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Crunch Corner: The streak continues

Another three game week results in three more wins for the Syracuse Crunch.

Scott Thomas Photography

Another week and another three wins for the Syracuse Crunch. The team continues to follow a regular game plan:

Score in bunches and with the power play.

Following the weekend the Crunch lead the league with a 30.8% power play. They’ve scored 75 goals this season, and 28 have come with the man advantage. 5 have come short-handed, but we’ll get to that later in the post.

The Crunch have also spread the scoring around. While Cory Conacher may have a gaping lead in points for the team, they have seven players with more than 10 points each. They also have 5 players with at least 5 power play goals. They are a coach’s ideal when it comes to balanced scoring.

What’s truly scary is that this may not be the best version this team can be. Not only are they still missing several key pieces due to injury and recalls, there have been very few “complete” games during their ten-game points streak. The penalty kill, although it was fantastic this week, is still middle of the road and there have been periods, like the second period on Friday night, where the Crunch stop skating and things go haywire for 15-20 minutes.

If/when this team puts it all together and is completely healthy...woe to the rest of the teams in the American Hockey League.

Standings

Coming and Going

Jonne Tammela was the casualty of the returning veterans as he was reassigned to the Orlando Solar Bears to make room for Michael Bournival and Gabriel Dumont, two veterans who returned to the line-up following injuries. It’s been a rough year for Tammela, who has only appeared in eight games for the Crunch. For the first time in his professional career he is healthy, but the depth of the Crunch line-up h made it hard for him to find consistent playing time. He’s played on the depth lines during his eight appearances and picked up a goal and two assists. Going to Orlando allows him to play a little more often and he should be a call-up should the Crunch need a forward.

Forward Mitch Hults was also sent to Orlando late yesterday afternoon. Hults is probably also a casualty of the returning healthy players. Hults played in nine games for the Crunch, scoring one goal and earning three assists.

Injuries

Welcome back, captain! Much like last week, when Bournvial returned, the Crunch got a “huge boost” (to use Coach Groulx’s words) with the return of Gabriel Dumont.

Syracuse’s captain returned on Wednesday and picked up an assist on Boris Katchouk’s goal. His return increases the depth down the middle of the line-up for the Crunch, and adds to the number of combinations Groulx can roll out on a daily basis. Groulx did keep the top line of Andy Andreoff, Alex Barre-Boulet and Cory Conacher together, slotting Dumont on the second line with Katchouk and Dennis Yan on Wednesday and then centering Alex Volkov and Carter Verhaeghe on Friday. Dumont was then reunited on a line with Bournival Saturday night, a combination that has proved potent for Syracuse in the past.

The Crunch are finally starting to resemble the lineup Groulx imagined back in October.

Ben Thomas took a puck to the face at the end of Wednesday’s game but returned to play the next two sporting a full face mask. Other than that it was a pretty injury-free week for the Crunch.

The Games

Wednesday, November 21 at Binghamton: 4-1 victory (Box Score) (No highlights video available)

Start slowly and then score four goals in a row? That sounds like a typical Syracuse Crunch victory. Add in two power play goals and the pre-Thanksgiving victory is a textbook example of how games have unfolded during this current winning streak.

After falling behind in the first period on a Blake Pietla goal, the Crunch used a dominating second period to take control of the game.

First it was Carter Verhaeghe scoring his sixth goal of the year. Of course, it was on the power play.

A minute later, Dumont set up Katchouk to give the Crunch the lead.

Andy Andreoff finished off the the second period scoring by notching his team-leading eighth goal of the season.

Cory Conacher closed out the scoring in the third period with an empty net goal, his third point of the night. The Crunch were able to give thanks for yet another victory.

Friday, November 23 vs. Binghamton: 5-3 victory (Box Score) (Highlights)

If there has been one consistent flaw in the season for the Crunch, it’s been their tendency to start games slowly. (Sound familiar, Lightning fans?) Friday night, the Crunch decided to take a different approach. Before the first TV timeout they had accumulated five shots, one power play, and, more importantly, two goals. Then they turned up the pressure a little more.

The first goal came just 21 seconds into the game when Hubert Labrie fired a shot towards the net and Dumont tipped it past goaltender Eddie Lack. It was a good shot by Labrie, who knew he had traffic in front, and the slapshot found its way to Dumont’s stick and then into the net.

