Deafening chants of “we want the cup” echoed thunderously through the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena after a series clinching win by the Syracuse Crunch against the Providence Bruins on Saturday night. The emphatic win sets up a chance at redemption in the Calder Cup Finals. The boys in blue will take on the same Grand Rapids Griffins team that stunned them four years ago.
While the logos and cities remain the same, the rosters are almost completely different. Crunch veteran blueliner Matt Taormina was on the losing end of that series back in 2013, but this time he believes the Crunch are better suited to take home the hardware.
“I think this team is better,” Taormina said. “I think we are faster. I think we have a lot more skill. Defensively we’ve been playing really well. I think it’s going to be a fast series just knowing the Detroit style of play. It should be fun.”
The Griffins and Crunch boast pretty similar stats this post-season. Both teams are on fire at home during the playoffs, posting undefeated records in their own buildings. Both teams rely on their speed. Both teams boast players that have been around the block and know what it takes to bring home a championship.
For Syracuse, look no further than the man who dons the ‘C’ on his chest: Erik Condra. The Crunch skipper was a cornerstone of the Binghamton Senators team that captured the trophy in 2011.
“Every game is going to be different,” Condra said of playing in the Cup Finals. “It’s going to be a struggle. You gotta ride those waves a little bit ‘cause we may lose a game this series, or we may lose two, but whoever outlasts, whoever stays calm and plays their game plan the longest will win the series.”
Not convinced that the Crunch is better this time yet? How about taking a look at Crunch center Cory Conacher, someone who has done nothing but win everywhere he has played. Conacher has now made it to three Calder Cup Finals in three years in the AHL. This season, the Canisius College product has been Mr. Consistent night in and night out. This post-season he has posted an impressive 20 points, which paces the rest of the league.
Saturday number 89 netted the eventual game-winning goal that sent the fans he proclaimed “the best in hockey” into an absolute frenzy.
“I kind of blacked out,” Conacher said of his initial reaction after scoring late in the third period. “All I remember is seeing the puck coming right to me in the slot and I was on the right side. I can’t even tell you who shot the puck to be honest. It was just one of those moments where you see the puck and you see the net and you just try to get everything you can on it.”
Saturday night marked a lot of firsts in the Syracuse Crunch locker-room. At 34 years of age, with a laundry list of accolades in his career, a teary-eyed Mike McKenna was proud to add a Calder Cup Final appearance to his resume on Saturday.
“I’m so excited. I’m absolutely thrilled,” McKenna said post-game. “This is the best. I’m not nervous, I’m just excited. You play a long time and some guys are lucky to do this early in their career, some guys are lucky to get it done several times, and some guys never get a chance. I’ve never had a chance and to be part of this team is great.”
Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx is another member of the organization with their first shot at a professional league title. Groulx, an often soft-spoken individual, is quite possibly the real unsung hero of Syracuse’s 2016-2017 season. He led a Crunch team that was devastated by injuries and call-ups for the better part of the regular season all the way back to the promised land in the playoffs.
“I like this game of hockey and I like to coach,” Groulx said. “I have a lot of confidence in our team and I’ve enjoyed every moment of this season so far. So, I’m going out there (to the finals) to enjoy it and I really believe that we have a good team and we will find a way.”
So, now the Crunch head back to the drawing board for a game one match-up against the Griffs next Friday at Van Andel Arena.
However, If I can just partially step out of my reporter shoes and into my die-hard fan shoes, I only have one thing to say.
For the guys in the dressing room, for the men and women that work countless hours in the front office, and for the fans that have packed the barn for the last 24 years: Our time is now.