The goal was the Crunch's first power-play goal in 26 attempts and Angelidis' third game-winner of the season.
The final 10 minutes of the game were intense and filled with drama. Syracuse survived two more Hartford power plays, including one in the final two minutes of the game that saw the Wolf Pack throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Vasilevskiy, who saved the game multiple times.
When the final buzzer blew, the team and its fans truly felt that a war had been fought down there on the ice. And, so, the team celebrated like it had, with a rare group hug at center ice before their salute to the fans:
(Photo credit to Scott Thomas)
It wasn't that they celebrated at center ice. It's how they celebrated. This is a game that brought the team closer together. #bluemachine— Todd Cross (@ToddNY25) January 25, 2015