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AHL playoff preview round one: Syracuse Crunch vs St. John’s IceCaps

Playoff hockey has returned to the salt city where the Crunch will try to halt the offensive firepower of the St. John’s IceCaps.

This past weekend’s mass hysteria involving the Syracuse Crunch and the rest of the North Division perfectly embodied the season as a whole for Benoit Groulx’s squad. Heading in to their two-game homestand against the Binghamton Senators and Utica Comets, the Crunch seemed locked into the #2 seed, which would see them taking on the Albany Devils in the first round of play.

Fast-forward 48 hours, and every single scenario that had to come to fruition for Syracuse to snag the division title and secure home ice through the first two rounds, somehow did.

With one banner clinched and set to be raised in to the War Memorial rafters next October, the Crunch now set their focus on erasing the rest of the eastern conference to hang another beside it. Their first task, facing a hard-hitting and offensively gifted St. John’s IceCaps team that is ready to make a little bit of noise in their last season on the rock.

“They are going to come out hard,” Crunch forward John Kurtz said after Saturday’s division-clinching win against Utica. “I’m sure their fans are going to be into it because they are losing their team. It’s always a tough atmosphere to go over to St. John’s and play against them and the fans, but it’s going to be exciting hockey.”

Who to look out for:

With a Crunch defense that has struggled for much of the year, and occasionally inconsistent goaltending from both Kristers Gudlevskis and Mike McKenna, the lethal IceCaps offense could prove to be difficult to contain. St. John’s “big 3” is as dangerous as any other trio in the entire American Hockey League, so Crunch defenders will have to be at the top of their game to keep them off of the score-sheet.

  • Chris Terry has long been an elite scorer at the AHL level within the Carolina Hurricanes organization. In this, his first year with Montreal, Terry led their AHL club in scoring. The fifth-round Canes pick in the 2007 entry draft brings scoring, grit, playmaking ability, a decade of knowledge, and a wealth of playoff experience. Terry skated in 58 games with the IceCaps this season, scoring 30 goals to go along with 38 helpers for a season total of 68 points. He came up just one point short of matching his career best in 2013-2014 with the Charlotte Checkers. At 5-foot-10 and 195 lbs, the Ontario-born winger boasts more than just a hard and quick shot. Much like Crunch forward Cory Conacher, Terry is a player that is constantly going to the front of the net and is almost always in the middle of an altercation. He is a pest that can also score the puck... and he is very good at it.
  • Perhaps the biggest offensive threat in the IceCaps lineup comes in the form of 22-year-old Quebec native Charles Hudon. The fifth-round pick of the Habs in 2012, Hudon has been a steal for the organization as a whole. His shot is as elite as you will find at the minor-league level, and never seems to run out of gas. He is a threat in all scenarios from anywhere on the ice, and the Crunch will have their hands full trying to keep the 5-foot-10 spark-plug on a leash. In 56 games with the caps, Hudon registered 27 goals and 22 assists for a season total of 49 points. In 2015-2016, he compiled just four more points in 11 extra games played.
  • Young up-and-comer Nikita Scherbak rounds out this dangerous trio. In just his second year as a pro, the 2014 first round pick of the Montreal Canadiens is having quite an impressive campaign. He suited up in 66 games this year in the AHL and hit the back of the net 13 times to go along with 28 assists for a season total of 41 points. He made his NHL debut on January 7th against the Toronto Maple Leafs and scored on his very first shot of the contest. While his numbers in the AHL aren’t overly impressive, it’s more than apparent that the talent is there and waiting to break out. He has a good shot, soft hands, and a big frame at 6-foot-2 that works wonders in front of opposing teams’ goalies. Scherbak has the potential to be a difference maker in this series.

Keys to victory for Syracuse:

  • Stay out of the penalty box. Syracuse was by far the most penalized team in the league during the regular season with a total of 1,371 penalty minutes. The kicker is that the second highest penalized team in the Eastern Conference was the St. John’s IceCaps with 1,162. These are two teams that play a very physical style of hockey and it could very well come down to special team opportunities. The Crunch power-play rounded out the regular season at sixth in the conference with a conversion rate just south of 60% while the Caps finished in ninth with 53%. Looking at the big picture, “cranky” players like Jake Dotchin, Cory Conacher, and Tanner Richard are going to have to pick their spots carefully. IceCaps forward Bobby Farnham has been a thorn in their side all season long and will continue poking and prodding in the playoffs.

  • The biggest difference between this potential cup run and the one the Crunch enjoyed in 2013 is a surefire #1 goaltender. When Syracuse opened up against the Portland Pirates in round one that season, everybody knew that the guy between the pipes was Cedrick Desjardins. He was solid, he was consistent, and he was the backbone of that hockey club. This year, Syracuse has two very talented net-minders that are capable of shutting teams down, but neither of them have been consistent enough to earn the starting role. in 14 games played since coming over from the Springfield Thunderbirds, Mike McKenna’s five wins and five losses left him with a save percentage just over .900 percent. Gudlevskis has gone 15-10 with a save percentage of 0.897 percent. It will be interesting to see if either goalie grabs hold of the reigns and leads this team onward.
Crunch goaltender Mike McKenna
Photo by Scott Thomas

“I feel like I’m playing well and that’s all I’m worried about,” McKenna said after Friday’s game against Binghamton. “If it’s me, if it’s Kristers, I just want to win games. Obviously I want to be a part of that and I want to play every one of those (games) so I’m going to be ready if I’m given the chance.”

  • The Crunch would be wise to not let these games turn into a shootout. While Syracuse has the depth scoring that the IceCaps lack, the top four or five guys on their roster can burn you quickly. Chris Terry, Charles Hudon, Nikita Scherbak, and Jacob De La Rose are four of the most talented players in the league, and if the Crunch defense fails to stay alert, they will get behind them and they will bury the puck. This will prove to be a big test for young blue-liners like Jake Dotchin, Ben Thomas, and Dylan Blujus.
Crunch blue-liner Dylan Blujus.
Photo by Scott Thomas

There’s no doubt that both Crunch fans and IceCaps fans are in for a fast and physical series when the two teams meet on Friday night. With all of the demotions from Tampa, on paper the Crunch are one of the best hockey teams in the entire league. That skill and depth will be put to the ultimate test against an IceCaps team that is much better than their seeding would indicate.

“It’s a good team,” head coach Ben Groulx said in anticipation of meeting the Caps on Friday. “There’s no secret for us and there’s no secret for them, we know each-other pretty well. It’s going to be on us to play our strengths.”

Syracuse will get their first chance at doing just that on Friday night. Puck drop is set for 6pm.