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Crunch Corner: At Least the Jerseys Looked Good

An 0-2 week exposes issues on a young Syracuse Crunch team.

Cameron Gaunce skates with the puck against the Hershey Bears
Cameron Gaunce skates with the puck against the Hershey Bears
Scott Thomas Photography

It was a good week off the ice for the Syracuse Crunch even if the on the ice results left a lot to be desired. Sandwiched between the two games, both losses, the Crunch managed to name a new captain, extend their lease with their current arena, and celebrate their 25th season on the ice. Not too bad.

Going 0-and-2, though, not so great.

Standings:

The American Hockey League

The New Injuries:

Otto Somppi - out two-to-three weeks with a broken finger

Troy Bourke - day-to-day with an undisclosed injury

Still Injured:

Michael Bournival, Kevin Lynch, Daniel Walcott, Oliver Archambault, Ben Thomas

The Games:

Wednesday, October 10th at Rochester Americans - 6-3 loss (Box Score) (Highlights)

For the first ten minutes of the game, the strong play from the Crunch carried over from their season-opening win. The only problem: They couldn’t put the puck in the net. Coupled with so-so play over the next fifty minutes, that was how they ended up losing 6-3 to their division rival.

With seven minutes left in the opening period, Danny O’Regan took advantage of a lively end board and shoved the puck past goaltender Eddie Pasquale on the power play to give the Americans an early lead. It was a five-on-three power play where the Crunch were caught with one defender and two forwards on the penalty kill. Up until then, the Crunch had been dictating play, but former Crunch netminder Adam Wilcox denied several opportunities.

However, Wilcox wasn’t able to deny Alex Barre-Boulet as the period was ending. The rookie was given a bit too much space on the power play and he lasered a shot over Wilcox’s shoulder to tie the game with less than a second to go in the period.

In the second, following some back and forth play, the Crunch just seemed to fall apart. They lost all structure to their game and Rochester took advantage, scoring three goals in a five minute stretch. CJ Smith scored short-handed after Mitchell Stephens turned the puck over at center ice. Two minutes later, Hubert Labrie tried to skate the puck through the neutral zone and lost possession. The rest of his teammates had scampered out of the zone, so there was no one left to defend after he turned it over. Kyle Criscuolo beat Pasquale.

Zach Redmond capped off the scoring spree with a power play goal by blasting a shot from the point past Pasquale. The Crunch showed some spine as they came back down the ice and Jonne Tammala, a healthy scratch in the season opener, capped off a two-on-one to get the Crunch back within two. Sadly, that was the closest they would get.

Lawrence Pilut scored with the man-advantage three minutes into the third and then Victor Olofsson added the sixth Rochester goal four minutes later. Prior to the Olofsson goal, the Crunch had gone with a four-forward, one-defender line-up. It didn’t work as Cernak turned over the puck in the defensive zone and Syracuse was scrambling to cover up. Dennis Yan added a meaningless goal with fifteen seconds to go to make the score somewhat more respectable.

Saturday, October 13th vs. Charlotte Checkers - 4-1 loss. (Box Score) (Highlights)

20 seconds into the game, Carter Verhaeghe bounced a puck off of the crossbar. That was the only highlight. In a game that was eerily similar to the game against Rochester, special teams let the Crunch down as the Checkers scored 2 power play goals and a shorthanded goal in route to their 4-1 victory.

Charlotte was first on the board as Julien Gauthier tapped home a pass from Saku Maenalanen that eluded three Crunch players. After a fairly even rest of the period, Janne Kuokkanen fired a puck past Connor Ingram following a broken play. A deflected pass had the young Syracuse netminder sliding from side to side, and he couldn’t recover in time to stop the shot from the slot from Kuokkanen.

The turning point of the game came in the second period. Following a penalty shot that Ingram stopped, the Crunch had a 27 second 5-on-3 power play, but couldn’t convert. Alex Barre-Boulet had a prime chance at the side of the net that Checkers’ goaltender Alex Nedelijkovic turned aside with ease. Erik Cernak then committed an unnecessary boarding penalty midway through the period and the Checkers converted on the power play.

At this point, the Crunch were chasing the game, struggling in the neutral zone and losing battles all over the ice. A brief moment of hope was sparked when they had a solid power play going. Barre-Boulet snaked through the defense in front of the net and had his attempt turned aside once again by the netminder. Then at the end of the power play, Cernak was caught against the boards and Alex Volkov tried to stickhandle out of trouble. He lost the puck and the Checkers had a 2-on-0 break (shorthanded) the other way. Patrick Brown snapped a shot over Ingram’s shoulder and the game was all but over.

Oleg Sosunov gave Crunch fans a reason to cheer as he cruised into the slot and wristed a shot that trickled through Nedelijkovic’s pads. It was the first career goal for the big defenseman, and Boris Katchouk picked up his first point as well. The Checkers were more than content to bleed the clock away for the rest of the game and it ended with a 4-1 score.

(For a closer look at the jerseys and the War Memorial’s upgrades, check out this photo collection from Syracuse.com.)

