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Crunch Corner: Special Teams Propels Crunch to Three Wins

Do. Not. Take. Penalties. Against. The. Crunch.

Scott Thomas Photography

Take away their number one defenseman and they still win.

Take away their starting goaltender and they still win.

As long as you don’t take away their power play, the Syracuse Crunch are going to find a way to win right now. They swept all three games this past week by swamping their opponents in a deluge of goals. In the 180 minutes they played over the week, the Crunch scored fifteen goals (including three empty netters). Seven came on the power play.

It’s not a matter of if the Crunch are going to score on the power play, it’s just when and how many at this point.

Standings

Injuries

Only good news on the injury front for the second week in a row. Michael Bournival returned from an eight-month absence on Saturday to take his spot in the line-up. His presence, reflected by the “A” on his jersey, brings some more veteran leadership to the young team. It will also start to create some headaches for coach Ben Groulx as he has to integrate his returning players (Gabriel Dumont, who is now reported as day-to-day, Kevin Lynch, Olivier Archambault, Otto Somppi and Oleg Sosunov) into a line-up that is pretty much firing on all cylinders right now.

It’s a good problem to have, but still a problem.

Coming and Going

Erik Cernak got the call to the show. In just his second professional season, Cernak was chosen to replace an injured Anton Stralman on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Following an injury that he described as a “charlie horse” that caused him to miss a couple of games, he had maybe his best two games prior to the call up. Unlike Cameron Gaunce’s call up earlier in the season, Cernak is actually playing for the Lightning. The experience he is gaining is immeasurable for his development and should make him a more valuable asset once Stralman is healthy and Cernak is returned to the Crunch.

Losing their number one defenseman is a tough blow, but how about adding a starting goalie to the subtraction game? Eddie Pasquale got the call to serve as the back up to Louis Domingue once Andrei Vasilevksiy’s foot decided to fracture during practice. This could be a bit of a tougher blow for the Crunch than Cernak’s recall, as their depth in goaltending isn’t quite as deep as it is on the blueline. Look for Connor Ingram to get as many starts as possible (including back-to-backs) during the next couple of months.

In Pasqualue’s absence, a netminder by the name of Martin Ouellette has taken his spot on the roster. The former Columbus draft pick (7th round in 2010) has spent most of his professional career in the ECHL, suiting up in over 150 games for the Reading Royals and Florida Everblades. He does have AHL experience, having appeared in 21 games over three seasons with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

The Games

Wednesday, November 14 vs. Binghamton: 5-2 victory (Box Score) (Highlights)

If Lightning fans are unfamiliar with their new back up goaltender, last Wednesday’s game against the Binghamton Devils was a perfect primer on both the good and bad traits Pasquale possesses.

Both goals he surrendered in the first period highlight aspects of the position that he can struggle with from time to time. On the first goal, his lateral movement was tested as the Devils, on the power play, moved the puck from side to side. John Quenneville was able to beat Pasquale with a wrist shot that the goaltender wasn’t quite quick enough to get over to defend.

The second goal allowed came off of an extremely broken play. The Devils’ initial dump-in was deflected by the linesman back into the neutral zone, which sounds like a good thing, but it actually disrupted the Crunch defense a bit. It allowed an easy entry into the zone and then a shot that went wide sent everyone, including Pasquale, into scramble mode. The Crunch goaltender is fantastic when he has the opportunity to set and face his shot, but wildly athletic, out-of-position saves is not his forte. So when the puck settled once again on Quenneville’s stick, Pasquale could not set himself in time to stop the shot.

So, that’s the bad, and it all happened in the first period. The rest of the game highlighted the good as the Crunch finally realized that they were in an actual game on Wednesday and not just some well-attended practice. Following the second goal, the Crunch found their stride as they began outworking the Devils for loose pucks and pushing the play.

Alex Barre-Boulet snapped a nine-game goalless drought with a power play goal with less than five minutes to go in the period. The first-year player had been a bit snake-bit over the last three weeks or so, seeing prime opportunities snatched up in the goaltender’s big mitt or ticking off the post just wide of the net. So it was nice that he had a bit of luck on this one. His shot from point blank hit goaltender Eddie Lack high on the shoulder, went up into the air and dropped behind the goal line.

The Crunch kept piling on the goals as the game wore on. Early in the second it was Andy Andreoff tipping home his team-leading seventh goal after a nifty entry from Cory Conacher set up the shot from Cal Foote. The subtle little head/shoulder fake drew both Devils towards him and opened up the lane for Foote’s shot.

Following the goal, Pasquale made one of his best stops of the night as he held close to the post after Cal Foote turned the puck over to the left of the goaltender. Pasquale and Foote would also play huge roles in the Crunch’s next goal.

