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Crunch Corner: Special teams powers Syracuse to two wins

Despite being riddled with injuries the Syracuse Crunch played exceptionally better this weekend.

Syracuse Crunch Cory Conacher (89) goes nose to nose with Belleville Senators Patrick Sieloff (23) as Crunch Andy Andreoff (15) takes exception in American Hockey League (AHL) action at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, New York on Friday, November 2, 2018. Syracuse won 5-4. © Scott Thomas Photography
Scott Thomas Photography

What a difference a week makes. Last week the entire team was broken and the players that were on the ice spent most of the time digging the puck out of the back of the net.

This week, 11 goals, 2 wins and 0 injuries later, things are looking up for the Crunch. Their play in all three zones was much improved, from coverage in the zone to breakout passes to dump-ins and forechecking. All over the ice there were glimmers of a Ben Groulx-coached team.

Hopefully, the week off doesn’t disrupt the momentum and when they return to the ice on Friday against Rochester the improvement continues.

Standings

The American Hockey League

Coming and Going

It was another busy week on the transaction front for the Crunch as several players had to update their forwarding addresses. After being in Orlando just barely long enough to stand in line for the Escape from Gringotts ride, Mitch Hults was back in Syracuse. The 23-year-old center played in two games for the Solar Bears before being recalled again, and picked up on assist. He slotted in on the bottom two lines in Syracuse.

Joining him from the Sunshine State was Nolan Valleau. The defenseman was signed to a PTO earlier in the week and brought 124 games of AHL experience along with him. This was purely a temporary depth move, as Erik Cernak isn’t expected out long-term and Cameron Gaunce should be back in Syracuse as soon as Victor Hedman is ready to play again.

Going the other way was Troy Bourke. He was loaned to Orlando on the same day Hults was recalled. The forward had yet to record any points in the four games he appeared in with the Crunch.

Injuries

Hooray! For the first time all season there are no new names to add to this list. In fact, an injured player even returned to the line-up as Ben Thomas skated in his first two games of the season following a hip injury that plagued him at the end of last season. He made an impact as he picked up 3 assists and lent a veteran presence to a very young blueline.

The Games

Friday, November 2nd vs Belleville: 5-4 victory (Box Score) (Highlights)

With all of the changes due to injuries and recalls, the Syracuse Crunch took to the ice against the Belleville Senators with completely different lines than last weekend. Andy Andreoff centered Alex Volkov and Cory Conacher for the top line, while Boris Katchouk was sandwiched between Alex Barre-Boulet and Carter Verhaeghe. Mitch Hults slotted into a center role flanked by Dennis Yan and Taylor Raddysh, while Ross Colton lined up between Jonne Tammala and Derrick Brassart.

The defense found itself even more radically realigned. Cal Foote partnered with Dominik Masin, while Hubert Labrie was paired with Thomas. Newcomer Valleau skated alongside Matthew Spencer.

All of those new line combinations were well and good on paper, but quickly went to hell as the two teams decided that five-on-five play was for kids. There were 16 combined power plays and 68 minutes of penalties between the two teams, and most of that special team action took place in the first two periods.

Both teams were a little sloppy to begin the game as pucks caroomed around the ice and neither team really established any sustained presence. The Crunch were focused on defending in their zone and did a good job of keeping pressure off goaltender Connor Ingram. They went on their first power play seven minutes into the game. It didn’t take long for them to convert.

New defenseman Valleau, known for his prowess with the puck, started on the second power play unit. He made a nice stop at the Belleville blue line, stepping up to keep the puck in the zone when the Senators tried to pass it out of the zone instead of just clearing it. The puck made its way to Raddysh who fed it to Katchouk, who was in a good position to fire it on net. Instead, he slipped a pass to Yan, who was in front of the net all alone. Yan deflected the puck up and over Filip Gustavsson for the goal.

For the first time this season at home, the Crunch finally had a lead. Sadly, it was short-lived. A minute after the Yan goal, the Senators caught a bit of a lucky break. A shot from Joseph LaBate was knocked down by Ingram, but the rebound squirted to the side of him and, in a scrum, Andrew Sturtz was able to knock the puck into the net before it came off its moorings.

Belleville carried the play for the next few minutes due to back-to-back power plays at the expense of newcomer Valleau. First he was called for hooking as he was lone defender on a two-on-one and hooked down a Senator to prevent a prime scoring chance. He jumped back on the ice when that penalty was done and promptly flipped the puck into the crowd for a delay of game penalty. Thankfully, the Crunch killed that one as well.

