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AHL playoff preview round 2: Syracuse Crunch vs Toronto Marlies

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Can a Crunch defensive core that struggled for much of the season shut down a potent Toronto Marlies team?

Crunch blue-liner Slater Koekkoek exchanging words with Marlies captain Andrew Campbell in a game earlier this season.
Photo by Scott Thomas

The next chapter of the Crunch’s Cinderella Story season still needs to be written.

After a 3-to-1 series victory over the St. John’s IceCaps, Syracuse shifts their attention to an even tougher opponent in the Toronto Marlies. The series starts in Syracuse Friday night.

The season series between the two offensive powerhouses tilted in the favor of the “baby Leafs” by a final tally of 5 games to 3, with three of those Crunch losses coming via overtime and shootouts. From top to bottom, the Crunch and Marlies boast arguably the league’s best rosters which will almost certainly ensure a high scoring affair in round two.

Who to look out for:

  • So, I should just copy and paste the entire Toronto roster, right? Well if I must pick three players in particular I’ll start right at the top with elite sniper Brendan Leipsic. At just 22 years-of-age, the 5-foot-9 170 lb winger is already in his fourth full season as a professional. In 49 regular season games played this year, Leipsic found the back of the net 18 times to go along with 33 assists for a total of 51 points.

The Winnipeg native averaged well over a point per game, and is on the verge of doing the same in the post-season. In four games in the opening round of the playoffs against the Albany Devils, Leipsic notched two goals and one assist while also leading his team in shots with 16. He is an excellent weapon that Marlies’ head coach Sheldon Keefe loves to use on their power play. He generally sets up in the right-wing circle and waits for a back-door feed that goalies have a hard time reacting too. He had six man-advantage tallies during the regular season which was good for third on the team. Syracuse will have to lock this man down if they want to win this series.

  • To be blunt, the next player to watch out for is too good to be playing in this league. Not fair Toronto, not fair. 24-year-old winger Seth Griffith is a unique talent and a difference maker for his hockey team. He has a stellar shot and he is not afraid to let it fly. He is quick as lightning, and his play-making ability is off the charts. He had a goal and three assists in six meetings against Syracuse this season, but, as a whole, lit up the league in his time spent here.

In a mere 38 games with the Marlies this season, the Bruins’ 2012 fifth-round pick scored 10 goals to go along with an impressive 34 assists for a shortened-season total of 44 points. Translation: that’s pretty darn good. Possible good news for the Crunch though, is that Griffith was less than stellar in the opening round against Albany. He had one assist in four games. Still, he is capable of getting hot at any time, and, for Syracuse, it would be wise to know where he is on the ice at all times.

  • It’s been extremely difficult to narrow this list down to just three guys, which is a testament to how deep this Toronto team is. However, the guy that Syracuse has to worry about the most is bruising power-forward Kerby Rychel. The 19th overall pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2013 entry draft, Rychel has found his scoring touch and has had a breakout year with the Marlies in 2016-2017.

Possessing a solid frame at 6-foot-1 213 lbs, he could prove to be a menace in the blue-paint in front of Crunch goalie Mike McKenna. Big-body guys on the Crunch blue-line like Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek, and Mathieu Brodeur are going to have their work cut out for them trying to clear Rychel out of the crease. He was outstanding on the Marlies power play unit this season, notching 11 of his 19 goals. Perhaps most importantly, he’s a guy on the bench and in the locker room that knows what it takes to win a Calder Cup. He hoisted the coveted trophy last season with the Lake Erie Monsters.

Crunch keys to victory:

  • Some things just don’t change. The keys to victory against Toronto are the same as they were against St. John’s: Stay out of the penalty box. In all but one game against the IceCaps, Syracuse handed over at least four power plays. In game four, the IceCaps were awarded seven man-advantages.

That, folks, is just way too many. Toronto ranked fourth in the league on the power play this season with a conversion rate of 22.3%. When you see their lineup, you know exactly why. They are stacked at every position and will really hurt the Crunch if they continuously hand over opportunities. Now more than ever, the league’s most penalized team (Syracuse) will have to remain calm, cool, and collected if they want to make this a competitive series.

  • Syracuse saw a wide variety of players find the net in their first round series. However, what they really need to do in the second round is get the “big guns” firing on all cylinders. Guys like Adam Erne, Yanni Gourde, and Byron Froese have yet to really get their motor running offensively. They have been able to generate opportunities, but as a whole the trio has combined for just three points.

Froese had a stellar outing in game four when he notched the game-winning goal. He is certainly going to be looking forward to putting up numbers against his former team. On the other hand, since returning from Tampa after a successful stint, Yanni Gourde has yet to find the score-sheet. Scoring 22 goals in the regular season for Syracuse, Gourde’s scoring savvy could come up big in what is sure to be a goal-scorers series. Lastly, Adam Erne is back in the lineup after a brief injury scare in game three of the North Division semis. He has one assist so far this post-season and, like Gourde, is trying to find his scoring touch once again.

  • The biggest takeaway from the first round of the playoffs was the immaculate play of Crunch goaltender Mike McKenna. If Syracuse wants to compete for a conference title, the man between the pipes is going to need another solid series. The veteran netminder was a wall for the ‘Cuse in the opening round, earning first star of the game honors twice.

It was a tough transition for McKenna after coming into Syracuse via a trade with the Florida Panthers. In 14 games played with the Crunch in the regular season, he had five wins and five losses with a 2.87 GAA and a save percentage of .901. In the first round against St. John’s, McKenna looked like a totally different goalie, posting an impressive three wins and one loss record with a 1.77 GAA and a save percentage north of 93 percent. His play in the second round will determine how far this Crunch team can go.

The North Division Final series between the Crunch and Marlies is set to get underway on Friday night at the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena in Syracuse. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 PM.