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Crunch Corner: Syracuse’s winning streak comes to an end

But their points streak keeps rolling on!

Scott Thomas Photography

After a weekend in Cleveland the Syracuse Crunch kept their point streak alive as they took three out of a possible four points from the Monsters. Eddie Pasquale returned to get some work, and work is what he got as he faced 76 shots in 24 hours before jetting back down to Tampa on Sunday.

The Crunch took on a Cleveland team that features a lot of NHL-caliber talent, including captain Nathan Gerbe who has almost 400 games of NHL experience and who controlled play for most of the weekend.

All in all, not a bad showing for such a young Syracuse team.

Standings

Due to the significant difference in games played, the standings are sorted by winning percentage, which puts the Crunch just ahead of the Amerks despite trailing them by two points.

Coming and Going

On Monday the Lightning/Crunch reassigned Mitch Hults to Orlando. Such is life for an AHL forward on a team stacked with a lot of talented players up front. One day you’re a healthy scratch, the next day you’re centering Cory Conacher and Andy Andreoff. then two days later you’re catching the 7:20 A.M. flight to sunny Florida.

It’s the second time this season Hults has been reallocated to Orlando, and it most likely won’t be the last. In the eight games he played during his most recent time he picked up four points (1 goal and 3 assists) while spending most of the time centering a bottom six pairing and killing penalties. It’s not that he was playing bad, he just wasn’t producing as much as some of the younger forwards that need playing time.

He’s a versatile forward and will most likely be on the shuttle back and forth between Syracuse and Orlando for the rest of the season as injuries and call ups dictate.

The Lightning also switched up the goaltenders that get to sit on the bench and wear a baseball cap during games. Eddie Pasquale was sent back to the Crunch and Connor Ingram was recalled to Tampa. As far as game play, the change wasn’t anticipated to affect Syracuse that much. While Ingram was playing well before the recall, so was Pasquale before he was called up. Spending time stopping NHL players from scoring, even in practice, can only make you better, something both goalies have now benefited from.

Injuries

We were really hoping that this space would be blank this week. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

First, Gabriel Dumont missed both games over the weekend with an upper body injury that he apparently suffered in Saturday’s game against Springfield. He’s listed as day-to-day, but that is a big loss for the Crunch as their number one center and their captain is once again on the shelf.

His penalty killing partner, Michael Bournival, also suffered an injury on Friday when he fell awkwardly in overtime. Lukas Favale mentioned that he was favoring his right arm following the play. He was scratched in Saturday’s game as the Crunch went with an 11-forward/7-defensemen line-up.

While it sounds like Kevin Lynch will be out until January as he deals with another injury suffered during his rehab, Mitchell Stephens and Otto Somppi are inching closer to returning and could be back in the next week or so.

Let’s end on some good news. Left winger Olivier Archambault, who went from PTO to a pro contract last season, returned to action on Friday. The winger missed the team’s first seventeen games due recovery from a shoulder injury he suffered in the playoffs against Toronto last season. The 25-year-old had 10 goals and 8 assists in 29 games last year for the Crunch. He played in both games over the weekend.

The Games

Friday, November 30th at Cleveland Monsters: 4-3 Overtime Loss (Box Score) (Highlights)

The story going into Friday’s game was Eddie Pasquale. How would the veteran netminder perform following a 16-day layoff between games? The answer: Pretty well. He made 34 saves in an overtime loss.

The action started early as Carter Verhaeghe opened the scoring five minutes into the game. He came into the offensive zone, stopped on a dime and cut across the middle of the ice. He ripped a backhand past goaltender J.F. Berube, giving the Crunch the early lead.

Pasquale was strong as he faced a small barrage of shots early, but was his usual calm self, limiting rebounds and absorbing the puck with ease. Despite his solid play, Cleveland did tally the next two goals, although it’s hard to blame Pasquale for either.

Paul Bittner recorded the first Monsters goal. The initial shot was deflected by Zac Dalpe in front of the goaltender. The puck hit the post and squirted back through the crease, and Pasquale wasn’t able to cover it up. Bittner fired the puck past him for the goal.

Three minutes later Nathan Gerbe streaked down to Pasquale’s right and circled back. Cal Foote lost his edge while defending Gerbe, giving the veteran a little more room to move in and take a shot. Pasquale made the stop but the puck trickled to his left. Alex Barre-Boulet lost the stick battle to Kevin Stenlund and the Cleveland forward popped the puck into the net.

Cleveland dictated most of the play in the second half, piling up a 16-10 shot advantage, but they made the mistake of taking a penalty as Kole Sherwood was sent off for boarding. It didn’t take long for the Crunch to capitalize as Andy Andreoff collected his 10th goal of the season.

Cory Conacher worked the puck down low to Barre-Boulet who moved it quickly to Verhaeghe for a one-timer. Andreoff was in front of the net and batted the rebound home to tie the game.

After a fun first period, things slowed down a bit in the second. Cleveland outshot the Crunch 9 to 4, but it was Syracuse scoring the lone goal as Alex Barre-Boulet converted a cross-ice saucer pass from Andreoff on the power play three minutes into the period.

