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Crunch Corner: The Syracuse Crunch are moving up in the standings despite trade deadline uncertainty

The Crunch played three games and won all of them. They are now in second place in the division.

Used with permission of Scott Thomas Photography

The jumbled nature of the AHL schedule seems to lead to streaks. With a ton of back-to-back games each weekend, if a team is going well, that tends to carry over. If they’re struggling, that also seems to continue. Luckily for the Syracuse Crunch and their fans, the team is currently on one of their hot streaks.

Unlike some of their earlier streaks this season, the wins are coming thanks to the defense instead of the offense. The Crunch are 7-4 this month (and are on a 4-game winning streak) but haven’t scored more than three goals in any of those games. They haven’t topped three goals in a game since a 5-2 win against Belleville on January 26th.

To be fair, having two of their top scorers (Matt Peca and Adam Erne) recalled by Tampa for the majority of that time hasn’t helped. Neither has a rough stretch of nagging injuries that have shuffled their line-up around a bit. Oh, and then there is the power play. The so, so, so, so bad power play.

The good news is that the defense and goaltending have stepped up. Utica scored four goals against them on 2/3, and Hartford was credited with four on 2/9. Since then, in their last eight games, they haven’t allowed more than two goals in a game. Eddie Pasquale got them started on the streak and, after the rough two games mentioned above, Connor Ingram has joined the rotation without missing a beat.

It’s not just the goalies that are playing well; the team in front of them has done a great job pressing the play. They’re also not getting pinned into the their own zone, and they’re limiting second chances. Hopefully, the line-up is starting to stabilize a bit and they can keep the defense solid while finding a few more goals.

Standings

The Games

Wednesday, 2/21/18 Syracuse 2, Rochester 1

Box Score

Highlights (audio is off)

Connor Ingram got the start on the final game of the Crunch’s five-game road trip. With a win they would conclude the trip by picking up eight out of ten possible points. Returning to the line-up was Gabriel Dumont, who was picked up off of waivers from Ottawa earlier in the week. Matthew Peca also returned to the Crunch after his stint in Tampa. One player not suiting up, Alex Gallant, was serving the first of his two-game suspension for picking up his fourth game misconduct penalty of the season during Sunday’s game against Charlotte.

Luckily, missing the enforcer didn’t cost the Crunch two points. Mitchell Stephens and Matt Peca scored 10 second apart in the second period and Ingram stopped 19 of 20 shots as Syracuse picked up their 31 win on the season. With the win, Syracuse moved into third place in the crowded North Division.

Friday, 2/23/18 LeHigh Valley 1, Syracuse 2

Box Score

Highlights

Eddie Pasquale was back in net sporting a new number on the Crunch’s new, all-black alternate jersey. With Gabriel Dumont back and claiming his old number 40, Syracuse’s goaltender went with the number 80.

With two of the highest-scoring first period teams and a total of four power plays, the game should get off to a fun start, right? Not so fast. There were some highlights and some close calls, but neither team was able to dent the scoreboard through the first 20 minutes.

Used with permission of Scott Thomas Photography

The Gabriel Dumont/Anthony Cirelli/Mathieu Joseph line had the first great chance of the game after Joseph chipped the puck to himself along the boards, eluded a check and passed the puck to Cirelli, who was all alone in front of the Lehigh Valley netminder. Showing that he would fit right in with the Lightning offense, Cirelli declined taking a shot and opted to pass to Dumont on his left wing. The recently re-acquired forward fired his shot wide of the net.

As high-scoring as the two teams are, they totaled just one shot on goal through the first five minutes. Luckily for the fans and the shot-counters, a string of power plays would soon ensue.

Dominik Masin got the special teams showcase started after he made a nice play to dispossess a Phantom of the puck in the Syracuse zone. Then he himself lost it when Mike Vecchione picked his pocket. Masin then tripped him, preventing a good scoring chance but at a cost of two minutes in the penalty box. The power play was successfully defended without much of a threat from the Phantoms.

The Crunch immediately picked up a power play of their own. As has happened 86% of the time this season, the Crunch failed to score with the extra skater. They also took another penalty shortly after their failed attempt. Pasquale was sharp, making several key saves before the Phantoms took their second penalty of the period. While the Crunch didn’t score, they did manage to at least direct a couple of shots on old friend Dustin Tokarski.

The second period started with a little more action as the Crunch did a good job pressing the action for the first 90 seconds. However, a moment of poor decisions led to a breakaway for Colin McDonald. The veteran forced Pasquale to make a nice blocker save to prevent a goal.

