The big news in Syracuse was Peter Budaj’s conditioning stint. The veteran, who had been out of action since he end of December, was officially assigned earlier in the week so that he could see some game action. With three games in three days the only question was how much action would he see. The answer - two games.
While the overall numbers weren’t great (2.95 GAA, .887 SV%) he did manage to make it through both games without re-injuring himself. He saw some live game action which was the most important part as far as the Lightning were concerned. Following the game on Sunday Budaj was recalled back to Tampa where he will remain on Injured Reserve for the foreseeable future. For the Crunch, they can go back to their regular rotation of Eddie Pasquale and Connor Ingram.
Friday March 9th - Hershey 2, Syracuse 1
All eyes were on Peter Budaj as he made his Crunch debut on Friday. The results were...well...mixed. He only allowed two goals, but he also only faced 18 shots as the players in front of him went out of their way to block shots and make his return a bit easier.
After the game, the veteran goaltender admitted to the press that his timing was a little off. That’s to be expected after not seeing live game action in almost three-and-a-half months. Timing might have been a factor in both goals that he allowed. The first, by Rochester’s Tyler Graovac, came off of a rebound that Budaj wasn’t able to control. Stopping shots is one thing, having the timing down to deflect the shot out of danger or being able to put yourself in a position to stop the rebound attempt takes fine tuning that can only come through game action. Granted it was made tougher since the initial shot was deflected, but those are exactly the types of plays that are almost impossible to work on in practice.
The second came on a two-on-one and it looked like he might have had time to position himself on the shot from Aaron Ness, but couldn’t quite get there. Would a non-rusty Budaj have made the save? Possibly, but that is almost of secondary importance (at least to the Lightning).
What the Tampa staff is looking for is how his ankle responds to the stops and starts and weird movements that only come out in game action. The good news is that, according to Budaj, the ankle felt fine. He can practice all he wants, but there is always doubt until it’s tested in the game.
In between the Rochester goals, Mathieu Joseph continued his excellent rookie season by scoring his 11th goal of the season by whipping a wrist shot past Pheonix Copley. Matt Bodie and Gabriel Dumont picked up the helpers as Syracuse scored on the power play.
They were able to fire 29 other shots at the Hershey goaltender, but he turned them alside to pick-up the 2-1 win. Sometimes the other goaltender just plays a little better.
Saturday March 10th - Rochester 2, Syracuse 4
The Crunch were right back on the ice to start a home-and-home series with the Rochester Americans. Eddie Pasquale got the start in net and led the Crunch to a 4-2 victory. The win helped the Crunch stretch their lead for second place in the North Division to four points over the third place Amerks.
Mathieu Joseph picked up two more goals in the game while Ben Thomas and Daniel Walcott also found the back of the net. Gabriel Dumont added two assists which ran his points streak to six-games. Captain Erik Condra also had two assists.
If the Crunch struggled for breaks in the game against Hershey, they made up for it against Rochester. Joseph’s first goal was the result of a rebound off of Alex Volkov’s shot. The Russian fired the puck at the net and former Crunch Adam Wilcox stopped it, but the puck bounced off of Joseph and into the net.
After the Amerks tied the game with a power play goal, Ben Thomas put the Crunch back ahead with a slapshot from inside the blue line that eluded everyone including Wilcox. Three minutes later Daniel Walcott put home a feed from Dumont to double the lead.
Rochester would pull within one in the third period but Joseph capped the night with an empty-netter off of a nice pass from Condra. Pasquale stopped 21 of 23 for his 6th win as a member of the Crunch.
Sunday March 11th - Syracuse 4, Rochester 5 (SO)
The Crunch had no time to celebrate their victory as they were right back on the ice for the second half of their home-and-home with Rochester. Peter Budaj was back between the pipes for his second start of the weekend. It makes sense to get him as many starts as possible during his conditioning stint. It was also a good test for his ankle. And test the ankle he did as the Amerks fired 36 shots at him on their way to a 5-4 shootout victory.
While the Crunch couldn’t be happy with the loss, they did show a lot of poise in coming back from two goals down in the third period to tie the game up. It was a back and forth affair all afternoon long. Mathieu Joseph started things off just 15 seconds into the game as he backhanded the puck past Linus Ullmark off of a scrum in front of the net.
Rochester would score the next two goals before Dominik Masin followed his own shot in and tied the game with a rebound goal. Rochester followed the same script as the first period by scoring the next two goals.
Syracuse flipped that script in the third by scoring twice to tie the game up. Both goals came courtesy of Erik Cernak. Not known for his offense the Slovakian defender potted his first goal at the 14:00 minute mark by creeping in from the point. Olivier Archambault found him from behind the net and Cernak fired home the one-timer. His second goal, four minutes later, was off of a broken play. Mitchell Stephens shot was blocked in front of the net and it trickled over to Cernak who wristed the shot at the net and it eluded Ullmark.
Budaj stopped two of the three shots in the overtime but it wasn’t enough as Ullmark stopped all three and the Americans had the extra point and creeped closer to second place.
Gsbriel Dumont has played nine games since rejoining the Crunch at the end of February. After failing to score in his first two games, he hasn’t stopped scoring since. He has 12 points in his last 7 games, filling the void left by Anthony Cirelli’s recall to Tampa.
He has slid into a line with Mathieu Joseph and Carter Verhaeghe and helped keep the offense afloat. With all of the trade deadlines over, this is the roster that the Crunch will attack the playoffs with and it’s not that bad.
While they don’t boost a single 20-goal scorer there are seven players that have at least 10 goals (Dominik Masin and Kevin Lynch have 9). Their offense is balanced and they are starting to find their way on special teams again.
That type of scoring makes it hard for other teams to keep them off of the scoresheet. It also makes for tough match-ups in the playoffs. While Toronto is still the team to beat in the post-season, Syracuse is going to be a tough opponent for whoever they draw. The trick now is to make it to the second season healthy.