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Syracuse Crunch parallels: 2007-08 and now

Syracuse Crunch fans who have been around for the last decade may be experiencing a significant feeling of déjà vu.

Scott Thomas

The Syracuse Crunch has a second-round date with the Toronto Marlies this weekend as the Calder Cup playoffs continue to roll on. During their last round vs. a far-flung, physical team from Canada, Crunch captain Zenon Konopka, newly appointed this season after a previously long-term leader left the team-

Huh? Oops. Okay, starting over.

During their last round vs. a far-flung, physical team from Canada, Crunch captain Erik Condra, newly appointed this season after a previously long-term leader wasn’t re-signed, had a lot of praise for Crunch veteran journeyman goalie Karl Goehring-

Wait, what?

During their last round vs. a far-flung, physical team from Canada, Crunch captain Erik Condra, newly appointed this season after a previously long-term leader wasn’t re-signed, had a lot of praise for Crunch veteran journeyman goalie Mike McKenna.

Yes, that’s right. Right? I think. Uh...

For Crunch fans who have been around the team for the last decade, this sense of Déjà vu might just be normal. There’s an almost startling number of parallels between the 2007-2008 Syracuse season, when the Crunch were affiliated with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the current Syracuse season. Although fans are hoping for one big difference - the 07-08 team lost control of what was a 3-1 series lead and didn’t make it out of the second round - it’s definitely fun to look back at a memorable Crunch year in comparison to the one that’s currently making some awesome memories.

The 2007-2008 Crunch team was marked by huge personalities beating the odds and making a pretty memorable run that included a 15-game winning steak at the end of the regular season. A Crunch fan recently asked me why so many people have held onto that season even tighter than 2012-2013, when Syracuse reached the Calder Cup finals in the first year of the their affiliation with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The only answer I could give was that the 07-08 group shouldn’t have been as successful as they were, while the 12-13 team was expected to make a fairly big splash (which, completely to their credit, they did). 07-08 was a story of true underdogs, and the memories created by them have held on through the years despite the lack of banners hanging from the rafters.

Face value doesn’t seem to hold many comparisons to the current Crunch season, I’ll freely admit, but looking deeper...things get weird.

Leadership overhauls

  • 2007-08: Forward Zenon Konopka replaces defenseman Jamie Pushor as captain of the Crunch. Pushor had been the captain in Syracuse since 2003. He left the team in the spring of 2006 for undisclosed reasons. Defenseman Dan Smith, new to the organization, is named a permanent alternate captain. The other A floated to guys like Derek Mackenzie, Andrew Murray, and Steven Goertzen.
  • 2016-17: Defenseman Luke Witkowski replaces forward Mike Angelidis as captain of the Crunch. Angelidis had been the captain in Syracuse since 2012. The Lightning did not re-sign him during the summer. Defenseman Matt Taormina and forward Gabriel Dumont are named the permanent alternate captains. Recalls would ultimately facilitate the need for yet another leadership change as Witkowski and Dumont ended up spending much of the season with the Lightning. On March 17th, forward Erik Condra was named the new captain in Syracuse. Taormina kept his A, while the other floated to guys like Slater Koekkoek, Cory Conacher, and Henri Ikonen.

Unexpected roster additions from the parent club make a huge difference

  • 2007-08: Defenseman Duvie Westcott was assigned to Syracuse from the Columbus Blue Jackets in November, bringing with him over 200 games of NHL experience. He would go on to score 4 goals and 23 assists in 37 games for Syracuse during the regular season. He also played in 10 post-season games for the Crunch, netting an assist. On January 1st, forward Gilbert Brule was assigned to Syracuse by Columbus. Brule had over 100 games of NHL experience under his belt when he was re-assigned, and his presence on the team instantly made a difference. He notched 4 goals and had 4 assists during the month of January before he was recalled back to the Blue Jackets. He was reassigned for the Calder Cup playoffs, where he recorded 2 goals and 5 points over 13 post-season games.
  • 2016-17: No one can deny the impact of the trio of Joel Vermin, Eirk Condra, and Cory Conacher in Syracuse this past season. They were expected to stick with the Lightning, but all three spent the majority of the their season helping Syracuse achieve its goals. Condra ended the regular season with 48 points (15-33) in 55 games, and has 4 points (2-2) in 4 post-season games. Conacher played in 56 games for Syracuse during the regular season, ending with 60 points (17-43). He has 2 points (1-1) so far for the Crunch in the post-season. Vermin totaled 32 points (13-19) for Syracuse in 46 regular season games, and has 1 goal for the Crunch in the post-season so far.

