Syracuse Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx had one word to describe his teams effort down the stretch on Saturday night: Proud.
A team that seemed doomed from almost the start of the season due to a plethora of injuries in the organization was able to rise up from the rubble and do the unthinkable. As the final horn sounded, the Utica Comets were eliminated from playoff contention and the home team celebrated the completion of the first part of their Cinderella story.
The #SyrCrunch are your 2016-17 North Division Champions! #FIN15H pic.twitter.com/P3biXgxAnG— y - Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) April 16, 2017
“With all of the challenges we have faced this year, they way they responded, it’s awesome,” Groulx said after the win. “We managed to get points in our last five games. We put ourselves in a position where we could clinch in our last two games. We did it and I’m proud of those guys.”
As for the game at hand, Syracuse opened up the scoring with back-to-back markers within ten seconds of each other. The first goal came at 5:24 of the opening period when Jonathan Racine wristed a shot that Comets goaltender Thatcher Demko couldn’t quite handle. Henri Ikonen, back in the lineup after having Friday night off, was there to tap in the rebound for the early 1-to-0 lead.
Ten ticks of the game-clock later, another free-for-all in front of the Utica cage led to Brett Howden’s third goal of the season. The rookie put home the second-chance bid with the helpers coming from Joel Vermin and Tanner Richard.
The baby bolts continued to pour on the offense in the second period, receiving goals from John Kurtz and Joel Vermin. Shortly after, it was announced over the PA system that St. John’s had knocked off Toronto, a result that officially dashed the Comets’ playoff hopes. Still, the resilient Comets weren’t ready for their season to come to a close just yet. Highly touted rookie prospect Nikolay Goldobin quickly potted his 18th and 19th goals of the campaign past Crunch starting goalie Kristers Gudlevskis.
“They announced it over the PA that St. John’s beat Toronto, and at that point I think we were up 4-to-1 so we were feeling pretty good,” Kurtz said. “Then Utica came with a push and made it a two-goal game so we knew it was our game to lose and the guys just dug deep and shut them down.”
Syracuse would seal the deal on the regular season late in the third period with an empty net goal from team Power Forward of the Year, Adam Erne. The Crunch would ride their 5-to-2 lead all the way to the finish line to capture the franchise’s third division title and second of the Lightning affiliation.
“As a hockey player, this is what you want to be a part of,” said Erne. “These are games where good players show up and bad players don’t. I think we have a good group of guys in there and I think we’re all ready to show up.”
Syracuse begins post-season play on Friday in St. John’s where they will play two games before returning home to finish the best of five series. The Crunch and IceCaps split the regular season series at four games apiece.
“They have a good team, big team, skilled team,” Groulx said of the IceCaps. “It’s going to be a challenge and our job is to get prepared.”