With the Crunch on the power play, Foote brought the puck through the neutral zone. He attempted to dump it in just outside of the blue line, but the puck didn’t go high enough. Kevin Rooney swatted it down and broke the other way with a teammate. The Crunch were caught in the zone, so it was a two-on-none for the Devils. Rooney decided to take the shot and he targeted the far post, but Pasquale calmly stuck out his left pad and thwarted the attempt. The Crunch then broke the other way and fired a couple of chances at Lack.

The puck ended up out at the point. With Cernak in Tampa, someone needed to launch bombs from the point on the power play. In Wednesday night’s case it was Cameron Gaunce. After scoring in the previous game on a bouncing, fluttering, deflected shot, Gaunce just whistled this one by Lack for the 3-2 lead.

Two minutes later Cory Conacher all but iced the game when he tracked down a bouncing puck at center ice, sped into the Devils’ zone, and wristed a shot over Lack and under the bar to double the lead.

As good as the shot was, the impressive part happened in the neutral zone where Conacher was able to control a bouncing puck while never losing speed. That forced the defense to snag back, giving him the room needed to get a quality shot off.

Instead of sitting back and nursing a two goal lead, the Crunch came out in the third period and dominated play to the tune of a 12-2 advantage in shots over the first seven-and-a-half-minutes of play in the period.

Binghamton did narrow the gap a little bit in the last ten minutes of play as they had a lengthy stay in the Crunch’s zone on a power play. With his teammates out of gas on a long shift, Pasquale made a smart play to gain a stoppage. A shot went wide of him and ricocheted off of the end boards and onto the back of the net. Before the Devils could knock it off of the net and keep the play going, Pasquale dove into the net and covered the puck through the netting, drawing a whistle and allowing the Crunch to change their lines. Heads up play by the veteran netminder.

Alex Volkov added an empty net goal with less than a minute to go and the Crunch had the 5-2 victory.

Friday November 16th at Utica: 4-0 victory (Box Score) (Highlights)

We’ll keep this recap simple.

Connor Ingram

Making his first start in two weeks, the young netminder turned aside all thirty four shots (including a penalty shot) he faced to pick up his second shut out of the season and keep the Crunch’s winning streak intact.

The offense kept scoring as four different players picked up goals. Not bad for a team that has struggled on the road.

The goals:

Conacher

Barre-Boulet

Brady Brassart

Volkov added an empty net goal to finish off the game

Saturday, November 17th vs. Laval: 6-4 victory (Box Score) (Highlights)

Following the shutout victory on Friday night, Connor Ingram was back between the pipes the next day as the Crunch returned home to take on the Laval Rocket. They followed a familiar pattern to victory - get behind early and then storm back with the assistance of a lethal power play. They overcame a 3-1 deficit and scored four power play goals on their way to a 6-4 win.

This was the game that marked the return of veteran center Michael Bournival, who suffered an ACL tear 8 months ago against this very Laval hockey squad. To make room for him in the line-up, Boris Katchouk was scratched.

Ingram had to be sharp early in the period as the Rocket generated several quality shots just seconds into the game. The goaltender flashed out his right pad to deny Byron Froese at point blank range to prevent an early deficit.

The teams traded chances for most of the first five minutes as they were both skating quite well. Dennis Yan had a rebound attempt snagged out of the air by goaltender Michael McNiven. On the ensuing face off (in the Laval zone), Yan took his man down and was called for tripping. The Crunch did a pretty could job of defending the net during their time short handed, but ended up being done in by an unlucky goal.

The Rocket won a faceoff in the dying seconds of the power play and worked it down low. Michael Chaput threw a pass across the front of the net where Gaunce deflected it. Unfortunately, he deflected it past Ingram and into the back of the net.

It would be the power play that brought the Crunch back into the game. On a long five-on-three, five forwards took the ice for Syracuse. It didn’t take long for them to convert, and they made it look easy. Carter Verhaeghe sent a pass down low to Barre-Boulet, who quickly slid it across the front of the goal to Taylor Raddysh. The rookie tapped it home for his seventh goal on the season, extending his points streak to nine games in the process.

After a long stretch of continuous action up and down the ice, the Rocket retook the lead on a nice bit of persistence by Chaput. Jake Evans brought the puck into the zone and with Brady Brassart draped over him managed to sneak a pass to Chaput. Gaunce had him tied up, so the Rocket forward was only able to muster a weak shot at net, but the puck came back to him and he put the rebound past Ingram.

The Crunch played well to finish out the period, but they just couldn’t put it together in the final third of the ice. With time winding down, Conacher had the best chance as he came down the ice on the right wing all alone. His attempt went just wide and time expired with the Crunch trailing 2-1.

Laval started the second period with an early power play and Ingram was again sharp making back-to-back saves to keep the deficit at one. A good forecheck by Conacher drew a penalty from Laval as Daniel Audette dumped him hard into the boards.

Neither team would score with the man advantage, so the Crunch decided to try again. Hubert Labrie (who had the first penalty in the period) jabbed Michael McCarron in the face with his stick, which is against the rules, and was awarded a four-minute penalty.

