It was a rough week injury-wise for the Syracuse Crunch as they lost a couple of key depth players, but they still managed to split their weekend series at home. Syracuse soundly beat the Binghamton Devils on Friday before dropping a tightly-contested match on Saturday to Rochester.
Their long points streak came to an end Saturday night in a close contest against the division leading Americans, showing they still have a little bit more to go before they can claim the title of best team in the North. Still, it’s a title that they’re not far off of.
The big new came early in the week as it was confirmed that Michael Bournival had suffered a long term injury (thought to be his right shoulder) and will be missing significant time. With the left-winger out, the Crunch lose a veteran voice in the locker room and one of their best penalty killers. It’s been somewhat of a lost season for Bournival as he missed the first part of the season recovering from a knee injury. He only suited up for five games before suffering this latest setback.
The Crunch also lost Brady Brassart late in the second period of Friday night’s game. He was checked hard and awkwardly into the boards by Michael McLeod. He missed the rest of that game and Saturday’s tilt against Rochester. Brassart, signed in the off-season, has played a pretty important depth role, killing penalties and centering the fourth line. Coach Groulx tentatively listed him as “day to day” following Saturday’s game.
The good news is that a couple of players who were injured earlier in the season made their return to the line-up. Well, kind of. Center Mitchell Stephens, who hasn’t played since the end of October, drew back in having recovered from his own upper body injury suffered in a game against Charlotte. His return restores the depth down the center of the ice and helps ease the loss of Bournival.
Fellow center Otto Somppi was also finally deemed healthy enough to play again. There was just one problem: there was no real spot for him in the line-up, as he was assigned prior to Brassart’s injury. The rookie, who had been nursing a hand injury since the beginning of the season, had yet to appear in a game. So, let’s skip to the next section
Coming and Going
Instead of sitting in a press box in Syracuse, Somppi was reassigned to Orlando in order to get some playing time. As expected this year, the partnership between Orlando and Syracuse has been extremely important. Somppi joined Mitch Hults, Jonne Tammela, and Troy Bourke as players with Syracuse/Tampa Bay contracts playing in Orlando. With the glut of young talent in Syracuse, it was imperative that the organization have an affiliate in the ECHL that they could use to provide playing time for some of their second tier prospects.
Following Friday’s game, the Crunch made another transaction with the Solar Bears as Oleg Sosunov was loaned to Orlando and Matthew Spencer was recalled. It was a bit surprising that Spencer was recalled instead of one of the forwards, and would seemingly indicate that either Brassart’s injury isn’t too serious or that Gabriel Dumont is close to returning.
The pipeline does work both ways, as the Crunch announced on Thursday that they had signed Nolan Valleau to a professional contract. Much like Olivier Archambault last season, the defenseman showed that he belonged in the AHL and provided a much needed puck-mover. Rather than risk losing him to another franchise once his PTO expired they wrapped him up with a contract for the rest of this year and an option for next season.
It’s not often that you see a hockey game end in a 5-0 score and you think, “It shouldn’t have been that close,” but such was the case Friday night in Syracuse. The Crunch could have put seven or eight goals on the board if it wasn’t for the play of Devils’ goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. They wouldn’t have needed that much offense, though, as Connor Ingram returned from his brief visit to Tampa to make 18 saves and post his second consecutive shutout of the season.
The Crunch scored first and kept the pressure on all game long, with the exception of a shift or two in the third period, to extend their points streak to 13 games. Five different players scored goals and five players had multiple points as all four lines contributed to the win.
It was Alex Barre-Boulet who found the back of the net first for Syracuse as the rookie netted his ninth goal of the season. It came on the Crunch’s first power play of the game and featured their usual mix of crisp passing and relentless attack. Cameron Gaunce (2 assists) worked a little back and forth passing with Carter Verhaeghe (1 goal, 2 assists) before launching it on net. The shot handcuffed Blackwood and he couldn’t handle the puck. Barre-Boulet (1 goal, 1 assist) chipped the puck wide of the net, but followed his shot and snuck a backhanded wraparound past the goaltender.
