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Crunch Corner: A Tale of Two Teams

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Syracuse takes three out of four points and moves out of last place in the AHL North Division standings.

Scott Thomas Photography

Prior to Sunday’s game against Hershey, Coach Ben Groulx described the Crunch’s performance on Friday as a tale of two teams wearing the same uniform. One team was poised and confident with the puck. That’s the team that scored with under a second left on the game clock. The other team was sloppy with the puck and were the reason they needed a last second goal to tie it.

The team that took to the ice on Sunday was completely different. They moved the puck quickly, knew what they were going to do once they had it and jumped all over a tired Hershey Bears team. Inconsistency is to be expected from a young team, but hopefully moving forward there is a little less of the first team and a little more of the second.

The Standings

Coming and Going

The Crunch welcomed back defenseman Cameron Gaunce prior to Friday’s game. The veteran had been on assignment to lovely, sunny Florida as insurance during Victor Hedman’s injury. While Gaunce did not get into any game action with the Lightning, he did practice with the team and gained valuable experience.

In a related move, Matthew Spencer was assigned to the Orlando Solar Bears. He’s the second player to see time with the organization’s new affiliate following Mitch Hults who spent some time down there last month. It was a minor surprise that Spencer was sent down instead of defenseman Nathan Valleau. Spencer has played well this season and is in the first year of his ELC, while Valleau is in Syracuse on a PTO. However, Valleau does bring a bit more offense to the ice than Spencer and gives Coach Ben Groulx more options on the power play, so maybe those things had something to do with it.

Injuries

There was more good news from the injury front. Erik Cernak, who had missed games last weekend, was back in the line-up this past weekend and ready to go. Along with Gaunce’s return, the Crunch were able to head into the weekend with both of their top defensemen on the ice. Two skaters capable of playing 20 minutes each allows Coach Groulx to control the ice time of his younger blueliners such as Cal Foote and Valleau, putting them in positions where they have better chances of succeeding.

Of note is that Gaunce blocked a shot in the second period against the Bears. Unfortunately, the part of the body that he used to block it, the outside of his right knee, has very little padding. He did return to the game but didn’t play his usual amount of minutes. That could be caution on Groulx’s part due to the score, but it is something to keep an eye on in the upcoming week.

The Games

Friday, November 9th at Rochester: 2-3 overtime loss (Box Score) (Highlights)

Not all losses are cause for sorrow and obscenity-filled Twitter tirades. Sometimes a team fights hard and loses. That happened to the Crunch on Friday night as they traveled to take on the Rochester Americans. The Crunch did not play poorly, although their first period wasn’t a work of art, but they played hard and fought for securing a point from the division-leading Amerks.

With both Gaunce and Cernak available to play, coach Groulx decided to go with an eleven forward, seven defensemen roster in front of Eddie Pasquale. It made sense, honestly. With so many forwards still out, why not go heavy on the defense? It also allowed Groulx to mix up his lines a little more as he tried to find the right combinations to battle against Rochester.

No matter what the match-ups were in the first period, things did not work out well. Both teams struggled to maintain any form of offensive pressure, almost content to keep the puck around the perimeter and lob the occasional half-hearted shot in the direction of the goaltender. Pucks bounced, players fell over, passes were knocked astray, and only 10 shots found their way on net between the two teams.

The Crunch did manage to draw two penalties and rolled out a fairly potent power play that was 7th in the league entering the game. It didn’t help. They struggled to get set up in the zone as Rochester aggressively attacked them and beat them to loose pucks.

In fact, the only real chances on both power plays were from the Amerks. As time ticked away on the first one, Andy Andreoff decided to make a blind, behind-the-back pass at the Rochester blueline. That play rarely works out well and in this case led to a two-on-zero rush for the Amerks. Luckily the shot sailed high on the net and didn’t cause any damage.

The Crunch didn’t learn their lesson as their second power play expired. Valleau decided to pinch in after a loose puck in the Rochester zone. He didn’t win the race to it and Brandon Hickey passed the puck off the boards, around Valleau, and then zoomed off towards Pasquale. The veteran goaltender made the stop to keep the game tied at zero.