The Crunch took the lead back shortly after as Alex Barre-Boulet put a perfect cross-ice pass on Verhaeghe’s stick as he cut between a couple of Belleville defenders. Verhaeghe drifted off to his right, drawing Gustavsson with him, and then flicked a wrister into the far side of the net.

The lead did not make it to the intermission. With less than a minute to go in the period and on the power play, the Senators won a faceoff and worked the puck over to Adam Tambellini at the circle. He ripped a one-timer past Ingram.

The Crunch started the second period on a carry-over power play and they seemed determined to retake the lead. Conacher ripped two one-timers that Gustavsson fought off, covering up the rebound on the second one to draw a whistle. On the ensuing face-off, Katchouk won it and sailed it over to Volkov. The big Russian did a good job of getting the puck out of his skates and he fired it at the net, beating Gustavsson.

The lead was back in the hands of the Crunch. This time, they would not let it go.

Four minutes later, Syracuse was back on the power play. Both Conacher and Barre-Boulet made nice, hard-working plays to keep the puck in the zone. It paid off. Foote fed Andreoff in the left circle and the veteran unloaded a laser of a one-timer that found the back of the net.

Things picked up in the penalty department after the goal. Belleville’s Jordan Murray clipped Volkov on the chin with his shoulder, and Katchouk took exception to the hit. He chased the Belleville defender down the ice and threw off his gloves. The fight was stopped after a quick tustle and both players were in the box for fighting. Well, actually, Katchouk wasn’t. It turned out that the fight strap on his jersey was loose, and that led to a game misconduct and a quick trip to the showers.

The two teams traded a few penalties before the Crunch extended their lead to three on a great individual effort by Volkov. He had the puck below the goal line and tried to pass it out in front as he moved from behind the net. Filip Chlapik blocked the pass, but the puck came back to Volkov. Chlapik had dropped down to block the pass and stumbled to cover Volkov. The Crunch forward used the extra space to lift the puck past Gustavsson for his second goal of the game.

Gustavsson’s night was over at that point, and Jake Paterson entered the game. He would not have a busy night.

The Senators made it a bit of a ballgame with two quick strikes towards the end of the period. The first came on a power play when Tambellini scored almost an identical goal as his first. Fourteen seconds later, rookie Drake Batherson made a nifty move on the backhand to beat Ingram and the Sens were back within a goal.

For the rest of the game, the Crunch played a pretty tight defense. They dialed back on their offensive rushes, content to get to the blue line, pitch it in and forecheck. In the third period they only generated two shots on net (several other good chances went just wide or were deflected away), but they didn’t necessarily turtle their defense.

Belleville only had three shots on net in the third and the Crunch very effectively kept them away from the high-danger areas and forced them to work the puck all 200 feet up the ice on almost every rush. Turnovers, which had plagued the Crunch this season, were eliminated and Syracuse controlled the tempo of play very well. The result: Their first win on home ice.

Saturday, November 3rd vs Belleville: 6-1 victory (Box Score) (Highlights)

One win is nice. The Crunch had done that twice already this season. What they had yet to do was follow up a victory with another well played game.

Not only did they match their play from Friday night on Saturday, they exceeded it.

They were able to roll out the same line-up as the night before with the only change being in net. Veteran Eddie Pasquale was back between the pipes looking to rebound from a couple of lackluster performances.

The Crunch dictated play early and captured the lead in the first by scoring on the power play. Verhaeghe roofed a shot over Filip Gustavsson with the man advantage.

Despite pushing most of the play, at least five on five, the Crunch couldn’t add to their lead and went into intermission up by just one.

Don’t worry, the second period would end up going just fine.

Hults got the ball rolling as he snapped a shot from a bad angle two minutes into the second frame for his his first goal as a member of the Crunch.

Andreoff hadn’t scored in a while, so he capitalized on some Belleville miscues to score his team-leading fifth goal of the season. The Sens actually started the play with an odd-man rush, but a bad drop pass led to the Crunch breaking out the other way. The initial two-on-one was stopped, but they kept possession in the zone and it paid off with Andreoff’s goal.

That brand of persistence was the hallmark of the game on Saturday. The Crunch outworked the Sens for most of the night, winning battles, forcing bad passes and getting to loose pucks first. Less than forty seconds after Andreoff’s goal they did it again as both Raddysh and Colton won battles along the boards. Eventually the puck made it around to Valleau, who threw a pass/shot to the front of the net. As he was being checked to the ice, Raddysh redirected it past Gustavsson for the goal. Nice bit of hand-eye coordination from the rookie.