Pasquale turned aside all nine shots that he faced including a spectacular pad save on Bittner in the closing minutes of the frame. Barre-Boulet failed to clear the puck at the Crunch blueline and he, along with his teammates, were caught out of position as the puck came to Bittner between the circles. He tried to beat Pasquale on the stick side, but the goalie flashed out the right pad to knock the puck aside.

The third period was played at a much higher pace. The teams combined for 19 shots as the goalies traded nifty saves throughout the period. Unfortunately for Syracuse, the Monsters were able to get one past Pasquale.

Midway through the period, with the teams skating four a piece, Sonny Milano had his own shot rebound to him. He fed the puck over to Adam Glendenning and the defenseman ripped a booming slapshot past Pasquale.

Neither team was able to dent the net for the rest of regulation. Pasquale made a big kick save on Justin Scott at the buzzer to earn the point for the Crunch. For just the second time this season Syracuse headed to overtime.

The Crunch had the first chance in the bonus session as Verhaeghe saw his shot from between the circles snatched out of the air by Berube. Andreoff saw his attempt blockered away about a minute later.

Midway through overtime, the Crunch had possession in the Monsters zone when things went sideways. A shot from Verhagehe was blocked in front of the net. As the puck trickeld to the left of Berube, Bournival engaged with Kole Sherwood to fight for the puck. They became entangled and as Sherwood twisted away, Bournival’s arm was caught up and jerked awkwardly. He fell to the ice in pain as Cleveland roared up the ice on a 3-on-2. Sherwood fed it to Dalpe and his shot hit the crossbar.

The puck came right to Sherwood and he roofed it over Pasquale who was lying defenseless on the ice having dove out to try and block the initial shot. Cleveland picked up the extra point and the Crunch lost an important forward.

Saturday December 1st at Cleveland Monsters: 5-3 Victory (Box Score) (Highlights)

It was a super quick turnaround for the two teams as they were back on the ice at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday. Eddie Pasquale returned to the net for the Crunch while Mister Mxyzptlk Matiss Kivlenieks got the start for the Monsters. If you thought the teams would be a little sluggish following the short rest between games, you would be wrong. They combined for another entertaining first period that featured five goals.

With Bournival scratched following the upper body injury he suffered on Friday night and Dumont also out, the Crunch found themselves a little short-handed in the forward department, so Coach Groulx opted to go with an 11/7 deployment. Rookie Oleg Sosunov found himself back in the line-up for the first time since October 27th.

Under two minutes into the game, the Crunch started the scoring binge as Dennis Yan rushed down the ice on a two-on-one. The Russian forward opted to pull the trigger and his shot pinged off the iron and into the net for the goal.

Milano quickly answered, scoring his fifth goal of the season twenty-nine seconds after Yan’s goal. Cleveland generated a lot of the action for the next few minutes of the game, and found themselves on a prolonged 5-on-3 after Ross Colton was sent off the ice for roughing and a minute later Alex Volkov lifted a puck into the stands for a delay of game penalty.

In what could have been an early turning point of the game, Cleveland just couldn’t get it together with the two-man advantage. Passes were bouncing all over the place and they couldn’t settle the puck down. The few shots they took on net went wide or were blocked and the Crunch killed off both penalties.

Despite being outshot for most of the period, the Crunch regained the lead as Taylor Raddysh took a feed from Archambault and jammed it at Kivlenieks. It appeared the Latvian goaltender had made the save, but the puck slowly trickled past him, coming to rest just inches beyond the goal line.

Two minutes later the Crunch extended their lead as Yan capped off a nifty passing play between him, Alex Barre-Boulet and Carter Verhaeghe. Yan must have been happy to see the calendar change to December as the two goals he scored on Saturday doubled the amount he had in all of November.

That was all for Kivlenieks as he got the hook and was replaced in net by Berube. The Monsters played a little better following the goalie switch and trimmed the lead to one when Doyle Somerby snuck a rebound past Pasquale to make the game 3-2.

Boris Katchouk, who also struggled a bit with offense in November, extended the lead back out to two goals as he tallied the Crunch’s league-leading sixth shorthanded goal three minutes into the second period. There wasn’t anything fancy about the goal as Katchouk skated down the left side of the ice and ripped a shot over Berube’s glove.

On a day when the Crunch would see their streak of eight games with a power play goal snapped, it was the short-handed unit that provided the spark to victory, first killing off the five-on-three and then scoring short handed. The Crunch did have back-to-back power plays at the end of the second period, but the units failed to convert as they struggled to get set up in the offensive zone. On the one opportunity that they did, Berube made a big save on Raddysh’s snapshot from between the circles.

Following the goal, Cleveland ramped up the pressure for most of the rest of the period, but the Crunch defense, while bending, didn’t break. The Monster’s best chance came with about 11 minutes to go in the period when Mark Letestu was robbed by Pasquale as the veteran netminder flashed out his right pad to deny a goal.