Most of the early attempts in the game came from the blue line from the Crunch. Cal Foote in particular was quite active, as he had three of the five Syracuse shots in the opening frame. The problem that the Crunch had - one that would continue all game - was that Rochester goaltender (and former Crunch net minder) Adam Wilcox wasn’t allowing any rebounds. He absorbed almost every shot that made it through the screens in front. He’d cover the puck up and not allow the Crunch to sustain pressure.

The second period started a little better. Syracuse came out with a little extra energy and was driving play. They weren’t rewarded with a goal, but did draw yet another penalty as Kevin Porter was escorted off the ice for cross checking just 26 seconds into the period. The Crunch had the first serious opportunity of the game as he fired a missile one-timer from between the circles. Unfortunately, Wilcox was equal to the task and redirected the shot with his right pad.

Things settled down a bit for the next four minutes, but then Hubert Labrie made an impact on the game. Unfortunately for the Crunch, it was not a positive one. First, he committed two penalties in a row, giving the Amerks a ton of momentum in the second period. During the second infraction, the Crunch defenders were pinned in the zone for nearly the entire two minutes as Pasquale bailed them out with several key saves.

(Side note: this may have been Pasquale’s best game of the year so far.)

With about six minutes to go, Labrie tried to make a cross ice pass in the neutral zone. It failed to reach its intended target. It was picked off and Justin Bailey ended up with it in the neutral zone.

There are times you just have to sit back and applaud the other team. Bailey came in hot and just smoked right past Foote. He cut in front of the goal and tucked the puck inside the post just a split second before Pasquale could get his skate in front of it.

It was a nice goal.

The Amerks took the lead into the locker room, but it wouldn’t last long once play resumed in the third period. Just after another Crunch power play expired, Syracuse netted the equalizer. Ross Colton took a hit along the boards to push the puck forward into the offensive zone. Then Carter Verhaeghe won the race to the loose puck and passed it in front of the net. It was partially reflected, which slowed it down. That caused Taylor Raddysh to scuff the one-timer and it trickled on net. It also threw off Wilcox’s timing, and the little shot that could slid just under his pads and into the net.

Not a goal that Raddysh will tell his grandkids about, but it counts.

Following the goal the Amerks started to control the play. They upped their pressure and kept the puck in the Syracuse zone for most of the time. It paid off as they took the lead on an….interesting goal.

Alex Nylander streaked into the Crunch zone with the puck. Foote hit him just as Nylander was dropping the pass back to a trailing teammate. With the grace of a newborn giraffe on ice, Nylander crashed into Pasquale just after Andrew Oglevie shot the puck. The goaltender, the Swedish-Canadian, and the puck all ended up in a net that was off its moorings. Mild pandemonium broke out as everyone started pushing and shoving. Andreoff pushed people around a little too much - and may have said a few unpleasant things to the refs - and was nailed with a 10-minute misconduct penalty.

More importantly, just before the pushing and shoving started, the referee had signaled that it was a good goal. After many conferences on the ice but no apparent video replay, the call stood and the Amerks had the lead.

Coincidentally, Nylander was originally credited with the goal despite not having the puck in his possession when he crashed into Pasquale. It was eventually awarded to Oglevie. “There was no way this goal was supposed to be {a good goal},” Coach Groulx commented after the game.

A goal like that can be deflating, but the Crunch kept working at trying to find the equalizer. Time ticked away and despite their efforts they couldn’t get one past Wilcox with just five skaters on the ice. With time winding down they decided to see what their luck would be like with six skaters.

It turned out to be pretty good.

Cernak started the scoring play by using his skate to keep the puck from exiting the zone. He played catch with Alex Volkov who, with two seconds on the clock, decided to make one more pass down low to Cory Conacher. It was a wise choice, as Conacher whistled home a sharp-angle one-timer that beat Wilcox with just .6 seconds on the clock.

