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Crunch Corner: Scoring goals is hard

An offensive outage costs the Crunch a perfect week

Courtesy of Scott Thomas Photography
Scott Thomas

It was an interesting week as the Syracuse Crunch continued their five-game road trip that started in Utica and then headed down to Charlotte for two games over the weekend. They scored on their first two shots of the week and then went a long time-a very long time-before finding the back of the net again.

Despite that drought, they did pick up four out of six possible points and kept their nose in the battle for second place in the North. Which, to be honest, is the best anyone is going to do in that division (the Toronto Marlies look destined to runaway with first place).

Despite going more than seven periods without scoring, the Crunch weren’t playing badly. They just ran into a little bit of bad luck (at least four shots struck iron), some solid goaltending, and those little bounces that go against a team that is struggling to score.

The good news is that the defense and goaltending played very, very well. Eddie Pasquele and Connor Ingram combined to stop 77 out of 81 shots for a ridiculous .951 save percentage. That includes two games against the Charlotte Checkers, one of the better scoring teams in the league. They also went 6 for 6 on the penalty kill, which is remarkable because they only had to kill six penalties in three games.

Anthony Cirelli returned to action after being shaken up in last week’s game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Fellow forward Kevin Lynch, also knocked out of that game, did not return this past week and was replaced by a combination of Shane Conacher and Alex Gallant over the weekend.

Standings

Wednesday 2/14/18 Syracuse 3, Utica 2 (SO)

Highlights

Eddie Pasquale got the start as coach Benoit Groulx continued to ride the hot hand. The veteran had to make a quick stop early in the game as Dylan Blujus fired a big slapshot from just inside blueline. A minute later, Matt Bodie stepped up to keep the puck in the Utica zone. He passed the puck to Carter Verhaeghe who was wide open at the near circle and he wristed the puck past Thatcher Demko. The Crunch had the lead against their rivals less than two minutes into the game.

A short time later, Dominik Masin doubled the Crunch’s shot total and lead as he capped off a nice tic-tac-toe play with Mitchell Stephens and Mathieu Joseph by wristing a shot past Demko. Early on, the Crunch were driving the play and up two goals against a team riding a 12-game point streak. Granted, they had been up 2-0 to the Comets before and lost, but they were hoping deja vu wouldn’t be paying them a visit at Adirondack Center this time.

The Crunch have the 25th-ranked power play in the league, and halfway through the period they got a chance to improve that number. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Not only did they not score, Pasquale had to be sharp to stop a couple of short-handed opportunities by the Comets. After the penalty the Crunch netminder stopped Alexis D’Aoust after the Utica forward worked his way in front of the net with the puck.

Despite being down two goals, the home team pressed the play after killing off the penalty, slowly racking up the shot count. After Pasquale covered the puck to slow the momentum, former Lightning draft pick Cam Darcy tried to get a little extra action going by getting into a shoving match with Olivier Archambault. More was to come from Darcy.

Syracuse went seven minutes between shots with most of the action taking place in their zone. Utica was plainly outworking them with a strong forecheck and beating them to loose pucks. Lucky for visitors, their veteran goaltender was up to the task, stopping all thirteen shots he faced. The Crunch went into the first intermission up two goals but down a man as Michael Bournival took a slashing penalty with thirteen seconds left.

The clean sheet of ice did not benefit the home team as they failed to score on the power play. Pepped up by the successful penalty kill, the Crunch found their offensive legs again with Demko having to make nice saves on Carter Verhaeghe and Dennis Yan.

Then things started to get physical.

Ben Thomas and Cole Cassels started things off. After deciding hitting each other with crosschecks wasn’t enough, they dropped the gloves and had a quick skirmish with Cassels winning on points by landing a quick succession of right hands.

Just over a minute later Utica’s Andrew Cherniwchan high-sticked a member of the Crunch. Erik Cernak didn’t care for that and went after Cherniwchan. Darcy didn’t care for Cernak not caring and got involved. Then Reid McNeill didn’t care for Darcy not caring for Cernak not caring and wrestled around with Darcy for a few seconds. Darcy and McNeill ended up with matching roughing minors and the Crunch were back on the power play. As you would guess...they did not score.

They also didn’t score on their next power play, which started seconds after the last one ended. Although they did get a good chance as Mathieu Joseph took a cross-ice pass and one-timed a shot off of Demko’s pads. Utica’s Wacey Hamilton had a breakaway as he capitalized on a turnover, but the fear of being stopped by Pasquale forced him to shoot the puck wide.

