The Syracuse Crunch (15-8-2) wrap up their five-game road trip with a Friday night contest against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (16-9-1). A road trip that had started so well (8-1 thrashing of Toronto) has stalled out as they have dropped two games in a row for the first time since a three-game losing streak from October 20th to the 27th preceded their long winning streak.
During their recent skid, the Crunch have been haunted by the same trouble that plagued them at the start of the season - turnovers. Whether it’s passes just missing, bad decisions or just a weird phase where they’re not getting the breaks, the Crunch just haven’t been able to sustain their offensive attack for long periods of time like they did during their winning streak.
The effect of the turnovers is two-fold. First, and most important, it gives the other team the puck. Bad things usually happen when the other team has the puck. Second, it interrupts the flow of the Syracuse offense. The Crunch base most of their scoring on quick transitions, quick passing and high-quality shots on net. When they are fumbling with the puck none of that happens. Their forays into the offensive zone are brief and they are left expending energy trying to get the puck back.
Coach Groulx tried to mix things up a little bit last game as he shuffled the lines in the third period against the Thunderbirds and it worked a bit as the Crunch had their best period of the game. Sometimes a new look helps break up the malaise a bit and can break a team out of a funk.
It would also help them if they got their power play going again. Yes, they connected for a goal against Springfield, but it was their only successful power play goal in their last three games (1 for 11 overall) and it came with a five-on-three advantage. If the Crunch’s offense can’t score against only three defenders, well then there are other problems that need to be addressed.
One of the interesting quirks of the Crunch’s season has been that they get way more power play opportunities at home (6 per game) than on the road (about 3.5). Is there something different about the way they play? Do they play with a little less of the “audacity” that Coach Groulx likes? Or is it just one of those random stats that happen over the course of the season?
Even if they find a way to generate more man-advantages against the Phantoms they will have to find a way to beat a very good special teams unit. Lehigh Valley is currently second in the Eastern Conference killing off 86.7% of their times shorthanded. Much like the Crunch they are better on the road (93% vs. 80.4%) but it will still be a challenge to take advantage of whatever opportunities they get.
A return to goalscoring form from some of the veterans could help revive the Crunch offense. Cory Conacher has cooled off a bit after his red-hot November. He is goalless in his last five games, totaling just three assists over that span. Gabriel Dumont is in a similar funk, with just one assist in the three games since his return from injury earlier this month. Some of his patented feistiness was on display against Springfield as he was mixing things up and throwing big hits throughout the game. That’s usually a sign that he’s feeling healthy and then it’s only a matter of time before he shows up on the scoresheet.
The current chaotic state of the Philadelphia Flyers, the Phantoms NHL affiliate, may help them find the back of the net. Highly prized prospect Carter Hart and his 9 wins are currently minding the net in Philly and not Lehigh Valley. Chances are that veteran Alex Lyon will be between the pipes. The Minnesota-native is coming off an 18-save shutout of the Hershey Bears and has posted respectable numbers this season (4-4, .913 SV%, 3.04 GAA), but he isn’t a 20-year-old phenom considered one of the best goaltending prospects in the league.
Defenseman TJ Brennan will be another player to keep an eye on. The veteran defenseman is having another impressive offensive season as he has posted 26 points in 26 games so far this season. This isn’t something new for him. In 608 AHL games he has 450 points, mostly assists. Cashing in those helpers this season is Greg Carey who leads the Phantoms with 14 goals.
Connor Ingram will most likely be in net for the Crunch as he looks to rebound from his own two-game losing streak. He’s allowed 7 goals in his last two outings after posting two consecutive shutouts. This is part of the learning process if he is to be a true number one. He has to find a way to shake off the last two starts and help get the Crunch back into the win column. With the offense fighting itself a bit lately, he will be relied on to make some key stops and keep them in the game.
The Crunch lost 3-2 to the Springfield Thunderbirds on Wednesday. Rookies Taylor Raddysh and Alex Barre-Boulet provided the goals while Eddie Pasquale stopped 27 of 30 shots in the loss.
The Phantoms beat the Hershey Bears 5-0 on Wednesday. Alex Lyon stopped 18 shots for the shutout and five different Phantoms scored goals.
Possible Lines for the Crunch (As always, this is pure speculation as Coach Groulx has used approximately 457 different combinations this season)
Alex Volkov - Andy Andreoff - Cory Conacher
Carter Verhaeghe - Gabriel Dumont - Taylor Raddysh
Dennis Yan - Ross Colton - Alex Barre-Boulet
Olivier Archambault - Otto Somppi - Boris Katchouk
Dominik Masin - Cameron Gaunce
Hubert Labrie - Ben Thomas
Nolan Valleau - Cal Foote
(It is possible that Coach Groulx goes with an 11/7 rotation and scratches Archambault or Yan and has Matt Spencer cycle into the defensive rotation)