It was the rookie’s seventh power play goal and his 19th point of the season. It also extended his scoring streak to 10 straight games. Not bad for an undrafted free agent.
The Crunch doubled their lead two minutes later when Mitchell Stephens (1 goal, 2 assists) took a pass from Verhaeghe in the corner and deked his way around Blackwood. Verhaeghe slid a backhand pass through a couple of sticks that Stephens received cleanly, and he feinted to his forehand causing Blackwood to overcommit. He then slid a backhand shot into the back of the net.
Verhaeghe may have missed a month of play, but the second-year center didn’t show any signs of rust.
While the Crunch were clicking on all cylinders for the game, the Devils were doing everything possible to make it easy for them. Lazy passes through the neutral zone, turnovers in their defensive zone and general carelessness led to plenty of opportunities in the first period, so it wasn’t a surprise that they were down two goals. The surprise was that they were only down 2 despite being outshot 19-2. The reason for that was saves like this:
There is no way that puck shouldn’t have been in the back of the net.
The second period started with the Crunch shorthanded because the refs wanted to make the game fair. Well, okay, not really. Alex Volkov had gotten a little shovey at the buzzer and drew a roughing penalty. It almost worked as Michael McLeod had a wide open net at one point. Sadly for Devils’ fans, he shot it off the side of the net.
The Devils did seem a little more vested in the action and had an extended shift in the Crunch zone. Still, there wasn’t much actual offense being generated. A lot of pucks went around the boards and skipped over sticks. The few chances they directed at the net were blocked away. Andy Andreoff had a breakaway chance that Blackwood stopped that was the best opportunity for both teams in the first half of the period.
The goalie couldn’t keep it close all night as Stephens returned the favor by setting up Verhaeghe from behind the net. Carter snapped a shot over Blackwood’s glove to stretch the lead to three goals.
It wouldn’t be right for the team’s leading scorer to be left on the sidelines during a rout, would it? Cory Conacher got in on the action when he trailed Andreoff on two-on-one with just under five minutes to go in the period. Andreoff snuck his pass through and Conacher fired off a one-timer that Blackwood had no chance of stopping. It was the twelfth game in a row with a point for Conacher who know has 28 points in just 17 games.
With the game firmly in hand heading into the third period, the Crunch backed off the throttle a little. Neither team played all that well as Binghamton continued to fumble the puck around and the Crunch tried to score some fancy goals and got a little pass happy.
Ingram finally had to do some work (he had faced 8 shots in the first 40 minutes) early in the period as Ben Thomas (0 points) fed a pass directly to John Quenneville (not his teammate) in the slot. The Devils’ forward broke in all alone but had his shot turned aside by Ingram’s left pad.
The Crunch scored their final goal of the game on a bit of a flukely play. Olivier Archambault had the puck at the top of the circles and was knocked down. He slid towards the Binghamton net on top of the puck, unintentionally shielding it from the defenders. It popped loose to the right of Blackwood and Dennis Yan (1 goal) fired it past the goaltender’s blocker. For Yan, it was his third goal of the month following a November where he only had one point all month long.
The Crunch coasted to victory the rest of the way and Coach Groulx was able to get his bottom six forwards a little more playing time than usual. Yan, Boris Katchouk, Ross Colton and Taylor Raddysh all picked up a lot of minutes down the stretch.
Binghamton almost scored as the buzzer as they finally snuck a shot past Ingram, but it hit off the crossbar and stayed out. That’s kind of what happens when you’re outscored by a team 61-25 over the past two seasons. With the win, the Crunch improved their record to 12-2-0-1 against the Devils in that time frame. That’s pretty darn good.