The Crunch kept the pressure on as Lack uncomfortably shrugged off a couple of shots. Then Binghamton did a bad thing (officially it was called boarding) and the Crunch were on the power play. With the way Syracuse was moving the puck around with the man advantage it was only a matter of time until they found the back of the net. With about 30 seconds to go on the power play, Verhaeghe found the back of the net off of a feed from Conacher.

Following the goal, Binghamton managed to get their legs a bit as they finally directed a couple of shots on Connor Ingram. Unfortunately, they didn’t learn their lesson about taking penalties and with Nathan Bastian in the box for tripping, the Crunch went to work on the power play again. It didn’t take long at all as the Crunch put on a passing clinic with Conacher, Cameron Gaunce, and Verhaeghe basically running the triangle at the top of the circles. The puck came to Conacher and he ripped it past Lack for the third goal of the game.

Perhaps the refs felt a little bad for the Devils as Dennis Yan was whistled for tripping following the goal (and a Binghamton time-out). The visitors had a chance to climb back into the game, but instead they stumbled farther down as Dumont outraced a defender to a loose puck, swooped in on Lack, dragged the puck to his backhand and deposited the puck in the back of the net for a shorthanded goal. The route was officially on.

By the time the period ended the Crunch had four goals, eleven shots, and two shots off the posts as Andy Andreoff and Ben Thomas rattled pucks off the pipe within seconds of each other. As expected thing got a bit chippy on the ice with a couple of scrums in the dying seconds.

Remember that rout that was on in the first period? Well….thing took an ugly turn in the second period. With a four goal lead and the Devils on the back foot, the last thing the Crunch needed to do was give them some momentum by taking penalties. So what did they do? Take three penalties in the first seven minutes of the period.

The first one came back to haunt them as Colton White fired a shot past Ingram to get the Devils on the board. However, not satisfied with giving up a routine power play goal, the Crunch took back-to-back penalty and spent the next minute-and-a-half on a 5-on-three penalty kill. They did manage to kill off both penalties and it seemed like they might be able to regain the advantage, but the puck luck wasn’t with them.

The second goal for the Devils was a bit of a bad break as Andreoff tried to send the puck behind the Crunch net and it hit a skate. Nick Lappin recovered it and sent it to Blake Pietila who roofed it by Ingram and all of a sudden the lead was cut to two.

The Devils kept coming, surviving a little pressure from the Crunch, and the lead was trimmed even more when Marian Studenic squeezed a shot through Ingram’s pads after he found some open space with Katchouk losing an edge while backchecking and sliding right by him. There was a bit of a screen in front of the Crunch goaltender, but it’s most likely a shot he would like to have back.

Binghamton piled up sixteen shots - with the help of four power play - and dominated most of the period. Luckily, the Crunch headed to the second intermission with a slim 4-3 lead, thanks in part to some nice saves from Ingram. He had little help from the team in front of him and they were constantly beaten to loose pucks and weren’t able to string together much time in the offensive zone (only six shots).

With that less-than-great twenty minutes behind them, the Crunch came out in third period looking to put some space between the two teams on the scoreboard. Unfortunately, Lack wasn’t a very accommodating guest as he denied Verhaeghe on a partial breakaway and then blockered away a wicked shot from Dumont a few minutes later.

The Crunch were skating better this period and not backing down from the Devils’ physical play. Andreoff ragdolled Lappin around for a minute or so following the forwards clean hit on Gaunce. The Devils had a not so clean hit as Colby Sissons boarded Dennis Yan, touching off yet another scrum.

It would be the first of several power plays for the Crunch in the third period that all followed a similar script. They would dominate zone time, but not be able to convert. Unlike their earlier power plays, they were unable to move the puck as crisply. Binghamton did a good job of forcing them to pass the puck around the perimeter instead of across the ice and then blocking shots once the Crunch did get a look.

For their part, the Crunch weren’t allowing much offense either. Ingram had a quietly good period, making ten stops. It wasn’t anything too challenging, but he wasn’t leaving many rebounds for the Devils to take advantage of.

As the clock ticked down to three minutes remaining, the Crunch failed to convert on another power play, however, they were able to keep the puck in the zone and it paid off after the mad advantage expired. Gaunce launched a shot from center point and and Alex Barre-Boulet, despite having an Eric Gryba-sized sweater draped on his back, tipped the puck by Lack for the 5-3 lead. It was the fourth goal in the last five games for Barre-Boulet, and Gaunce’s fourth assist on the night.

