A night after 2016 first rounder Brett Howden made his professional debut, 2015 third rounder Dennis Yan made his own debut. The Syracuse Crunch played with nine defensemen in the lineup these past two games. With Yan drawing in, the team was able to go down to just eight defensemen on the ice. Defensemen Adam Comrie and Jonathan Racine played up front with Brett Howden centering them.
Despite playing with two defensemen at forward, the Crunch played well throughout the night. They dominated play for many stretches of the game and outshot the Devils 32-26. After the first period, the Crunch were better at hitting the net and pulled away in shots on goal during the second. They also led for much of the third period with the Devils closing the gap at the end when they had sixth attacker on the ice.
St. John’s pulled off the win as well tonight so the Crunch could not clinch a playoff position. However, their magic number has fallen to just one point. All they’ll need over their remaining schedule is one point or for St. John’s to miss a point for them to clinch. Their next opportunity to clinch will be tomorrow as St. John’s takes on the Utica Comets on the road. If they get two points to stay alive, then the Crunch’s next opportunity after that will be when they then go to Utica to take on the Comets and can clinch with a point.
The first period started with the Crunch coming out strong on the puck and putting a lot of pressure on Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood early. Tye McGinn drew a cross checking penalty a little over four minutes into the game after delivering a hard check. The first unit generated some chances, but didn’t score before giving way to the second unit. Yan and Howden were sent out with the second unit. With their offensive upside, it’s not a surprise to see them out on the power play. Yan had a play driving towards the corner with a net front pass to Howden that nearly got both players their first career points. Howden’s stick was lifted and the puck went through the crease harmlessly.
The Crunch picked up another power play chance. To draw the penalty, Howden charged in to the zone with the puck on the right wing side. He got down towards the end line and threw the puck in front of the net. Racine was charging the net and got hooked keeping him from tipping the pass on net. The Devils touched up and the Crunch got a little commercial break before starting the power play with 7:59 to go in the first period.
The first unit created multiple chances both from shots from the point and the perimeter and also from in front of the net. Their puck retrieval was great allowing them plenty of zone time before a wide shot rimmed around the ice and left the zone. The second unit then came out with less than half of the power play to go. They also held the zone very well, creating chances with puck movement. Blackwood stood tall and kept the puck out through the power play.
The first penalty against the Crunch came 3:09 to go as Kevin Lynch got called for Interference. The Crunch penalty kill was spectacular. They tipped passes, won puck battles, and cleared the puck multiple times. The Devils got one shot early, but other than that, didn’t get much else going towards Kristers Gudlevskis and most of what did was blocked in front.
The penalty ended with the Crunch getting another little flurry of action in the Devils’ zone before the whistle blew. The period ended with both teams tied in shots on goal at 6-6. The AHL does not track blocked shots and missed shots, but I’m certain that the Crunch had a good deal more shot attempts than the Devils during the period. The Crunch controlled the pace of play for much of the first and just couldn’t cash in.
The second period started out the way the first period ended. The Crunch and Devils had some back and forth play with the Crunch getting more chances and leading in shots on goal 4-0. The flow was interrupted by Kevin Lynch getting called for elbowing 3:50 into the second period giving the Devils their second power play opportunity.
The first half of the penalty kill went well for the Crunch. They were aggressive in getting to the puck carrier and not giving them lanes to shoot the puck. The Crunch continued to keep the puck to the outside during the latter portion of the penalty kill. Unfortunately, a shot from the point found it’s way past a blocking Crunch forward and several bodies in front to beat Gudlevskis clearly putting the Devils up 1-0.
In the first shift after the goal, the Devils took their third penalty of the game; a high-sticking. The Crunch went on their third power play of the game after coming up empty on the first two. The first unit had trouble doing much other than move the puck around and go back down the ice to pick it up. The only good opportunity came on a Howden shot from in front.
It didn’t take long for the Crunch to take another penalty. A puck was played around the boards and kicked off of the boards in the corner at a weird angle. Comrie was caught off guard by the weird bounce and hooked a Devil that was picking up the puck giving the Devils their third power play of the game.