All good things have to come to an end. On Saturday night the Syracuse Crunch’s 13-game point streak was brought to an abrupt halt thanks to the Rochester Americans. For the first time since October 27th, the Crunch failed to record a point.
Head Coach Ben Groulx walked us through the close contest with some post-game quotes.
“They [Rochester] were the best team on the ice”
Sometimes the other team is just better, and that was the case on Saturday night when the first place Rochester Americans held on to win against the Syracuse Crunch, 4-3. The Amerks had a cleaner game as the passing was much crisper than the Crunch. Syracuse also struggled with turnovers, something they had limited during their recent successful run.
Rochester opened up the scoring just a minute into the game when Syracuse failed to clear the puck. Mitchell Stephens’ pass hit Taylor Raddysh in the skates and Eric Cornel recovered the loose puck. His shot was knocked down, but the rebound came right to Wayne Simpson. Connor Ingram was out of position and unable to recover in time as Simpson fired it into the empty net.
Four minutes later, Tyler Randall was one-on-one with Ben Thomas. He took him wide on the right side, froze Ingram with a subtle fake and then tucked the puck in on a wraparound before the young netminder could recover. Ingram had overcommitted just a bit too much on the fake and was well out of the crease as Randall cut behind the net.
“It [the teddy bear toss] was amazing”
Down two goals early, the Crunch did start to find their legs after Zach Redmond was whistled for interference midway through the game. Up to that point, the Crunch had been outshot 7-1 by the Amerks, but Syracuse started to connect on passes and put the pressure on Rochester. Despite failing to convert on with the extra skater, the Crunch finally got on the board thanks to Andy Andreoff.
The veteran had already been denied twice by Adam Wilcox, first on a breakaway and then on a slam dunk one-timer from the right-side of the net. He wouldn’t be stopped a third time. The entire line did a great job of keeping the puck in and winning battles along the boards. Alex Barre-Boulet emerged from one such battle and fed Andreoff at the top of the left circle and he fired it past Wilcox to cut the lead to one and the fans unleashed a hailstorm of stuffed animals on the ice.
We made it rain teddy bears in Syracuse.— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) December 9, 2018
Thank you to everyone who donated to our Eighth-Annual @stanleysteemer Tired Teddy Toss. These fluffy friends will all be refurbished and donated to the @SalArmySyr. pic.twitter.com/wvafdJYdQe
“We got a little bit better”
The second period was fairly even as Syracuse continued to search for a way back into the game. Cory Conacher had a great chance that was just deflected wide after Verhaeghe set him up between the circles.
Despite playing better, it was Rochester that scored as the Crunch were caught in their zone during a stretch of four-on-four hockey. Unable to clear, they ended up chasing the puck around a bit and Rochester strung together a nice sequence of passes. First, it was Simpson firing a cross-ice pass to CJ Smith, who was crashing the net to Ingram’s right. Smith held off on the shot and circled around the net. He fed Zach Redmond who was charging in from his spot on the blue line and Redmond one-timed the puck past Ingram for his third goal in three games against the Crunch this year.
“He [Connor Ingram] was probably our best player tonight. He gave us a chance”
Ingram made 29 stops on the night and really kept the team in the game, especially when the Crunch were on the power play. Down two goals at several times during the game, the Crunch pressed on the few times that they did have the man advantage. Combined with Rochester’s aggressive defense, that led to at least three short-handed, odd-man rushes for the Amerks and Ingram turned them all aside.
“We never went away.”
After the two-goal start game for the Amerks, the game was fairly evenly matched. The Crunch would climb back within a goal and then Rochester would stretch the lead back out to two goals. Early in the third, with the Crunch down 3-1, Cal Foote worked a little give and go with Carter Verhaeghe and one-timed a shot from the top of the circle. It beat Wilcox over the glove and under the bar to get the Crunch back within one goal.
It was the second goal of the season for the rookie defenseman, and seventh point. The offense is starting to come around for the young player who has had a fairly strong stretch of play recently, despite not recording a point since November 17th.