Thoughts on Games 2 and 3

Special Teams

The Crunch haven’t been horrible five-on-five in their last two games. They haven’t been great, but they’ve held their own. It’s been the special teams that have let them down. Over the last two games they’ve allowed five power play goals on eight short-handed chances. In the meantime they’ve gone one-for-fourteen with the man advantage while giving up two short-handed goals. Coach Groulx called the penalty kill “atrocious”, but that is an affront to the word.

Their coverage in the defensive zone has been a mess, but the lack of pressure on the puck in the neutral zone has been the most glaring issue short-handed. Fans are used to seeing an aggressive attack on the puck carrier as they try to enter the zone, but that’s been absolutely lacking in the past two games. Teams are getting into the zone too easily, setting up their power play and dictating the pace of play.

On the man-advantage, the Crunch haven’t been horrible, they just haven’t been able to string multiple chances together. Against Charlotte they had several quality chances that the goaltender turned aside. The Checkers also did a great job of defending the back side of the net. The few times the Crunch were able to make a cross ice pass, the attacking player was well-covered and the play was snuffed out.

A large portion of this week of practices will undoubtedly focus on special teams. Part of the problem could be the influx of new players and it’s on Coach Groulx and his staff to find the right combinations, something they haven’t been able to do during the flow of play.

Defensive Pairings

The Crunch have iced six defensemen in the first three games. Two pairings have remained consistent: Cameron Gaunce / Erik Cernak and Dominik Masin / Cal Foote. The remaining pairings have rotated. Instead of Hubert Labrie and Oleg Sosunov getting consistent shifts together Coach Groulx has double shifted Gaunce, Cernak and Masin with Labrie and Sosunov.

It’s on odd rotation that does give him some flexibility when it comes to pairings, but it leads to a lot of ice time for Gaunce and Cernak, who have picked up most of the extra shifts. Sosunov has steadily picked up more ice time as the season has progressed (this is based solely on the eye test as the AHL does not officially keep track of ice time), and it can’t be easy for him to have to adjust to a different defensive partner each time he takes to the ice.

Things will get even more complicated once Ben Thomas returns to the line-up. Could Sosunov be loaned to Orlando for more playing time? Possibly, but, honestly he’s done everything he needs to do to keep earning playing time. He hasn’t been the worst defender on the ice (that would probably be Labrie).

Goaltending

When ten pucks end up in the back of the net over the course of two games, it’s easy to blame the goaltenders. Not all the blame can got to Eddie Pasquale and Connor Ingram, though. On Wednesday it could have easily been 8 or 9 to 3 if it wasn’t for Pasquale. The same goes for Ingram on Saturday. Not only did he stop a penalty shot, he also stopped a couple of breakaways and made two or three more dazzling glove saves.

There are a few goals that each netminder would like back, but for the most part they’ve stopped the shots they should. Both have been peppered with 33 shots each in their last starts, so they’ve each also seen their share of shots.

During their run last season they were able to make the stops they weren’t supposed to and keep their opponents off the board until the Crunch offense got going. That hasn’t happened yet this year. In each of the three games this season, Syracuse has given up the first goal and have had to play catch up. They were successful in their season opener, but not so much in their last two.

Turnovers

Coach Groulx called the game against Charlotte a “turnover festival” and he was spot on. It’s happening all over the ice - blind passes out of the defensive zone, cross-ice passes in the neutral zone that get picked off, and bad decisions in the offensive zone that leads to breaks the other way.

No one, save the goaltenders, seems immune from the bad decision making. Cernak has had several bad passes picked off. Cal Foote had an egregious turnover in the first period against the Checkers that Ingram had to bail him out of. Alex Volkov has stickhandled his way off of the power play unit and briefly down to the fourth line.

Too much stickhandling has been a problem for a lot of their forwards, as has been poor passing in general. Can that be fixed with a week of practice? Hopefully, or else it will officially be another long start to the season in Syracuse.

Players of the Week

Jonne Tammela - 1 Goal and 1 Assist

After being a healthy scratch in the season opener, Tammela has stepped in for the injured Troy Bourke and recorded a point in both games he’s appeared in. He looks fully recovered from the injuries that plagued him last season, and with a full summer of training could end up being a big factor for the Crunch.

Ross Colton - 0 goals and 0 assists

The rookie might not have added any points this week but he has looked pretty solid in his first week of play with the Crunch. Labeled by some (okay, it was me) as destined for Orlando once some of the veterans return, Colton has been impressive. He’s earned time on the second power play unit and has driven a lot of play in the offensive zone.

Upcoming Schedule

Friday, October 19th at Binghamton Devils 7:05 PM

The Crunch get another long break to iron out their issues before hitting the road to take on their division rival who have gotten off to a 3-1 start. Based on the results of the last two games it wouldn’t be surprising if there are some line changes. Due to injuries, Coach Ben Groulx doesn’t have much wiggle room as far as changing the line-up, so mixing up the lines could be his best bet to avoid a season-starting skid.

Saturday, October 20th vs Utica Comets 7:00 PM

Syracuse then returns back home to face their biggest North Division rival. Utica has gotten off to a better start that Syracuse, and there’s nothing the Comets like more than winning on the Crunch’s ice. Hopefully a week’s worth of tweaks and work will prevent that from happening.