The smile on the face of Syracuse Crunch goaltender Mike McKenna shone as brightly as the LED lights hanging in the War Memorial rafters on Friday night. With some offensive support from his captain Erik Condra and fellow veteran leader Gabriel Dumont, the 34-year-old goalie and father of two was at a loss for words following Friday night’s series-clinching victory against the St. John’s IceCaps.
“It’s playoff hockey and it’s a close game,” McKenna said when questioned about the contest. “It’s tough to describe, I’m just really happy to be a part of this team right now.
While the Crunch have only won one series, the roar of the crowd and the lengthy celebration on the ice after the game-winning goal would indicate a much larger feat. In the grand scheme of things though, after a season full of inconsistency and uncertainty, it’s been nothing short of incredible to see what this team has been able to do in the past few weeks. Above all else, the Cinderella season will continue for at least one more round of the playoffs.
Game four was everything we expected it to be. It was physical, it was close, and both goaltenders were on top of their game just as they had been in the first three meetings of the series. The other constant variable was the hard work and offensive touch of Crunch captain Erik Condra.
At the 16:41 mark of the first period, Condra beat IceCaps goalie Charlie Lindgren low on the glove-side to give the Crunch a 1-to-0 lead. The helpers came on some silky tic-tac-toe passing from Tye McGinn and Matthew Peca. It was Condra’s second goal of the playoffs, fourth overall point, and second goal in as many games.
Syracuse held onto that one goal lead until the third period when Stefan Matteau streaked down the left-wing and sniped a shot past McKenna and into the top left corner of the cage. The Crunch played on their heels for the majority of the regulation frame electing to try and be defensively sound rather than aggressive on the puck, a tactic that hurt them.
“We are learning how to win in the playoffs and I think we took another step forward today,” Condra said of the Crunch’s approach in the third period. “We played a lot better than we did on Wednesday and we held on a little bit, but that’s the nature of playoffs when you’re up. You don't want to give up too much so it’s a little bit of the nature (of the game). We have to learn to put teams away and it’s a learning process.”
For the second time in the series, a game needed overtime to determine a winner, and who else would be there to seal the deal for Syracuse but the former IceCap captain himself, Gabriel Dumont. After a bit of sustained offensive zone pressure, Dumont was able to sneak a shot past Lindgren off of a quick back-door feed from Byron Froese. The crowd erupted, the Crunch bench flooded the ice, and for the first time since 2013, the Crunch were ensured playoff hockey beyond the opening round.
“It’s what you play for,” Dumont said. “As a hockey player, when you’re young and you play in the street, you dream of scoring an overtime goal.”
Mike McKenna earned first star of the game honors for the second straight contest and stopped 26 out of 27 IceCaps bids on the evening. The instant Crunch fan favorite and family man celebrated like a kid in a street hockey game after the win and made it a point to acknowledge the fans, including once very special fan in particular.
“We have great support here in Syracuse,” McKenna said. “The War Memorial is a perfect size arena for the American League. It’s so loud and to have their support is incredible and to do this on home ice (is great). Personally, I get to wave to my daughter which is always a highlight. It was a lot of fun.”
The Crunch are back in action on Friday night when they host the Toronto Marlies in game one of the North Divison final.