The Crunch had stolen a point.

The game went onto overtime. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it didn’t take long. Halfway through the bonus period, Zach Redmond harassed Ross Colton and forced the puck out of his possession. The third-best Nylander scooped it up and fired a pass to the middle of the ice where Redmond had set up shot. The Amerks defender wired a one-timer that was too quick for Pasquale and Rochester had the bonus point.

Sunday November 11th vs Hershey: 7-2 win (Box Score) (Highlights)

Prized goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov had never played in Syracuse. After what the Crunch did to him on Sunday, he may never want to play there again. Seven Syracuse skaters scored and twelve teammates tallied points as the Crunch beat Hershey 7-2 at home.

Syracuse bounced back from an uneven performance on Friday to dominate on the power play as they converted on four of their five chances. A minor letdown at the end of the second led to them giving up two power play goals, but for most of the night they were in control. The win marks the third game in a row that the Crunch have scored five or more goals on home ice.

It was a turnover by Hershey that started off the scoring. Verhaeghe and Hults aggressively harassed the Bears in their own zone causing the puck to come loose. Hults passed it to Verhaeghe who was all by himself in front of the net, and the veteran roofed it for his fourth goal of the season.

Coach Groulx wanted his team to play with more confidence, and they did, especially on the power play. The game’s first special teams goal was a clinic on how to move the puck around with the man advantage and it ended with Cernak unloading a blast from the point that sailed past Samsonov.

The Bears, who had played Saturday night and looked exhausted in the first period, didn’t learn their lesson. They gave the Crunch another power play after Beck Malenstyn absolutely trucked Volkov into the boards, hitting him so hard that the Russian’s helmet popped off and he had to go back to the training room for a few shifts.

On the ensuing power play, the Crunch wasted little time in converting. This time it was the result of a clean face off win back to Cernak. The defender, who had been set up by Conacher on his goal, returned the favor by putting the puck right in the Honey Badger’s wheelhouse. Conacher fired it past Samsonov for the third Crunch goal of the night.

The period closed with the Crunch up by three and outshooting the Bears 15-2. Pasquale, in net for his second consecutive game, barely had to move for most of the period. Syracuse limited their turnovers, were the first to loose pucks, and gave Hershey fits all period long by breaking up passes and creating takeaways in all three zones.

Hershey seemed to get their legs under them a bit in the second period as they tested Pasquale right out of the gate. The experienced netminder had to be sharp to deflect a shot away with his blocker.

Just over 8 minutes into the period, the Bears decided to take another penalty. This time it was Taylor Raddysh making them pay. In front of Samsonov he took a pass from Colton on his backhand and calmly pulled it around the sprawling goaltender and tucked it into the far corner for the goal.

It was the rookie’s third game in a row with a goal. He’s on a six game point streak with five goals in those six games. Since being benched he’s been on fire, showing Crunch fans the scoring touch he displayed in his juniors days.

It was the third power play goal of the game for the Crunch, a stat which is impressive in and of itself but doubly impressive considering Hershey had been 37-for-37 in killing off penalties coming into the game.

A bit later, Andreoff gave them a break from the special teams humiliation by scoring at even strength. He was swooping in on Samsonov when Raddysh hit him in stride with a pass from behind the net. Andreoff stopped it and went to settle it with the back of his blade but whiffed. The puck still had enough momentum to trickle under Samsonov’s pads. Think of Nikita Kucherov’s shootout move but not on purpose.

It’s hard to stay focused with a 5-0 lead and the Crunch let their foot off the gas a little. They took some lazy penalties at the end of the period, and Hershey took advantage. After Dennis Yan tackled a guy in front of the Bears net (which is apparently not legal), Mike Sgarbossa flung a shot at the Crunch net that deflected off of Gaunce’s stick and past Pasquale.

Less than 20 seconds later, Volkov delivered a nice slash and was sent to the box for two minutes. He only had 26 seconds to reflect on his transgressions before Riley Barber ripped a shot past Pasquale to draw the Bears within three. Luckily there was only a minute left in the period and the Crunch were able to make it to the end without any more harm coming their way.