Olivier Archambault appeared to have another goal for the Crunch as he whipped a shot from just inside the far circle. However Demko snuck over and snagged it out of the air with his glove. As happens so often, a nice save at one end leads to a goal at the other. David Dziurzynski popped home a rebound after Pasquale made a save on Adam Comrie. The lead was halved and Utica started to press the action.

Dziurzynski, all hopped up on his goal-scoring adrenaline, decided he wanted to start some rough stuff with Reid McNeill, who wasn’t all that interested. After the Comet forced the issue by landing a few shots to the ribs, McNeill tackled him to the ground and the refs broke it up. Both were sent off for fighting even though it wasn’t much of a brawl.

The brawl would come 30 seconds later after Andrew Cherniwchan drilled Cernak into the boards. That led several players to pair off after an initial scrum with Joseph LaBate and Erik Condra trading punches as well as Darcy and Archambault showing their distaste for each other. There were a lot of penalties…

After all that mess, the Crunch ended up with a power play. They did not score. They did get into another fight as Masin and Michael Chaput got into a contest to see who could pull the other’s jersey off first. Masin won, but both players picked up five-minute majors.

The period ended without anymore fireworks, although there weren’t too many checks that weren’t finished on the ice. The Crunch did finish the period a man short after Bodie tripped up a Comet with thirty seconds left. Pasquale had to make a sprawling save to preserve the one-goal lead.

The Crunch killed off the penalty (Yeah!) but gave up a goal just as it expired (Boo!) Patrick Wiercioch let a shot go from just inside the hash marks and popped the back of the net hard enough to send the water bottle flying up into the air. Just like that, the Crunch had blown another two-goal lead to the Comets.

With the score now tied, the teams traded chances back and forth throughout the third period. After the truculent second period, both teams behaved themselves in the third as not a single penalty was called. There was a lot of play along the boards as both teams seemed to play safe throughout the period. A lot of shots were blocked and deflected into the stands leading to a lot of stoppages throughout the period.

Pasquale had to make a nice save with just under seven minutes left as he drifted to his left, but the puck was deflected to his right in front of the net. He was able to make the adjustment and squeeze the puck against his body to preserve the tie.

On the other end of the ice, the Crunch had trouble stringing passes together and most of the offensive rushes ended in brief attacks that were quickly repelled out of the zone. Volkov had the best chance as he breezed into the Comets zone and tried to beat Demko with a backhander. Following one final save on Cirelli, the whistle mercifully sounded without either team scoring and it was off to overtime.

Thatcher Demko had himself an overtime as he stopped seven shots from the Crunch, including a breakaway against Mitchell Stephens and then Joseph on back-to-back attempts. His seven stops didn’t include any against Volkov, although the Russian rookie had two solid chances after making some nifty moves in the zone.

Thanks to Demko’s solid play, the game went to the shootout, which took seven rounds to be decided. Jamie McBain finally put an end to it by beating Demko and earning the Crunch an important second point.

Saturday 2/17/18 Syracuse 0, Charlotte 2

Highlights

It was Pink in the Rink night for the Charlotte Checkers. They sported special pink jerseys, and the ice was dyed pink, as well. The big challenge for the Crunch would be to find a way to score on a Charlotte team that had allowed a total of four goals in their four previous games.

Spoiler: They didn’t.

The team traded opportunities back and forth throughout the first period. Once again Eddie Pasquale was in net for the Crunch as Coach Groux continued to give rookie Connor Ingram a bit of a breather. Pasquale was opposed by Alex Nedeljkovic, who had posted shutouts in two of his previous three starts.

The Checkers got the scoring started in the second period. Former NHLer Marcus Kruger fed Trevor Carrick a pass that he was able to handle and beat Pasquale with a shot. It would prove to be the only goal Nedeljkovic needed, but that didn’t stop the Crunch from trying.

After the goal, the Crunch started to dictate play a bit. Well, at least they had the puck more than the Checkers did. Unfortunately they weren’t able to translate possession into shots. Charlotte did an excellent job of breaking up passes and knocking down shots before they could get to the goaltender. In the end, Syracuse was held to only six shots in the middle frame.

Granted, that was one more than they had in the first.

The Crunch did manage to avoid a penalty as the time on the clock dwindled down. Dominik Masin was trying to control the puck just inside his own blueline when Checkers forward Aleksi Saarela picked his pocket. The two players were tangled up and Masin took out Saarela (who had a clear path to the net) but the single ref on the ice neglected to blow his whistle.

The third started off a little better for the Crunch as Anthony Cirelli took the opening faceoff and skated down the ice. He tried to drop the puck back, but the goalie was able to break up the pass. On the ensuing face-off, Mitchell Stephens fired one just wide of the far post.