With a two-goal lead in the third period the Crunch sat back a little too much and let Cleveland control most of the play. They were also a little sloppy in their own zone as Ben Thomas turned over the puck which led to a shot that Pasquale had to blocker away. A minute later it was Hubert Labrie gifting the puck to a Cleveland forward, but the resulting opportunity was also squelched by the Syracuse goaltender.

The Crunch did muster a few offensive chances, their best being a cross-ice pass from Brady Brassart to Volkov that Berube stuffed, but it was mostly Cleveland in the first half of the period. It finally paid off when Pasquale tried to punch a save out through the slot with his blocker. Unfortunately Vitaly Abramov corralled the puck amidst a sea of Crunch players and put the rebound in the back of the net.

The goal did seem to remind the Crunch that the contest wasn’t over and they picked up the offense a bit more, compiling six shots on net over the last ten minutes. The shot total included the game icing, empty-net goal by Cory Conacher.

It was definitely a great effort by Conacher to not only block the entry at the Crunch blueline and then take off like a rocket with the puck, but also to finish off the play after having his feet hooked out from under him by an ugly trip by Milano. With the goal, Conacher extended his points streak to 11 games.

Pasquale finished with 35 saves on the night as the Crunch leaped to the top of the North Division (based on winning percentage) by taking three of four points on the road in Cleveland.

Thoughts on the Games

What to do with Nolan Valleau

The Crunch may be able to delay their decision on what to do with Nolan Valleau a little longer as the injury to Anton Stralman continues to linger, which means Erik Cernak will remain in Tampa for the foreseeable future. However, at some point they’re going to have to decide what to do with the Michigan-born defenseman.

He is currently 12 games into his 25-game PTO contract that the Crunch signed him to earlier this season. In those games he’s put up 4 assists while providing exactly what the Crunch needed - a puck-moving blueliner. Syracuse really doesn’t have another defender like him on the roster. Gaunce, Foote and Masin are perfectly capable of skating through the neutral zone, but Valleau is definitely the most skilled at transitioning.

Not only is that valuable on getting set up on the power play, it also helps get the team out of trouble at even-strength. He is able to get the puck out of danger by himself, freeing up his teammates to either change lines or transition to attack mode.

His PTO would expire during the first week in January (assuming he isn’t scratched or injured), so there is still time left before the decision has to be made. The Crunch can either sign him to a contract, sign him to another PTO if he doesn’t have any other offers from other AHL teams that he wants to take, or let him go back to Orlando.

He has earned the playing time he’s getting in Syracuse, having jumped over Hubert Labrie and Oleg Sosunov on the depth chart. If they are able to keep him around, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Crunch loan Sosunov to Orlando so he can get some regular shifts and keep Valleau around even when/if Cernak returns.

The Penalty Kill

Since it was last mentioned in this space two weeks ago, the penalty kill has improved drastically. It’s currently 11th in the league at 83.2% having gone 14-for-14 over the last three games. The Crunch have also scored two short-handed goals over that time frame to boost their league-leading total to six.

Why has it been so good lately? Well, the addition of Dumont and Bournival has helped, but the team has maintained its structure while still pressuring the puck even when those two are out of the line-up.

No matter what combination of forwards is on the ice short-handed they have worked well as a unit to prevent high danger chances from the opposition. Most noticeably they have made it extremely difficult for other other teams to complete cross-ice passes close to the front of the net. Opponents have to work the puck around the perimeter to get a shot on goal and often it’s from the side boards or the point.

The Crunch, especially Dumont and Conacher, are very good at harassing the puck carrier at the blueline, which causes a lot of turnovers and easy clears. Syracuse’s speed up front also leads to quick transitions in the neutral zone and several times during this latest run it’s forced the other team to take a penalty, negating their advantage.

Players of the Week

Eddie Pasquale: 2 Game, 1 Win, 1 OT Loss, .885 SV %, 3.41 GAA

Taken as a whole, those numbers don’t look great, but in context Pasquale had a really good weekend. He played over 123 minutes in less than 24 hours and faced 76 shots. In the second game, the Crunch were without two of their better defensive forwards and still they won the game. Of the seven goals he ceded, there may have only been one that he should have stopped (the Clendenning goal on Friday). He made several big saves when the games were close and literally stole a point on Friday when he kicked aside a shot at the last second.

Cameron Gaunce: 2 Games, 0 Goals, 2 Assists

Gaunce had both of his assists on Saturday, his fourth multipoint game of the season. He also logged a tremendous amount of ice time over the weekend as he continues to be the most reliable defenseman on the team. He’s been a stalwart on the penalty kill as well as at even strength. Gaunce is never going to wow anyone with a big hit or by speeding down the ice with the puck. He is just a solid defenseman who seemingly makes all of the right plays.

Upcoming Schedule

Another short week for the Crunch as they return home for two division games:

Friday, December 7th vs Binghamton Devils, 7:00pm

Saturday, December 8th vs. Rochester Americans, 7:00pm