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Crunch Preview: Family reunion time as Syracuse hosts Utica

The Gaunce brothers face-off against each other as the Crunch hope to keep their win streak intact.

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch (18-8-2) look to keep their winning streak intact as they host the Utica Comets (16-5-2-1) on Friday night. Get familiar with the Comets because the Crunch will be playing them nine more times after this match-up. So far on the season they have already met twice with each team winning on the road. Utica beat the Crunch 4-3 in Syracuse on October 20th while Syracuse shut the Comets out 4-0 in Utica on November 16th.

The frequency of the meetups will be a good chance for the Gaunce brothers to get some time together on the ice. Older brother Cameron is the number one defenseman for the Crunch, while Brendan, four years younger, is a winger for the Comets. Could the two drop the gloves and square off against each other as part of the usually chippy Syracuse/Utica rivalry? They haven’t played against each other all that much (only three times). but they have come close to tangling while on the ice together.

Family reunions aside, this game should be a pretty close affair. With their recent hot streak. the Crunch have climbed to within two points of the division-leading Rochester Americans. The Comets aren’t that far behind as they trail the Crunch by three points. Yes, they have played six more games than Syracuse, but a win tonight still slices that deficit by two points.

Veteran Reid Boucher leads the Comets with 29 points (16 goals, 13 assists). Fellow forwards Tanner Kero (27 points, 10 goals, 17 assists) and Zack MacEwen (26 points, 13 goals, 13 assists) round out the top scorers for Utica, but it’s Darren Archibald that always seems to be a thorn in the Crunch’s side. So far in the two match-ups this season he has a goal and an assist.

This will be the first meeting between the two teams this year where goaltender Thatcher Demko will be available. Considered the Vancouver Canucks goalie of the future, Demko had been with the NHL franchise during the previous two meetings. While he did play Thursday night in a 1-0 loss to Binghamton, he might still get the nod tonight. His back-up, Ivan Kulbakov, has struggled in his two meetings against the Crunch this season, posting a 4.28 GAA and .882 SV%. He was yanked in the second meeting after giving up three goals on thirteen shots in the 4-0 loss, and shortly thereafter was assigned to Kalamazoo of the ECHL. He was recalled to Utica just before the holiday break.

Meanwhile, there is no doubt as to who is starting for the Crunch. Coach Ben Groulx confirmed that Eddie Pasquale will be back between the pipes as he makes his third consecutive start in the wake of Conor Ingram’s injury. He’s posted a 2.97 GAA and a .893 SV% in his previous two games. This is the first time he’ll square off against the Comets this season, as Ingram played in the other two games.

Utica is one of the few teams that Carter Verhaeghe hasn’t found much success against this season. He’s yet to find the scoresheet in the two games so far this season, which makes them the only opponent he has yet to record a point against this season. That may end tonight as the forward is riding a four-game, five-point (2 goals, 3 assists) scoring streak that has vaulted him to the team lead in points with 33.

As for the Crunch players that have enjoyed success against Utica this season, it’s the usual suspects. Cory Conacher has recorded five points (2 goals, 3 assists), Alex Barre-Boulet has 3 points (1 goal, 2 assists) and Andy Andreoff has 2 points (1 goal, 1 assist). Perhaps seeing the green and blue of the Comets will be just what Conacher and Andreoff need to get back into the scoring column. Conacher is goalless in eight games, while Andreoff only has one point, an assist, in his last six.

Their offensive slump has also led to Coach Groulx rotating out the third member of their line over the last few games. Pretty much every left-winger has had multiple shifts with Conacher and Andreoff. Last game it was Troy Bourke who was rotated in, replacing Boris Katchouk, who replaced Alex Volkov, who replaced Dennis Yan, who had replaced Volkov earlier in the season. Getting that line going at even strength would make the Crunch even tougher to beat than they are right now, but it speaks to their depth that two of their veterans can be struggling offensively yet the team overall doesn’t miss a beat.

Previous Games:

The Crunch rebounded from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Binghamton Devils 6-3. Cal Foote had two goals, while Dominik Masin recorded his first of the season as the defense led the way in scoring. Pasquale stopped 30 of 33 shots to win his ninth game of the season for the Crunch.

Utica lost to those very same Devils on Thursday night, 1-0. A third period goal from Binghamton defenseman John Ramage was the only puck to get past Thatcher Demko, who made 17 saves (and picked up a slashing penalty) in the loss. His record on the season sits at 6-5-1.

Possible lines for the Crunch

Forwards

Boris Katchouk - Andy Andreoff - Cory Conacher

Carter Verhaeghe - Gabriel Dumont - Taylor Raddysh

Alex Volkov - Ross Colton - Dennis Yan

Troy Bourke - Otto Somppi - Alex Barre-Boulet

Defensemen

Dominik Masin - Cameron Gaunce

Nolan Valleau - Cal Foote

Hubert Labrie - Ben Thomas

Goaltender

Eddie Pasquale

Again, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bourke and Katchouk flipped or some other combination as Coach Groulx looks to get the Andreoff line going. As for the defense, Coach Groulx has been mixing up the combinations during the game, usually in the second period, but keeps returning to the usual pairings. That being said, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Matt Spencer rotate in for Valleau at some point this weekend.