The Amerks re-established their two goal lead midway through the period when Victor Olofsson pounced on a loose puck and snapped it past Ingram while Rochester was on the power play.
After that goal, it was all Crunch for the remainder of the game. Taylor Raddysh once again brought the Crunch within a goal as he whipped a feed from Mitchell Stephens past Wilcox on the power play. The rookie’s release was so quick that Wilcox barely flinched as the puck went past him.
The Crunch pressed for the rest of the game and had several good chances. Alex Volkov had the best with about six minutes to go in the game as he weaved his way through a couple of defenders and one-handed a shot on Wilcox as he cut in front of the net. The Amerks netminder barely got a pad on it to deflect it wide of the net.
Rochester survived the final two minutes of the game as Syracuse pulled Ingram and kept piling opportunities towards the net. A final volley by Carter Verhaeghe was blocked out in front, something Rochester did a tremendous job of all night long, and the buzzer sounded with the Crunch on the wrong side of a 4-3 score.
Players of the Week
Mitchell Stephens (2 Games, 1 Goal, 3 Assists) The number two center on the depth chart returned after missing a month with a shoulder injury and didn’t miss a beat. He provided offense, won face-offs, and killed penalties. That’s exactly what Coach Groulx needs out of him. When Dumont does return, the Crunch may be the deepest team down the middle in the league.
Connor Ingram (2 Games, 1 Shut Out, .922 Sv%, 2.04 Goals Against) It isn’t usual that a goaltender plays better in a loss than in a shutout, but that was the case for Ingram this week. Despite giving up four goals to the Americans on Saturday, it was a better game for him than the one the prior night against the Devils. He turned aside 29 of the 34 shots from one of the best offensive teams in the league and kept the Crunch in it despite them not having their best night. He is showing that he can be a true number one in this league despite it only being his second professional season.
Thoughts on the Games
Two Streaks: One ends, one keeps going
Cory Conacher had his league-leading 12-game point streak stopped on Saturday night as Rochester became the first team to hold him off the scoreboard since the Bellevue Senators did it on November 2nd. During that streak Conacher had 10 goals and 8 multi-point games, not too bad for the veteran. Oh, and he picked up player of the month honors as well.
Meanwhile rookie Alex Barre-Boulet extended his points streak to 11 games. That continues the longest streak by a Crunch rookie since the 2005-06 season (as far back as their records for such things go). He has seven goals (five on the power play) during his streak and continues to show that despite his size, he has the ability to play in the AHL at a high level. He is now third among all rookies in goals (9) and points (21) while leading first year players in power play goals (7).
The Crunch have nine more games this month as they move back to a schedule with three games every week. Of those nine games, six are on the road. It will be a good test for the young team to see how they do with a road heavy schedule.
Syracuse has a chance to bounce back from their most recently loss as they take on the Marlies and Rocket, two teams that haven’t had the best starts to the season. The good news for the Crunch is that the last two games they played were two of their better games of the season, despite the loss to Rochester.
Often, a team on a long points streak will relax and start developing bad, lazy habits. That hasn’t been the case with Syracuse. They’ve actually looked stronger as the streak has gone on. While they haven’t been perfect (and the Amerks took advantage of their miscues), they have been, for most nights, the best team on the ice. That’s a sign of good coaching and strong veteran leadership which bodes well for the Crunch down the stretch.
The Crunch head back out on the road for three games in Canada this week. First up it’s the Marlies who are trying to get their season back in order following a slow start. Then Syracuse has two games in Laval against the struggling Rocket. If Martin Ouellette is ever going to get a start for the Crunch, chances are it’s this weekend, as Syracuse has another night-day back-to-back weekend schedule.
Wednesday, December 12th at Toronto Marlies, 7:00pm
Friday, December 14th at Laval Rocket, 7:30pm
Saturday, December 15th at Laval Rocket, 3:30pm