Carter Verhage drew a tripping penalty two minutes into the period, and despite a couple of chances by Mitchell Stephens and Michael Bournival the Crunch were unable to solve the Checkers’ defense. The Lightning should make a call to whoever directs Charlotte’s defense. Their positioning was sound and they made it very difficult for the talented young forwards on the Syracuse side to string more than one or two passes together all weekend long.

There was a brief moment of excitement with just over eight minutes left as the Checkers weaved their way into the Crunch zone and Janne Kuokkanen beat Pasquale with a wrist shot. Luckily for the Crunch, the post got in the way of the puck and then rebounded out to the side boards where Matthew Joseph raced it up the ice. Despite fumbling the puck slightly he was able to unleash a nice shot on goal that was knocked down by Alex Nedeljkovic.

The Crunch continued to pressure the Checkers netminder but he was up to the challenge, his best save coming off a screened shot from Dennis Yan that forced him to snap out his right pad at the last minute. Pasquale showed off his own pad skills by flashing out his left pad on a point-blank shot from Clark Bishop to keep the deficit at one.

With two minutes to go Benoit Groulx pulled Pasquale for the extra attacker. For a minute, the plan seemed to be working, but Jake Chelios (yes, he’s the brother of Lightning reporter Caley Chelios) eventually managed to fling the puck 200 feet down the ice and into the empty net. A few turns of the clock later the game was over and the Crunch were shut out for the first time this season.

Sunday 2/18/18 Syracuse 3, Charlotte 1

Highlights

No time to dwell on their sudden inability to score. The Crunch and the Checkers were right back at it Sunday afternoon for the second game of their weekend match-up and the third out of their four meetings on the season.

Callum Booth was making his first start in the AHL in net for the Checkers, while Connor Ingram found himself back in the net for the first time in a week.

The physical action started early as Jonne Tammela was knocked on his keister by Josiah Didier. The Charlotte defenseman only had a few minutes to celebrate his nice hit as on the following face-off, Alex Gallant challenged him to a round of fisticuffs. It turned out not be a wise move for Didier to accept as Gallant dropped him, not once but twice, with huge right hands that Danny Garcia would have been proud of. Gallant, who was inserted into the line-up in place of Shane Conacher, had a short night as he was sent to the locker room along with Didier as they both collected game misconducts.

It was a short work day for Gallant, but an interesting one.

On the ensuing faceoff Ingram made a nice stop on a two-on-one, sprawling into a Dan Girardi-esque snow angel to keep the puck out of the net. Ingram showed no rust from his long layoff as he made two quick stops on Warren Foegele - the first on a deflection and the second on a rebound.

With eleven minutes to go in the period Tammela tripped up a Checker after he lost the puck in the neutral zone. With a combination of timely shot-blocking and hard work, the Crunch killed the penalty without allowing a shot on net. With both teams at full strength, Syracuse finally found a little daylight in the offensive zone and Ben Thomas fired a clean shot on net from just above the circles. Booth was in position to take the puck off the chest protector and knock it out of harm’s way.

Shortly after that, Mathieu Joseph wrestled the puck away from Trevor Carrick at the Checker blue line and dashed in on net. He was a hair late in releasing his shot and Carrick was able to deflect the puck out of the danger zone. Jamie McBain made a nice move and had Booth sprawled on the ice, but was denied by the post from a sharp angle. Olivier Archambault and Alex Volkov worked a nice give and go that resulted in the Russian tipping the puck just wide of a wide open net as the Crunch continued to be denied a goal.

Despite some solid pressure from the Crunch during the final five minutes, there was nothing but zeros across the scoreboard as the whistle sounded on the end of the period. Ingram stopped all four shots that made it to him and Booth stopped his seven chances.

Perhaps lulled into a sense of security by his relatively inactive first period, Ingram wasn’t as sharp to start the second. Brandon Kitchen wristed a shot past him from the right circle just over a minute into the period and the Checkers had another seemingly impossible-to-overcome 1-0 lead.

The Crunch went on on the power play shortly after the Charlotte goal. After failing to convert with a traditional set-up they went with five forwards for the second half of the man advantage and it almost worked. A nifty passing play led to Carter Verhaeghe launching a shot that beat Booth’s glove but caught the iron and bounced away harmlessly.

Ingram, who had faced only one shot through the first seven minutes of the period had to make a fantastic save on the Checkers’ second shot of the middle frame. Former NHLer Marcus Kruger worked his way in front of the net, faked to his backhand and then tried to drag it back to his forehand. Ingram kept his right pad on the ice and denied the attempt.