In the third, the Crunch again played a little conservative. They were still diligent about breaking up passes and keeping Hershey’s offense at the perimeter, but they played smart and limited the risks they took. They found themselves on the power play again midway through the period, and Gaunce sent a knuckle puck towards Samsonov that bounced and weaved its way into the back of the net.

It was the fourth power play goal of the game for the Crunch, a feat they had not accomplished since 2013 when a young Russian named Kucherov had his first pro hat trick by scoring three power play goals (JT Brown-ov had the other one).

Hershey got a little testy following the goal as Nathan Walker goaded Dominik Masin with a couple of hard shoves in front of the benches. Masin was willing to be his huckleberry and unloaded a series of right hands on Walker. Masin then punched him in the head one more time just before entering the penalty box, which pretty much is the definition of unsportsmanlike. He thus drew an extra two minute penalty.

Volkov added the proverbial cherry on top, capping the scoring with his third goal of the season by converting a two-on-one with Conacher. The Russian forward did a nice job of selling the pass before wristing a sneaky shot five-hole on Samsonov.

A solid performance over a travel-weary team put the Crunch at .500 on the season (5-5-1) and moved them out of the North Division cellar for the first time in a long time. The schedule picks up a bit moving forward, so the chance to move up even further looms large.

Thoughts on the Games

Trust Yourself.

Prior to Sunday’s game, Coach Groulx talked about some of the problems that the Crunch have experienced this year. He spoke at length about turnovers. One of the reasons for those turnovers: lack of confidence. For the second straight season a plethora of rookies make up the Crunch roster. They haven’t been in these situations before, and they are learning.

For Groulx, the key is confidence. Yes, they are young, but they’ve also now had 10 games in the AHL. As he put it, “Trust yourself and you’ve got to believe in yourself a little more.” Once they do that, they can play with a little more confidence. When that happens, the turnovers go down.

In Friday’s game, it wasn’t so much that the turnovers ended up in the back of the net (although two of them did). What was more impactful was that the Amerks slowed down the Crunch attack. Turnovers absolutely suck the momentum out of a team’s offense. All forward progress stops and they are instantly on their heels trying to counter the other team.

When the Crunch are rolling (as they were on Sunday), they are the ones putting that pressure on the other team. Syracuse isn’t doing it consistently right now, and it leads to games like Friday night: disjointed, lots of effort for no result, and defending instead of attacking.

If a player isn’t confident in what he’s doing, he’s going to hesitate or force a bad play. When they do feel comfortable, it’s almost like they’re thinking two steps ahead. That shows with the final product. When Alex Barre-Boulet dangles the puck around the defender, it’s because he isn’t worried about turning the puck over, he’s trusting his innate talent.

Once the Crunch start believing that they are the better team out there, success will follow.

Players of the Week

Eddie Pasquale: 2 games played, 2.50 GAA, .888 Sv%

This is a case of the numbers not supporting how good Pasquale was when they needed it. Groulx talked about how hard it has been for Pasquale and Connor Ingram to get into a groove with their “Midget Schedule” to start the season. Pasquale didn’t face a ton of shots (only 44 total), but made several key saves when the games were on the line. His second period against the Amerks was extremely good as he turned aside several top notch saves

Taylor Raddysh: 2 games played, 2 goals, 1 assist.

Since his healthy scratch on October 20th, Raddysh has scored in every game. Sometimes a rookie just needs a breather and a chance to watch the game from a different perspective to get going. It’s also a reminded that there are consequences if you don’t perform. Whatever it was, it worked, and Raddysh has eight points in six games. He’s a goal scorer who is putting himself in the right positions to keep scoring.

Upcoming Schedule

Wednesday, November 14th vs Binghamton Devils 7:00pm

Friday, November 16th at Utica Comets 7:00pm

Saturday, November 17th vs. Laval Rockets 7:00pm