The three P’s: Passion, physical play, and penalty minutes

  • 2007-08: No one who watched them play could deny the passion that this team brought to the ice. Emotions often ran high, and the Crunch’s own Onondaga County War Memorial was renamed “The House of Pain” by its fans that season. The Crunch’s roster was dominated by bruisers, and Kopnopa was quite possibly one of the most emotional captains the Crunch has ever seen. However, with that passion came a plethora of opportunities for players to earn penalty minutes, and earn they did. The Crunch ended up leading the league in PIM with 2,174.
  • 2016-17: For the majority of this season, the Crunch has certainly been a team of passionate guys with a “never say quit” attitude. Regardless of who was available to suit up, the Crunch became known for finding a way to get the job done. Syracuse started the season with a group of physical guys willing to make their team as hard as possible to play against, guys like Luke Witkowski, Cory Conacher, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, Jake Dotchin, Mike Halmo, and Tanner Richard. As expected, the Crunch was “rewarded” for this. Syracuse ended the season as the most penalized team in the league with 1,371 PIM. Side note: To their credit, they are not currently the most penalized team in the Calder Cup playoffs.

Young defensemen flourish under Trent Cull and strong dressing room leadership

  • 2007-08: Trent Cull was hired by the Crunch as an assistant coach in the fall of 2006. He had played 614 games as a defenseman in the AHL and IHL, and he actually finished his playing career as a member of the Syracuse Crunch during the 2003-04 season. In 2007-08, he was faced with guiding a very young blueline. Nick Holden, Grant Clitsome, Andrey Plekhanov, and Brett Motherwell were all looking at their first season in the AHL. Although things got shaky at times, Cull was able to hold things together along with some help from veteran guys like Aaron Rome, Dan Smith, Marc Methot, and Duvie Westcott.
  • 2016-17: Cull was hired back in the summer of 2013 and was kept on when the Crunch hired Ben Groulx to replace head coach Rob Zettler over the summer. This time around, Cull was faced with a small army of young, talented defense from the Lightning’s prospect stock: Ben Thomas and Dominik Masin were the youngest with their first full season in the AHL in front of them, but guys like Jake Dotchin and Daniel Walcott weren’t exactly sporting gray hairs. Aided by the assistance of Witkowski for part of the season and Koekkoek and Taormina, the latter of whom was named the winner of the AHL’s Eddie Shore award, for the entirety, Cull again worked his magic. Dotchin ended up playing 35 games up with the Lightning, and Thomas has become of the team’s go-to guys.

Fight for home ice comes down to the end of the regular season

  • 2007-08: The Crunch’s place in the playoffs wasn’t determined until the last game of the regular season. At the time, Syracuse was battling the Manitoba Moose for second place in their division, and only a win would guarantee them that spot and home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. Syracuse pushed through and beat the Hamilton Bulldogs with a 7-1 final:
  • 2016-17: The Crunch’s place in the playoffs wasn’t determined until the last game of the regular season. Syracuse was battling the Toronto Marlies for first place in their division. Not only did the Crunch need to win their final game, but they also needed the Toronto to lose. The stars aligned, the Marlies lost, and the Crunch secured both the North Division championship and home ice for the first two rounds of the playoffs:

Physical first round opponent from the far corners of Canada and overtime drama

  • 2007-08: The Crunch had a first-round date with the Manitoba Moose in 2008. At the time, the Moose were the farm club of the Vancouver Canucks. The Moose were a close match for the Crunch in both size and skill, and the first round - a best-of-7 - was an intense series that needed six games to decide. Five of the games in the series were decided by just one goal. Those five games also went to overtime. The travel was hell, and the series format of 2-3-2 required a lot of back-and-forth for both teams. Syracuse won the series 4-2.
  • 2016-17: The Crunch had a first-round date with the St. John’s IceCaps, farm team of the Montreal Canadiens. The IceCaps were a close match for the Crunch in both size and skill, and the first round - a best-of-5 - was an intense series that needed four games to decide. All of the games in the series were decided by one goal. Two of the games went to overtime, with one of those games needing double-OT before it was decided. The travel was hell on both teams, and the series format of 2-3 required a lot of back-and-forth for the Crunch and made them start on the road despite having home ice advantage. Syracuse won the series 3-1.

