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Syracuse Crunch defeat Grand Rapids 5-1 in Game Five

The Crunch keep elimination at bay with a dominating home win

Scott Thomas Photography

The Calder Cup was in the building, and for the second time in five years, the Syracuse Crunch faced the possibility of watching the Grand Rapids Griffins celebrate a championship on their ice. They weren’t going to let that happen. Powered by a five-goal first period the Crunch extended the series to a Game Six by winning their final home game of the season, 5-1.

How does a team facing elimination at home stay alive? By following a simple nine step plan. Executing all nine steps (well eight of nine) would provide them a path to victory. And follow it they did.

Step One: Start Fast

A team facing elimination needs a quick start to ease the pressure that comes from staring the end of the season in the face. Syracuse did just that. Just 17 seconds into the game, Kevin Lynch found himself alone in front of Grand Rapids goalie Jared Coreau. The Syracuse forward took a pass from Gabriel Dumont and punched it past the Griffins’ netminder to give the home team the early lead.

One goal is nice, but offense hasn’t exactly been scarce in this series. Mathieu Brodeur doubled the Crunch lead by wristing a shot over Coreau’s shoulder from just inside the left circle The play was started by Anthony Cirelli who intercepted a pass in the neutral zone and pushed the puck deep into the Grand Rapids zone. The puck trickled out to Brodeur after Daniel Walcott centered it from behind the net and it ricocheted off of Adam Erne’s stick.

Step Two: Weather the storm:

A fast start is wonderful, but it’s no good if the other team is able to get get back into the game. Following the first official timeout, Grand Rapids built some momentum. They sustained pressure in the Syracuse zone and forced turnovers. Despite scrambling around a little, the Crunch were able to keep the Griffins off of the scoreboard thanks to some timely goaltending by Mike McKenna (deadline day pickup). Having absorbed some offense they then went back on the attack.

Tye Mcginn forced a turnover with a solid forecheck. Yanni Gourde picked up the loose puck and shot it on net. Byron Froese (deadline day pick up) jammed the puck past Coreau for the third Syracuse goal of the game. Just like that, momentum was back with the Crunch.

Step Three: Take Advantage of your Opportunities.

The Crunch had one power play during the period and they didn’t let the opportunity pass them by. Cory Conacher took a pass from Matt Taormina and blasted it past Coreau. The route was officially on. It was Conacher’s 27th point in the playoffs, a franchise record.

Even though Grand Rapids managed to generate chances, Mike McKenna was busy having to turn away 18 shots from the road team, it was Syracuse who kept finding the back of the net.

Ben Thomas, tapped home a give-and-go with Yanni Gourde ending Coreau’s night. The Red Wings prospect headed for the showers after allowing five goals on twelve shots. Veteran Eddie Pasquale (who had not seen game action since April) brought in to stop the bleeding.

After a dominating first period, the Syracuse needed to do a couple of things to keep things going in the right direction.

Step Four: Don’t engage

With a five goal lead there was no reason to give their opponent any kind of spark. Several times following whistles, Grand Rapids players tried to goad the Crunch into a skirmish. Most notably Dylan McIlrath shoving Cory Conacher following a save by Pasquale with just under two minutes left in the second period. The 6’5” former Ranger/Wolf Pack/Panther/Thunderbird (all this year!) had a pretty good headlock on the Crunch forward who quietly accepted his situation until the referee finally broke it up.

Nothing good could come out of the Crunch punching back in situations like that. At best they take unneeded penalties, at worst someone important gets hurt. Better to let the Griffins win the shoving match and focus on the scoreboard instead.

Granted, passive resistance goes only so far in hockey. A minute after McIlrath’s antics, Tyler Bertuzzi decided it was time to punch Matt Peca in the face. Peca happened to be tangled up in the Grand Rapids bench after a skirmish had started. Not satisfied with that cheap shot, Bertuzzi took a swing at Gourde as an official was trying to drag the enraged Griffin off of the ice. For his troubles Bertuzzi did pick up a 2 minute roughing and a 10 minute misconduct.