With time winding down under a minute, Gaunce touched off the final scrum of the game with a solid crosscheck behind the Crunch net, leading to an equipment sale on the ice with gloves and sticks strewn about. No real damage was done and with one final face-off (while a host of penalties were announced to the crowd), the Crunch had their sixth straight victory.

Saturday, November 24 at Springfield: 3-0 victory (Box Score) (No highlights video available)

It was a sluggish start to the game for the Crunch, which can be expected after the team played on Friday and then jumped on a bus to Springfield...Virginia? Illinois? Missouri?

Massachusetts! That’s it.

Anyway, it took the Crunch a few minutes to get their legs under them and the Thunderbirds had the early advantage, but were unable to find the back of the net.

Even though they were chasing the game a bit, the Crunch managed to get on the scoreboard first, with the help of a funny bounce. A clearing attempt by the Thunderbirds hit the linesman and stopped just outside the blueline. Hults dug it out of the official’s skates and jammed it slowly into the Springfield zone. The puck trickled in front of Conacher, who had been caught in the zone during the clear. He managed to touch up at the blueline right before scooping the puck up and then dishing it off to Andreoff, who beat the goaltender.

Upon first review it looked like Conacher was well offside, and the Thunderbirds’ defenseman argued in vain with the referees. A quick review at a slower speed shows that the call was correct. Conacher circled around, made the barest of contact with the blueline before collecting the puck in and moving forward.

Cory Conacher just barely touches up before setting up Andreoff's goal
See - he’s onside (onsides? on-side?)

The rest of the period didn’t result in any goals, but might have been one of the better periods the Crunch have played at even strength this season. (Yes, that’s weird to write about a team that has two 4-goal periods on the resume this year) They didn’t rely on their power play to generate offense, for a change. Rather, they just played better than the Thunderbirds, including a sustained shift of close to a minute where they had Springfield pinned back in the zone. It generated in a nice opportunity for Barre-Boulet as the young winger dangled his way into a wraparound attempt that almost beat goaltender Chris Driedger.

The Thunderbirds got out of that problem when Verhaeghe was a bit too frisky with his stick and picked up a slashing penalty. The penalty kill easily killed off the penalty and the Crunch went back to dominating zone time. Springfield had a lot of trouble with the Syracuse forecheck and coughed up the puck on several opportunities. Luckily for them, Driedger turned aside the other seven shots he saw in the opening frame.

For a scoreless period, the second stanza had a nice flow of action. Syracuse let Springfield drive most of the early play thanks to taking back-to-back penalties. First it was Dominik Masin with a hooking penalty after the Crunch were stuck in their own zone for a prolonged period of time. The Thunderbirds kept the pressure on with the extra man, but Syracuse didn’t allow a shot as they kept their coverage tight. A back-door pass was broken up by Thomas as he stick-checked the puck away from an open net.

Ingram had to be a little sharper after Barre-Boulet was sent to the box for slashing. He was able to make two quick saves early in the power play and the Crunch had their own chance as Dumont and Bournival broke in two-on-one but Driedger turned aside Dumont’s shot.

The two teams settled into a evenly-played pace over the next few minutes before ramping up the action in the final five minutes. The Crunch had the first rush of opportunities as a thirty-second shift saw Yan get denied by Driedger’s shoulder. The Thunderbirds goaltender then kicked aside Brady Brassert’s one-timer before swallowing up a slapshot from Masin.

The Thunderbirds went right back down the ice and had their own rash of chances, sending several shots towards the net that Ingram had to knock aside. Their best chance was sent wide when Ryan Hovart collected a rebound in front of the net, but couldn’t get the puck on net with Ingram cutting off any open spaces.

Nursing a one-goal lead after 40 minutes, the Crunch needed to come out and finish the game strong as they did on Friday night. They had a few opportunities early in the period as Hults had his shot ripped out of the air by Driedger’s glove and Alex Volkov bounced a spin-a-round shot off of the iron.

For fifty-three minutes, the Thunderbirds stayed out of the penalty box, which if you want to beat the Crunch right now is a good idea. They couldn’t make it a whole sixty minutes, though, and it cost them. After what appeared to be a minor scrum along the benches, Joel Lowry was assessed a roughing minor. Then it became a 5-on-3 when Ian McCoshen flung the puck over the boards 30 seconds later.

Not a good time to give a fan a souvenir.

The puck never left the Thunderbirds zone as the Crunch worked it around with precision. Eventually Taylor Raddysh passed it to Conacher at the point who unloaded a shot that hit the goaltender and bounced right to Barre-Boulet. The rookie deposited it in the back of the net for his seventh goal of the season (fifth on the power play).