Journeymen goalies steal the show

  • 2007-08: The Crunch originally started the season with Tomas Popperle and Dan LaCosta in net, but an early-season injury to LaCosta saw the team bring in Adam Munro. That tandem worked okay for a bit, but at the beginning of December, Popperle got hurt, too. LaCosta was still out of commission, and the Crunch was starting to flounder a little. Desperate for a solution, the Crunch brought back a familiar face: Karl Goehring. Goehring had already played 151 regular-season games in a Crunch jersey between 2001 and 2005. He wasn’t expected to be a permanent solution, so he was signed to a professional tryout agreement instead of a regular contract. But Goehring ended up staying with the team, signed to multiple PTO’s as his season stretched on. His regular season record was 15-8-2. He was named the AHL's goaltender of the month in March 2008. Beyond that, he is remembered for pulling his team onto his 5’8 frame and lugging them through all 13 of the Crunch’s postseason games.
  • 2016-17: The Crunch originally started the season with the familiar tandem of Adam Wilcox and Kristers Gudlevskis. Guided by coach David Alexander, Gudlevskis and Wilcox started out the season sharing the net, but eventually it seemed as though Wilcox was edging Gudlevskis for the number one job. By the NHL trade deadline, Wilcox had a 18-9-4-2 record, while Gudlevskis’ record was 15-10-7-4. However, with the Lightning’s mind on both the upcoming playoffs and making space for future prospects, Wilcox was dealt to the Florida Panthers organization in exchange for veteran AHL goalie Mike McKenna. Mckenna used the rest of the regular season to adjust to his new organization, and is now showing his new fan base what he can do. McKenna was arguably the best player on the ice for Syracuse during round one of the playoffs, putting in four dominating performances and owning his net.

April 28th: A magic date

  • 2007-08: On April 28th, 2008, the Crunch was playing the Moose at home in game six of the first round of the playoffs. A win for Syracuse would send the Crunch onto round 2. As with most of the games in that series, it was just too close to call, and the teams were knotted at 2-2 after 60 minutes. At the 8:35 mark of OT, Crunch forward Trevor Frischmon forced his own rebound shot past Manitoba goalie Cory Schneider, winning the game and the series for Syracuse. The goal would go down in Crunch Land as the most exciting one ever scored on home ice...

...Until 2017.

  • 2016-17: On April 28th, 2017, the Crunch was playing the IceCaps at home in game 4 of the first round of the playoffs. A win for Syracuse would send the Crunch onto round 2. As with most of the games in that series, it was just too close to call, and the teams were knotted at 1-1 after 60 minutes. At the 2:18 mark of OT, Crunch forward Gabriel Dumont sent the puck flying past St. John’s goalie Charlie Lindgren, winning the game and the series for Syracuse. The goal is most certainly now down in fans’ minds as the most exciting one scored in the War Memorial.

Second round set up

  • 2007-08: The Crunch was set to face the first-place Toronto Marlies. The series would need 7 games before it was finally decided in favor of Toronto.
  • 2016-17: The Crunch is set to face the second-place Toronto Marlies.

Sadly, as popular as the “blue collar” 07-08 Syracuse Crunch was and is, it is acknowledged as a year in which the team underachieved, by both the fans and the players that lived it. OT hero Frischmon himself recently told Raw Charge that he still believes that group should have gone farther, a sentiment echoed by different players throughout the years.

It is also certainly true that the group that brought the Crunch to the Calder Cup final in 2012-13 changed the culture here in Syracuse. Much has been said, and rightfully so, about the shift to a winning culture that was brought to Syracuse by guys like Angelidis, JP Cote, Taormina, and others. Fans have every right to embrace that culture. As an organization, it got us closer to the ultimate goal than the team had ever gotten before.

However, although it definitely wasn’t a case of underachieving, the 2012-13 Crunch team was also not enough and fell two games short of a championship (ugh, that still hurts). Maybe, just maybe, this odd synergy that seems to exist in time between what the Crunch was in 07-08 and what they are now really means something. Only time will tell if the Crunch can really #FIN15H what has been started.