Step Five: Stay out of the penalty box.

This was met with mixed success. The Crunch started the period killing a penalty and Grand Rapids rang a puck off the post just seconds after the puck was dropped. They killed off the penalty and then immediately took another penalty (Jake Dotchin with a needless slash). It was quickly negated by a penalty by Grand Rapids. Again, there is no reason to give the Griffins any momentum.

Step Six: Don’t sit back.

It’s easy to take the foot off the gas with a five goal lead, but forty minutes is a long time in the AHL. The Crunch kept pressing the play and generating chances. They didn’t score, but that was more due to the phenomenal play of Eddie Pasquale than any issues on the Syracuse end.

The veteran backup denied the Crunch on a two-one-one early in second and made several key saves during Syracuse’s two full power plays. His best stop came after Adam Erne hustled to steal a puck in the corner. The big forward passed it to Cirelli who tried to stick-handled the puck around Pasquale and into the net, but the veteran stuck with him and denied the shot with a flick of his left skate.

Syracuse outshot Grand Rapids 11 to 9 in the second period and had several more blocked. They didn’t stop forechecking and created several turnovers by Grand Rapids defensemen. Even when the Griffins brought the puck into the Syracuse end, the home team aggressively attacked the puck carriers and created several odd man counter attacks.

Step Seven: The Clock is their friend

Unlike the second period, in the third the Crunch could afford to sit back a little. With the clock slowly slipping it’s way to 00:00, the Crunch were content to get the puck out of the zone and force Grand Rapids to bleed an extra 10-15 seconds off the clock every time they wanted to get the puck in the offensive zone.

It would have been nice if they had scored with their 90 second 5-on-3 power play, but it appeared they were more concerned with keeping the puck in the zone and not turning it over. There was a lot of passing and a few weak attempts at net. Not exciting, but it did burn some time off the clock.

Step Eight: Don’t get rattled

With the way the period was going, it was almost inevitable that Grand Rapids would score a goal. They were pushing the play and getting more zone time. It was Ben Street who finally snuck a puck past McKenna. He lifted a wrist shot through traffic that found it’s way over McKenna’s shoulder and into the back of the net.

The Crunch picked up their play after the goal, pushing the Griffins back onto their heels. While the chances of a comeback were slim, a couple of quick goals might have perked up the Grand Rapids squad. Syracuse kept the cool and played a smart defensive game, allowing shots from the points and clearing out rebounds. They calmly killed a power play after Ben Thomas cleared a puck over the glass. Thanks to a couple of penalties by Grand Rapids, the game was pretty much over at that point.

Step Nine: Have their goaltender to be their best player

This applied to the whole game. In order to stave off elimination, Mike McKenna needed to have a strong game. The veteran responded with his best effort of the finals, making 36 saves on 37 shots. He had to be sharp in the first period as the Crunch built their lead. The goaltender was tested during the brief flurry Grand Rapids had right after Syracuse went up 2-0. His best save might have been off of a point blank shot by Evgeny Svechnikov after a Jake Dotchin turnover. If he had let a goal in at that point, the game might have had a different flavor to it.

In the end, the Crunch played exactly how they needed to in order to take the series back to Grand Rapids for a Game Six. The question now is - can they do the same thing on the road?

Three Stars

3. Cory Conacher

2. Mike McKenna

1. Yanni Gourde

Observations: Veteran move by McGinn - after the McIlrath/Conacher nonsense, Jake Dotchin was looking to provoke someone. McGuinn skated over and pushed his teammate away, most likely saving him from a needless penalty....Yanni Gourde had three assists and five shots on net...Cory Conacher and Ben Thomas both had a goal and an assist...Conacher’s 27 postseason points moved him past Ondrej Palat for the club record...Pasquale stopped all 15 shots he faced.