The teams traded chances after that. Ingram made his biggest save of the night, stopping Henrik Borgstrom point blank as the big forward fired a rebound right into the goaltender’s midsection. It wasn’t a ten-bell save, just solid tracking of the puck and proper positioning, but it was still needed.

On the other end, Driedger had to sprawl out and fully extend to stop Bournival with his right pad as the Crunch forward stickhandled through a couple of defenders. The stop would prove important at the time as minutes later Cameron Gaunce was whistled for roughing with just over two minutes to play.

Springfield pulled their goaltender with 2 minutes to go in the game and about about a minute to go in the penalty. Interesting choice not to take advantage of the full power play with a two-man advantage, and they struggled to generate any pucks on net. The Crunch killed off the penalty, but immediately went back down a man when Masin crosschecked a guy in front of the net.

It’s never not exciting when you’re a Crunch fan.

On the ensuing face-off in the defensive zone, Dumont won the puck back and trapped it against the boards. The puck trickled to Labrie, who made a nifty close-quarters pass back to Dumont. The captain fired it down the ice. Jacob MacDonald retrieved the puck in his own end and carried it to his own blueline, only to have it wobble over his stick when he went to pass it. Bournival picked it up and shot it into the empty net to seal the win.

Time ran out and Ingram finished with twenty-seven saves to pick up his third shutout of the season. tying him for the league lead with the Iowa Wild’s rookie netminder Kaapo Kahkonen. His performance last week was more than enough to earn him the AHL’s Player of the Week award.

Thoughts on the Games

The Penalty Kill

The Crunch takes a lot of penalties. In only in 17 games they’ve been shorthanded 92 times. That’s almost five-and-a-half times a game, which is not great. As of the end of the weekend, they have allowed the opposition to score 17 times while the Crunch have been shorthanded for a kill percentage of 81.5% which is good for 16th in the league.

The good news is that those numbers are trending upwards. Over the last week they killed off 20-of-21 short-handed opportunities against Binghamton and Springfield. Even more impressive is that they added two short-handed goals to their tally on the season. So, they actually outscored their opponents while short-handed, which is pretty impressive.

Two reasons why they had such a good week on special teams are the return of Dumont and Bournival (the two players who scored short-handed) to the line-up. Both players are extremely active on the penalty kill, pressuring opponents all over the ice. They are also extremely good skaters, so if they do generate a turnover, they’re streaking into the offensive zone in the blink of an eye.

Can the Crunch sustain their success taking so many penalties? Probably. Much like last season, a bulk of the penalties happen because of the pressure they’re putting on the other team. Yes, it leads to a lot of offensive zone penalties, but it’s also the product of the type of play that causes a lot of turnovers. It’s the “playing with audacity” style that Coach Groulx was looking for at the beginning of the season.

Over the last week or so, they’ve done a great job maintaining their shape on the penalty kill. The players have staying the correct positions and forced their opponents to work the puck around the perimeter, limiting the space available for cross-ice passes which are the bane of the penalty-killing world. There isn’t a lot of chasing around and scrambling while they’re killing penalties, and nobody is over-committing or getting out of position.

Cutting down on the cross-ice passes also makes it easier on the goaltenders. If you watch Ingram, he isn’t having to dive across the crease to make saves. That allows him to control his rebounds better, or simply absorb the shots and cover them up.

Dumont and Bournival are their best penalty killers, but Groulx has also been able to roll out forwards like Volkov, Brassert, and Andreoff without any loss of production. That kind of forward depth is extremely valuable when it comes to keeping the lines fresh, which when you’re shorthanded 10-12 minutes a game is quite important.

Players of the Week

Cory Conacher - 3 games played, 2 goals, 6 assists. He now has seven straight multi-point games and twenty two points in the month of November. Despite only playing 13 games he leads the league in scoring with 25 points.

Carter Verhaeghe - 3 games played, 2 goals, 3 assists. When he’s healthy all Verhaeghe does is pile up points. He has 19 points in 17 games (second on the team) and 67 points in 75 career games with the Crunch. He often gets overlooked when it comes to Lightning prospects (our Top 25 under 25 had him at #20), but he is forcing the organization to give him more of an opportunity. If he stays healthy it wouldn’t be shocking to see him called up at some point.

Upcoming Games

Friday, November 30 at Cleveland Monsters

Saturday, December 1st at Cleveland Monsters