The Syracuse Crunch likely played the most important game of their 76 game season on Saturday night. The good news is they picked up a pivotal win over a division rival. The bad news is tomorrow’s contest now becomes the most important of the year. One cliche holds that “every game is important this time of the year,” and for the Crunch, it has never been truer.
The Crunch have historically struggled against the Utica Comets on home ice but Saturday in front of a capacity crowd they dominated for a full sixty minutes.
Syracuse controlled play to start the opening frame of the contest peppering Comets rookie netminder Thatcher Demko with shots. The first and only Utica score of the game would end up being the first marker on the scoreboard, however. New Hartford New York native Mike Zalewski fired a shot immediately following an offensive-zone draw that beat a screened Mike McKenna through the five-hole.
The one-goal lead for the Comets would last for less than two minutes as the Crunch were able to find the back of the net at the 11:56 mark of the period and set the tone for the rest of the game. Cory Conacher executed a silky toe-drag from right out in front of the Utica cage and easily back-handed the puck into the twine to send the War Memorial into a frenzy. The tally was Conacher’s 15th of the year with the assists going to Michael Bournival and Matthew Peca.
“It was unfortunate that they took the lead, but we were able to answer back quickly,” Crunch head coach Ben Groulx said. “That gave us confidence for the rest of the game.”
The second ‘Cuse goal would come just past the halfway point of the middle frame on the man-advantage. Adam Comrie set up shop at the point and launched a missile of a shot towards a sea of bodies in front of the Utica net. Waiting to deflect the bid was Crunch grinder Henri Ikonen to extend the Syracuse lead to 2-to-1.
“My role on the powerplay is to stand in front and screen the goalie and look for a tip,” Ikonen said. “He shoots hard so I couldn't really see the puck but it hit my stick and went in so it worked out.
The home-town team scored three more times in the regulation period to seal the deal with the first coming from Crunch veteran John Kurtz. After hemming Utica in their own zone for what seemed like an eternity, Matthew Peca connected on a cross-crease pass with a streaking Kurtz who labeled it for the top-shelf.
The onslaught continued roughly four minutes later when Syracuse registered their second powerplay goal of the evening. Byron Froese one-timed a pass from Matt Taormina past the blocker side of Demko to bring the Crunch lead to 4-to-1.
“With Byron Froese as a flanker over on the other side, it’s a weapon that we didn't have before Christmas time,” Groulx said. “It’s huge to have him there but I thought overall our powerplay guys passed the puck much better tonight.”
Cory Conacher rounded out the scoring effort in the final minutes of the game with a stellar breakaway goal. Tye McGinn had the lone assist that sprung the “honey badger” in alone on Demko.
“I don’t think anyone was happy with our performance last night,” Groulx said. “We bounced back tonight.”
The Crunch are right back in action on Sunday when they travel to Toronto to take on the second place Marlies.