The beginning of the penalty kill went very well for the Crunch. John Kurtz went for a skate with the puck going two-on-two shorthanded with Tanner Richard. Kurtz took the shot and Richard collected the rebound for the shorthanded goal to tie the game up 1-1. The Crunch denied the Devils over the rest of their power play.
The Crunch continued to press the Devils back at full strength. The first line of Tye McGinn, Matthew Peca, and Erik Condra buzzed whenever they hit the ice. The trio created several great scoring chances with rebounds. One of those rebounds finally paid dividends as rookie defenseman Dominik Masin came down from the point to collect the rebound and bury it from the slot to put the Crunch up 2-1. The goal was Masin’s third goal of the season.
With 1:59 to go in the period, the Devils took a holding penalty in the offensive zone to give the Crunch yet another opportunity on the power play to finish out the period. The power play got a partial line change after a Devils clear. With a partially tired crew, the Devils cleared the puck and sprung a shorthanded chance. With the Devils player powering to the net, Gudlevskis made the first save but couldn’t get the rebound opportunity. The Devils tied it up 2-2 with their own shorthanded goal.
The second period came to an end without the Crunch being able to convert on the power play. The period ended tied at 2-2 with the Crunch leading on shots on goal 15-8 for the period and 21-14 overall.
The Crunch started the third period “on the power play.” However, it was only for one second as it carried over from the end of the second period. The beginning of the third period was much like the beginning of the first two periods with the Crunch out shooting the Devils 4-2 through the first 8:30 of the period.
The Crunch picked up their fifth power play of the game off of a Devils delay of game penalty. The second unit got the first shift on the power play but couldn’t beat Blackwood. The first unit replaced them and likewise produced little on their chance before the penalty ended.
A couple shifts after the power play ended, the Crunch took a penalty. Slater Koekkoek was backchecking on a Devils rush and bulled over his man in front of the Syracuse net to earn the Interference penalty. The Devils went on their fourth power play of the game with 8:34 left in the third period.
The Crunch were strong on the penalty kill in keeping the puck to the outside. They stayed in the lanes and got some blocks and some timely clears to kill off the penalty without incident.
The Devils gave the Crunch another power play chance with just under five minutes to go. The first unit gave way after a couple of chances, but nothing super dangerous. The second unit came out for their turn and made their way into the zone. Tanner Richard took the puck from the right wing wall and passed the puck along the ice towards the net. Howden put his stick on the puck and deflected it up and over Blackwood for his first career professional goal and point on the power play. His goal put the Crunch up 3-2.
With a minute to go, the Devils pulled Blackwood for the extra attacker. As a sign of how the organization and head coach Benoit Groulx views Brett Howden, he was out on the ice during that extra attacker portion. The Crunch worked hard to keep the puck to the outside and tie it up in the corner whenever they could.
After the goal got up ended over top of Gudlevskis, and thankfully not catching him in the head, the Devils took a timeout to draw up a play with an offensive faceoff coming. The Crunch got a quick clear on an icing. On the next faceoff, the Devils got a shot that Gudlevskis turned aside. The Devils won the puck out of the corner, but a misfired pass went down the length of the ice. The Devils, with just seconds remaining, rushed up the ice for one more opportunity and could not beat Gudlevskis for the equalizing goal.
Brett Howden did his best despite playing most of the game with two defensemen on the wings. His use on the power play as well as being on the ice late while protecting a lead is a sign of how the organization views him. He’ll have another year in junior before turning pro full time. However, he’s got a great chance to gain experience and confidence while playing with the Crunch. With better linemates, Howden should produce offense and solid two-way play down the stretch and into the playoffs. He’ll also be a weapon for them on the power play.
Dennis Yan was a bit quieter and didn’t manage any shots on goal during the game despite having better linemates and also being on the second power play unit. Yan is a sniper and being paired up with Tanner Richard was a good situation for him but he couldn’t convert on it. This is just his first professional game though and he’ll be one of the many rookies coming into the AHL next season for the Lightning organization.