Two years ago, when the Syracuse Crunch made it to the Calder Cup final for the first time in franchise history, everyone knew why. Their roster was stacked with guys who are now household names with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Mark Barberio, and Radko Gudas were all strong players and strong dressing room forces that helped propel one of the strongest and most balanced Crunch squads in team history to that final round. AHL personalities like Eric Neilson, Mike Angelidis, and JP Cote helped, of course, but they weren't the main story of the day.
This season, things are a bit different for Syracuse. In fact, things are almost opposite for Syracuse. This season, it's all about the underdogs.
Oh, sure, the Crunch has a full AHL powerhouse first line in Jonathan Marchessault, Yanni Gourde, and Vladislav Namestnikov. Marchessault has 38 points, Gourde has 31, and Namestnikov has 21 (in just 22 games). Syracuse also had (up until Sunday) crazy talent in net in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy has 14 wins in 24 games, and was the AHL Goaltender of the Month for December.
(On a side note, Vasilevskiy was recalled by the Lightning yesterday while Evgeni Nabokov was placed on waivers. In his place, it's expected that Kristers Gudlevskis and Allen York will step in and hold down the fort while the Lightning go on a West Coast road swing for most of the month of February. Gudlevskis, to be fair, is nothing to sneeze at himself. He's had a shaky AHL season so far, but he's also been playing with a lot of pressure to perform on his shoulders in his sophomore season.)
However, beyond those names, the majority of the Crunch's success is coming from a bunch of underdogs who may just be having a collective "best season ever":
-Angelidis currently has 27 points in 44 games. He is third on the team in scoring and has 14 goals. His best season in the AHL was in 2010-2011 with Norfolk, where he netted 38 points in 80 games. He is on pace to beat that this season. Angelidis will be 30 years old in June.
-Mike Blunden has 22 points in 33 games, good for 5th on the team in scoring. The most he's ever scored is 37 points in an AHL season. He currently has 13 goals. 18 is his career best. Blunden will be 29 in December.
-Philippe Paradis currently has 15 points in 33 games, which ties his total from last season with Syracuse (which he took 56 games to amass). His career-best is 16 points, scored in 2011-2012. Paradis' 8 goals so far this season are the most he's ever scored in one AHL season.
-Dalton Smith has 13 points in 40 games. In 3 AHL seasons, Smith has never amassed that many points. His 9 goals so far this season are a career high for him, and are three more than the 6 he scored last season when he split time between Springfield and Syracuse.
-Defenseman Joey Mormina has only played in 27 games for the Crunch this season, but has 12 points in that half-season. Last season with Syracuse, he had 13 points in 56 games. His best year came in 2009-2010, when he had 18 points with the Adirondack Phantoms, a total he may just surpass this season. Mormina will be 33 this year.
Keep in mind that Syracuse still has 32 games left on their schedule. These guys aren't done yet. Most of these guys are (ahem) a bit more advanced in years than the usual players who make their mark in this league, while the others aren't guys a team might usually look to for scoring. Either way, the Crunch would most certainly be floundering without their sudden resurgences.
Instead of floundering, Syracuse finds itself at the top of the AHL's Eastern Conference yet again, mostly thanks to the hard work of this rag-tag group of unsuspecting underdogs.
Thank you, gentlemen.