Again, the luck of the bounces weren’t with the Crunch. Alex Volkov gained possession of the puck and banged it hard off the glass to set up a line change. Unfortunately, it hit the boards and the linesman. Instead of heading all the way down the ice it careened out to the middle and the Rocket recovered it. Syracuse was caught in a line change and Audette had clear ice to speed into the zone. His cross ice pass found Ryan Sproul. The defenseman had time to wind up and he blasted a shot past Ingram for the two goal lead.

The Crunch had played well, but trailed by two goals. Back-to-back power plays would get Syracuse right back into the game. During the first man advantage, they moved the puck well and dominated zone time. Shots from Conacher and Verhaeghe whistled just wide of the net. Shortly after that power play expired, they earned another one. They would not waste this opportunity.

After Conacher did a nifty job of keeping the puck in the zone, he worked it over to Andy Andreoff (whose special Hockey Fights Cancer lavender jersey may or may not by owned by a member of the Raw Charge staff) slid the puck back across the ice. McNiven stumbled coming across his crease and could only flail weakly at Verhaeghe’s shot, which easily found the back of the net.

Following the goal, the Crunch had their longest stretch of solid five-on-five play of the game. Verhaeghe and Volkov had good opportunities turned aside by McNiven as their possession time finally started to turn into shots. Syracuse would finally turn those shots into a goal as Verhaeghe fired a puck cross-ice to Andreoff. The puck was on his stick for a half-blink before it went back across the ice to a waiting Barre-Boulet. The rookie calmly deflected it into the net and then leaped into his teammate’s arms to celebrate his fifth goal of the season.

The period ended with the Rocket on the power play, but the only thing of note from their man-advantage was an achingly slow two-on-one by Brassart and Bournival that ended with Brassart losing an edge and the puck skittering away. The period ended with the score level at three.

The third period started with another Labrie penalty (his fourth minor of the game), but the power play was fruitless for the Rocket. It did help Laval build a decided advantage in shots for the final frame. They would outshoot the Crunch 11-4 over the final twenty minutes, but it was the the Crunch who were extremely efficient with their shots.

Shot number one (goal): Cameron Gaunce took a blast from the center point on the power play and it pinged under the crossbar and into the back of the net. The Crunch had put a lot of pressure on net before the goal with several shots skittering just wide of the net.

Shot number two (save): Shorthanded, Ross Colton launched a shot from outside the zone that McNiven gloved down. It was the only save he made in the period. Meanwhile, the Crunch were doing a great job of backchecking and smothering opportunities for Laval. On the few occasions the shots do get through, Ingram is in position to make the stop and cover the rebound.

Shot number three (goal): Back on the power play, this time it was Foote banging home the shot from the point. He teed up a one-timer from Nolan Valleau and unleashed it for his first goal of the season. It was the fourth power play goal of the night for the Crunch, the second time in four games that they’ve done that.

Pretty impressive.

Shot number four (goal): With three minutes to go, Laval pulled the goaltender. Volkov was in position at the top of the slot when the Rocket made an errant pass. The Russian intercepted it and pushed it forward. He out-skated Maxim Lamarche and tapped it into the empty net.

It was the fifth consecutive goal of the game for the Crunch, the second time in three games they’ve achieved that feat (they only scored four in a row on Friday night). Their offense is clicking and they are scoring in bunches.

Laval added a late goal to make the score a little more respectable, but the Crunch held onto the victory.

Thoughts on the Games

Alex “The Vulture” Volkov

Alex Volkov has six goals so far this season and has scored a goal in four straight games. So why has he not shown up in the “Players of the Week” section? Well, because half of those goals are empty net goals, including his last three.

For most fans, empty net goals are just stat-padders. However, they are not always as easy as just tapping it into an empty space. First of all, if the goaltender has been pulled, it’s a close game. Second, if you’re on the ice at the end of the game it means that your coach has faith in your defensive skills more than your offensive skills.

That’s been the biggest difference in Volkov’s second season so far. He’s been given much more responsibility on the defensive end of the game. Last season, in his rookie year, he proved that he can score. Now he’s getting a chance to prove that he can help keep the puck out of his net as well. Being on the ice in the final minutes of a close game is a big responsibility and he’s making the most of it.

Finally, in order to score, you have to get the puck, which when an opposing team has an extra skater isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Also, it’s not like he’s chucking pucks from his own end and hoping they go in, he’s getting the puck in good situations and putting the game away.

Players of the Week

Connor Ingram - 2 games played, 2 wins, 1 shutout, .936 sv%

Alex Barre-Boulet - 3 games played, 3 goals, 2 assists, 18 shots on goal

Upcoming Games

Wednesday, November 21 at Binghamton Senators 7:05pm

Friday, November 23rd vs Binghamton Senators 7:00pm

Saturday, November 24th at Springfield Thunderbirds 7:05pm