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Syracuse Crunch week 21: Strong defense and goaltending get results

The AHL's Eastern Conference playoff race is still looking tight, but the Crunch created a little bit of breathing room this past weekend, mostly due to the lockdown among the team's defense and goaltending.

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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After last weekend's struggle, things were feeling kind of bleak in Crunch Town. Although the team was still very much in the playoff race - third place in the Eastern Conference - performances like that could be straws that break backs. Syracuse's up and down season seemed to be capsulized in those two games, and looking ahead at a three-in-three filled with potential traps, fans weren't feeling too confident. The call up of Syracuse captain Mike Angelidis, a player who has been one of the only consistent forces on the Crunch's roster all season, certainly didn't help the mood.

Luckily for the team and its fans, defenseman Luke Witkowski and his merry band of penalty killers stepped in and basically saved the weekend. Witkowski is definitely making the most out of his time back in Syracuse. Combing their amazing performance with some of the best goaltending the Crunch has seen since the call up of Andrei Vasilevskiy resulted in a fairly solid six points for Syracuse. The sweep of their weekend competition helped to widen the Crunch's lead on Northeast Divisional foe Hartford, 80 points to 74.

The Crunch handed their opponents 17 power plays over the three games: Adirondack got three and capitalized on one, Albany got seven and was denied every time, and Bridgeport also got seven and wasn't allowed to score. Leading the charge on the PK was Witkowski, who was relentless on every kill, taking huge minutes and doing everything he could to keep the puck from going in the net. He and the PK unit was especially effective Saturday night in Albany, when the Crunch handed Albany not one but two three-on-three chances, one in the second and one in the third.

In addition to leading Syracuse's PK unit to all kinds of success, Witkowski also got the eventual game-winning goal Friday night versus Adirondack. Although obviously a bit strapped for offensive talent at the moment, the still Crunch managed to put the puck in the net seven times. Joining Witkowski on the score sheet was Yanni Gourde, Ryan Martindale (who scored twice), Carter Ashton, Tanner Richard, and Jake Dotchin. Adirondack scored four times throughout the first and the second, but goalie Kristers Gudlevskis slammed the door on the Flames in the third period, which allowed the Crunch to score four unanswered goals to win the game.

Saturday at Albany, the Crunch decided to rest Gudlevskis and start goalie Allen York, who hadn't seen any ice time since February 27th. York was able to show a lot of the flash against the Devils that got him signed by the Lightning to an NHL contract a few weeks ago, making several highlight-reel-worthy saves throughout the game and keeping Albany off the board for most of the contest. It actually looked like he was going to escape with the shutout until Albany's Raman Hrabarenka scored with four seconds left in the game. Still, the Crunch scored two goals--Carter Ashton's second of the weekend was joined by a goal from Crunch lead scorer Jonathan Marchessault--so Syracuse escaped with a 2-1 victory.

Sunday, Gudlevskis started and ended the game with a well-deserved smile. Gudlevskis and the Crunch's defense fought off all 29 shots on goal from Bridgeport, keeping the puck out of the net for all three periods. Gudlevskis earned his second shutout of the season while Gourde and newcomer Justin Courtnall secured the win with a goal each.

None of the teams the Crunch faced this past weekend are currently in the playoff picture, but all three are still fighting for a chance. None of them are mathematically eliminated, and the Crunch has had a nasty habit of falling into games like this and not showing anywhere near their best. There's still a lot of hockey to play, but this was an encouraging weekend for all.

Latest Stats for the Syracuse Crunch:

  • Regular season record (wins-losses-OT losses-SO losses): 36-17-8-0

  • Place in Eastern Conference (top 8 make the playoffs): 3rd

  • Place in Northeast Division: 1st

  • Magic number according to the AHL's Playoff Primer (updated daily): 22

  • Top scorer: Jonathan Marchessault (17-33-50)
  • Top scoring defenseman: Slater Koekkoek (3-19-22)

  • Top defenseman, +/-Jean-Philippe Cote, +14

  • Top rookie: Joel Vermin (9-17-26)

Other transactions and player news:

-Crunch players JP Cote, Mike Angelidis, and Eric Neilson are teaming together and are encouraging Crunch fans to save their change and donate it to a great cause. The funds will go to pediatric cancer research and will stay in the CNY area. TampaCuse enthusiasts can get in on the action, too, by going to the team's Go Fund Me page.

-Forward Tanner Richard was a "late decision" healthy scratch Saturday night for the first time this season.

-Marchessault became the first Crunch player to reach 50 points this season. Last season, Brett Connolly was the only full-season-ish (66 games) Crunch player to hit that milestone, with 57 points total.

Syracuse Crunch media highlights:

The Crunch's SoundCloud has been updated with broadcasts and player interviews from the past week.