After making a pedestrian seven saves in the first, the Phantoms forced Pasquale to earn his paycheck in the second. The visitors started piling up the shots as the ice tilted in their way for most of the period. Shots were 9-1 in favor of Lehigh Valley halfway through the second and the Crunch’s newest goalie had to make several nice saves including a nifty glove save on the league’s leading scorer, Phil Verrone.

The Crunch did ease the pressure on their goalie a bit as they finally managed to string a few good shifts together. Matt Peca, back in Syracuse for his second round Karaoke Battle matchup, had the two best moments. Unfortunately he was first denied by Tokarski’s right pad and then a minute later by his left pad.

Ben Thomas and Mitchell Stephens created a two-on-one rush with Thomas carrying the puck down the ice. The Crunch defender elected to shoot and his attempt was easily blockered away by the Phantom’s goaltender. A badly-timed boarding penalty by Dennis Yan put an end to the Crunch’s pressure.

Disaster was averted as the Crunch killed the penalty. Time expired on the period with both teams still sporting zeros in the goal columns. Tokarski stopped all 15 shots he faced, while Pasquale added 21 saves to his career totals.

The third period started with a good scoring chance from Stephens. Then it was time to spend a few minutes in the Crunch defensive zone with the Phantoms. Lehigh Valley forechecked hard and kept the puck deep. The Crunch were scrambling a bit and Pasquale once again had to step up and bail them out with a sprawling save.

Cirelli did manage to come close to giving the Crunch the lead. After some aggressive forechecking he forced a bad pass that ended up on Joseph’s stick. He found Cirelli alone in front of the net and the rookie fired a shot that Tokarski managed to squeeze against his body for a whistle.

Jonne Tammela came even closer to breaking the deadlock when he drove in on net and was able to shove the puck at Tokarski. The puck trickled behind the goaltender but Phantoms defender TJ Brennan was able to whisk it out of danger before a Crunch forward could put it home.

Michael Bournival finally solved the Tokarski riddle as he took a drop pass from Erik Condra and whipped it on net. Tokarski was a bit slow to react to the quick shot and had to watch it sail past him and into the net.

Masin found himself back in the penalty box after he took down Danick Martel, who had a step on him. Cirelli and Dumont managed to create a few chances while Pasquale blockered away a couple of chances to preserve the lead. Because one team can’t take a penalty without shortly returning the favor, the Phantoms prevented Peca from a quality chance by hooking him down in front of Tokarski.

In retrospect, the Crunch probably would have preferred that the call have been missed. After a minute or so of uninspired play by Syracuse, the Phantoms Matt Read blocked a shot and scooted away on a breakaway. For the first time all night, Pasquale wasn’t able to save his team and Read scored the shorthanded, game-tying goal. In the last 12 games the Crunch have one power play goal. During that same span they’ve given up two short-handed goals.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

Comfortably back at even-strength, the Crunch generated a few chances. It paid off when Bournival jammed a loose puck past Tokarski. Condra had deflected a shot from the circle onto the goaltender who then had trouble finding the rebound. Bournival found it just inside the red line and he shoveled it home for the lead.

The Phantoms pulled Tokarski with just under 2 minutes to go but weren’t able to generate much danger. Bournival did have a chance for the hat trick as he fired the puck at the empty net from outside of the blue line, but the shot went just wide. A final flurry of activity by the Phantoms was lacking and time expired with the Crunch in the lead.

Saturday, 2/24/18, Wilkes/Barre-Scranton 1, Syracuse 3

Box Score

Highlights

The Crunch did not show any sign of being tired from their game the night before as they generated a couple of early chances. Unfortunately it was the Penguins that scored first. After Garrett Wilson wiped out the Crunch’s defensive corps of Ben Thomas and Matt Bodie with a couple of big hits, Dumont was left alone with the puck and tried to pass it out from a dangerous area in front of the net. It was picked off and Freddie Tiffels beat Connor Ingram over his shoulder for the opening goal.

The Crunch responded with a couple of good shifts with the Erik Condra line sustaining pressure in the offensive line and generating shots toward the Penguins net. Jamie McBain had the best look as he fired a puck to the near post with Anthony Peters leaning the wrong way, unfortunately the shot went wide.

With less than 13 minutes to go and after the teams traded odd-man rushes, the Crunch got their first attempt to fail on the power play. After taking a while (a minute and a half) to get settled in the zone, they came enticingly close to converting. Mitchell Stephens gunned a one-timer that rang off the post and dropped behind Peters. Unfortunately they couldn’t get to the puck before the Penguins could clear it.

The play continued in the Penguins zone as Carter Verhaeghe made a nice move in close and elevated it over Peters, but the puck ran into the crossbar and bounced away harmlessly. Then Erik Cernak launched a shot from the blue line that bounded off of Peters right to Dennis Yan. Yan’s shot was blocked by Peters right to Matt Peca whose shot was smothered by Peters.