That ended the night for the Sens goaltender and he was replaced for the second night in a row by Jake Paterson. Unlike Friday night, where Paterson only faced three shots, the back-up would have to do some work because the Crunch offense was not finished.

Before that happened, the Sens came out hitting everything in sight. Colton, Yan and Ben Thomas all were on the receiving end of big hits. Yet the Sens’ actions didn’t help to tighten the score.

Labrie had enough of the shenanigans, and after receiving one slash too many from Joseph LaBate took matters into his own hands. Some pushing and shoving followed and then Labrie and LaBate decided to have LaBrawl. The much smaller Crunch defenseman held his own against the 6’5” LaBate and ended it by hip-tossing the Sens’ forward to the ice.

Spurned on by his defenseman’s actions, Cory Conacher, the Honey Badger himself, ripped a one timer past Paterson for the fifth Crunch goal of the night and fourth of the period.

Giving up five goals must be the impetus for the Senators offense as they marched right down the ice and got one back. Andreas Englund put home the puck on a goal mouth scramble to cut the lead to four. At this point Belleville started to drive the play a bit and Pasquale had to make several key saves, his biggest coming against rookie Drake Batherson who had a wide open net to shoot at. Pasquale was able to knock down.

The period ended with the Crunch leading 5-1.

Much like Friday night, the Crunch played a fairly conservative third period, content on keeping the Sens out of the zone and then suppressing any shots if Belleville did make it in. Unlike Friday, Syracuse generated a few more offensive chances and it paid off when Conacher used his legs to generate a little space and flipped a shot at the net that Paterson had trouble seeing due to Andreoff’s screen.

There was no fretting at the end of this one as the Crunch easily finished off the Sens’ holding them to just eight shots in the third period.

Thoughts on the Games

The Power Play

One of the main reasons the Crunch have stayed competitive during their rough start is the power play. After nine games they have scored 12 goals during their 53 opportunities with an extra skater, a conversion rate of 24%. This is good for seventh in the AHL. That is a drastic improvement over last season’s 24th ranked (out of 30 teams) 15.7%.

What is main reason for the improvement? They’re getting the puck in the zone easier. Last year it was a struggle to get the puck in and their rotation set. This season their entries are a lot cleaner and they are spending more time with the puck in dangerous areas. That leads to more shots on net and more confidence with the puck. Andreoff is leading the way with three power play tallies, and it’s a testament to assistant coach Gilles Bouchard’s scheme that Andreoff has scored them in all different ways, from one-timers to rebounds and deflections.

The Crunch’s speed and talent allows them to draw a lot of penalties. Making teams pay for their mistakes will be their key to moving up in the standings.

The Lines

For the first time all season the Crunch didn’t have to tinker with their lines due to an injury. Losing Katchouk early on Friday did throw a bit of wrench into things, but on Saturday Coach Ben Groulx was able to roll all four lines on a regular basis and it paid off.

With the roster turnover the team has had over the first few weeks of the season it’s been hard for them to develop any chemistry. With a long week of practice their coach was determined to keep them together, and it paid off.

The Conacher/Andreoff/Volkov line was dominant for most of the weekend. With Andreoff clogging things up in the middle, Conacher darting all over the ice and Volkov moving the puck around, Belleville spent most of the weekend chasing them around. The line combined for 11 points over the weekend and had several other close calls.

Along with that line, the Katchouk/Barre-Boulet/Verhaeghe line has been playing well together. Barre-Boulet had several close calls, just missing a few goals by inches while Verhaeghe is looking like the scorer he was last season. His first period goal on Saturday was his 100th point in just his 144th AHL game. Pretty impressive for someone who isn’t usually mentioned among the Lightning’s top prospects.

Players of the Week

Cory Conacher - 2 games played, 2 goals, 2 assists. Conacher had all of his points in one game, but was all over the ice all weekend long. He launched 8 shots on net along with at least another 8-10 shots that were blocked or went wide.

Carter Verhaeghe - 2 games played, 2 goals, 1 assist. Verhaeghe has really clicked with Alex Barre-Boulet on the second line for the Crunch. He has five points in his last three games and 7 points in 9 games as he continues to put points up when healthy.

Next Week Schedule

Friday, November 9th at Rochester Americans

Sunday, November 11 vs. Hershey Bears