The Crunch rewarded his effort by taking a penalty. Despite being down a man, a relentless forecheck by Mitchell Stephens generated a good chance for the visitors. He stole a drop pass and wristed a backhand on net that Booth got just enough of to send it trickling wide of the post. Mathieu Joseph tried to better his fellow rookie just seconds later as he stole the puck at the blueline but his shot drifted wide on the stick side.

Remember that fantastic save mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago by Ingram? Well he decided to raise the technical difficulty by just a smidge. A cross ice pass drew Ingram to the far post. The Checker forward tapped it back to the middle of the ice where Kruger drifted into an open area and had a wide open net to put the puck into. The only thing in his way was Ingram’s stick and the Crunch goalie wielded it wisely, knocking the puck out of the air keeping the game 1-0.

The Crunch had a chance with less than a minute to go. Archambault raced to get a puck behind the Checkers net. He circled behind a threw a pass to an open Cirelli, the puck bounced up and Cirelli tried to shoulder it into the net but Booth blocked it. He then watched as Condra flicked the rebound wide of the net. For the second game in a row the Crunch found themselves heading into the final frame of the game down 1-0.

Bournival tried to get them on the board with a turnaround shot between the circles but it was kicked out by Booth. Then, a few moments later, the Crunch finally remembered how to score. It started as an innocent play, as streak-breaking goals are wont to do, with Volkov lugging it into the offensive zone. Michael Bournival picked up the puck at the half-boards and spied an open Dominik Masin in front of the net. The pass was on target and the defenseman shuffled a backhand on goal where it was deflected past Booth.

After going almost 168 minutes (167:49) without scoring, the Crunch decided that they really liked the feeling. Seven minutes later, Carter Verhaeghe skated to the left circle, shot the puck back across his body and past Booth to give Syracuse their first lead in Charlotte all weekend long.

Just 24 seconds later, Erik Condra snapped a goalless drought that dated back to early January. The captain, Archambault and Daniel Walcott broke in three-on-one on Caley Chelios’ brother, Jake. Condra’s first shot was stopped, but he was able to tuck his second attempt between Booth and the post to double the lead.

The Crunch held on for their 30th win of the season and moved into a virtual tie with Utica and Rochester for second place in the North Division. Ingram finished with twenty saves in a nice bounceback start.

Frequent Flyer Miles

With the undisclosed injury to Kevin Lynch affecting his ability to play, the Crunch recalled Shane Conacher from Adirondack in the ECHL. For Conacher the Younger, it was the fifth time this season he has been recalled to Syracuse. Unlike several previous recalls, he actually managed to get into a game. He skated on the wing in Saturday’s contest against the Checkers and recorded no shots or points during his time on the ice.

It was his eighth game of the season for the Crunch. While he might not be making much of a mark in the AHL (no points in those games), whatever he is learning in practice he is putting to use in the ECHL as he has a career-high 41 points (11 goals, 30 assists) for the Thunder. He will most likely stay in the club until either Lynch returns or one of the call-ups (Adam Erne or Matt Peca) is returned from the Lightning. Hopefully he gets a few more games under his belt.

Sometimes a break is needed

Connor Ingram had been playing so well as of late, that it would be easy to forget that this is his first year in professional hockey. As a 20-year-old he was destined to go through funks where he struggled a bit. There are two ways to deal with that: keep throwing him out there and hope he snaps out of it or let him sit on the bench for a few games and give him a breather.

Coach Groulx opted for the latter and it seems to have paid off. After getting pulled against Hartford, a game in which he allowed three goals on twelve shots, Ingram didn’t see any action for the next nine days, a span of four games. It had to be tough for the youngster who was all but anointed the starter once Louis Domingue was recalled to Tampa.

Given the chance to start against Charlotte on Sunday, the rookie looked sharp, making two ten-bell saves in the second period against a very good offensive team. Even more important, he looked very solid on routine shots and did a good job of controlling his rebounds and limiting second opportunities.

It will be interesting to see how Coach Groulx manages his time down the stretch (especially if Domingue is sent back down) as it’s going to be a tough road to a playoff spot in a very competitive North Division. As much as you would like to see the rookie gain more experience, the Crunch can’t afford to give away any games. He might have a very short leash if he struggles again.

Upcoming Games:

Wednesday 2/21/18 - Syracuse at Rochester 7:05pm

Friday 2/23/19 - Lehigh Valley at Syracuse 7:00pm

Saturday 2/24/18 - Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at Syracuse 7:00pm