Another power play came and went unsuccessfully for the Crunch before Daniel Walcott and Cramarossa treated the fans to a brief fight. A late penalty by Erik Condra brought on the Penguins’ power play unit, one of the few in the league worse than the Crunch. Time expired on a period that the Crunch dominated everywhere except the scoreboard.

The second period started with a clean sheet of ice and the Crunch short-handed, just the way they like it. It didn’t take long for them to work their magic. Michael Bournival knocked down a pass in the defensive zone and passed it to Dumont who serpentined his way up the ice and around Jean-Sebastien Dea, the lone Penguin in his way, he then cut in front of the net, eluded Peters’ poke-check and, with disdain at how easy it was, backhanded it into the net to tie the game.

Ingram had to briefly wake up from his nap a few minutes later as the Penguins were able to make one of their few incursions into the offensive zone. The young netminder was sharp on on a dangerous deflection right in front of his crease. There was a scary moment when former Crunch Greg McKegg skated in alone on Ingram and tried to go behind the net. He lost his edge and slammed into the boards without time to brace himself. He was able to skate off the ice after a few moments and returned to the game.

Another power play came and went for the Crunch. The Penguins had a chance of their own with the man-advantage that was partially successful for them...they didn’t give up a goal this time. While the Penguins did compete a little harder this period, there wasn’t much in the way of sustained pressure as the teams traded a handful of shots throughout the rest of the period.

The Crunch drew a penalty and after a minute of decent zone time but few shots, they took a penalty of their own to even things up. Another solid period for the Crunch ended with four-on-four hockey.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre started the period off with some momentum, and after the four-on-four expired, a brief power play. For the first time all game they managed to direct some shots at the Syracuse net. Ingram stood tall and stopped them all, including a nice save on a wrist shot from Daniel Sprong.

The Penguins had most of the pressure, but it was the Crunch that broke the tie. Daniel Walcott skated the puck up the boards but was rubbed out of the play by Jeff Taylor. The puck squirted free and Alex Volkov streaked down the ice and ripped a backhander over Peters and into the back of the net. It was the sixteenth goal of the season for the Russian rookie and it snapped a personal six-game goalless drought.

Volkov continued his determined play on his next shift and drew a hooking penalty from Cramarossa. The Crunch returned to the power play. A power play that was 1 for its previous 45. Whether the Penguins were gassed or Coach Groulx finally found the right combination, the Crunch were fluid and precise on this opportunity. It ended with Mathieu Joseph circling out to the blue line and snapping a shot on goal. Anthony Cirelli was posted in front and deflected it past Peters for the goal, his 12th on the season. The power play is now a dominating 2 for its last 46.

With the lead, the Crunch focused on keeping the puck out of their own net. They didn’t necessarily go into a shell, as they were aggressive in the neutral zone, but they didn’t press the attack either. It paid off, despite a late 6-on-4 advantage for the Penguins, the visitors were unable to find the back of the net and the Crunch had their fourth straight victory. Ingram stopped 26 out of 27 shots for his 15th win of the season.

The Deadline

While most fans focus on the wheelings and dealings that affect NHL clubs, the trade deadline looms large for AHL clubs as well. For the Crunch it’s not likely that they are going to get much in the way of help from Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman this year. If anything, any moves that he might make, would most likely pull talent away from the Crunch. Cirelli, Stephens, Volkov and Joseph could be players thrown into deals for the final piece of the puzzle that Mr. Yzerman thinks he needs.

Last season, the Crunch were augmented by a couple of deadline deals as Mike McKenna and Byron Froese were brought in to help out a club that ended up going to the Calder Cup finals. This year, the help was brought in a little earlier. Bringing in Eddie Pasquale and Gabriel Dumont are most likely the two biggest names that will be brought in to help. They may get Adam Erne back once Ondrej Palat is back with the Lightning, but other than that there shouldn’t be much more happening.

With such a young team it will be interesting to see how they do down the stretch without veteran reinforcements.

The power play

As mentioned above, the power play is currently 2 for its last 46. That is not good in any league. They have hit a few posts here and there, but even if you add two or three goals, it’s still a struggling unit. The most glaring issue is that they are struggling to enter the zone with control on a consistent basis. They burn a lot of time trying to get in position to take advantage of the extra skater.

Coach Groulx has tried different combinations (even rolling five forwards out for a brief time) but hasn’t found a mix of players that has worked. It sounds like they’re focusing on trying to simplify some of their schemes in order to break out of the funk. During their recent streak, it is their most glaring weakness.

Upcoming Schedule:

Wednesday February 28th at Toronto 11:00am

Friday March 2nd vs. Binghamton 7:00pm

Saturday March 3rd vs. Laval 7:00pm