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Crunch Corner: Syracuse Battles Through a Perfect Week

Despite a line-up decimated by injuries, the Crunch win all three games

Courtesy of Scott Thomas Photography

Three games. Three wins. Six points. There really can’t be a better week standings-wise than that for the Syracuse Crunch. Not only did they sweep all three teams they played, they also became the second team to clinch a spot in the playoffs. Not a bad week on the ice.

The formula for all three games was similar: build an early lead, survive some bad penalties, and extend the lead for the win. Well, that was the case in two of the three games. Against Springfield, they forgot the “extend the lead” part and coughed up a two-goal lead instead. Still, they won in overtime and that’s all the really matters, right?

Making the winning streak even more impressive was the amount of roster juggling involved, especially on the blueline, to keep it going. By the time the final whistle sounded on Saturday night’s game against Laval, half of the defense was comprised of players that weren’t on the team a week ago.

It was an impressive job by the coaching staff to keep the team focused and competitive despite the missing players. Each game featured a pretty heavy rotation of players in and out of the line-up.

Standings

Wednesday Syracuse 6, Binghamton 2

In: Louis Domingue, Matthew Spencer, and TJ Melancon.

Out: Ben Thomas (suspension), Jamie McBain (injury), and Connor Ingram (healthy scratch).

Wednesday’s match-up against the Binghamton Devils saw the return of Louis Domingue to the net of the Syracuse Crunch. He was temporarily reassigned following Peter Budaj’s conditioning stint. The veteran drew the start and, honestly, had a fairly easy game as the Crunch dispatched the Devils with a dominating effort.

Alexander Volkov, who is becoming one of the more reliable constants in the line-up, started the scoring seven minutes into the game as he recorded his 17th goal of the season. Erik Cernak was allowed to skate in untouched from the blue line to between the circles and he unleashed a shot on Devils netminder and Twitter good guy Eddie Lack. Lack made the initial save at the top of his crease and there was a bit of a scrum around him. Matthew Peca poked the puck between Lack’s pads and Volkov was there to tap it into the net for one of his easiest goals of the year.

The Crunch dominated the game early on, racking up shot after shot on Lack. Their forecheck pinned the Devils back and the few times Binghamton did get out of their zone, the Syracuse defense dispossessed them of the puck in the neutral zone. Midway through the first period the shots were 11-2 in their favor, and the most action Domingue saw was when he drew a goaltender interference penalty on Nick Lappin shortly after Volkov’s goal.

The Crunch’s lack of discipline did give the Devils a small breather when Dominik Masin was caught out of position at center ice and tripped up Michael Latta at center ice. It was a bad penalty not only because the young blueliner was caught wrong-footed, but also because he had support behind him that would have negated any advantage Latta had if he wasn’t hauled down by Masin.

The good news is that there was no damage suffered as the Devils could barely generate any offense thanks to the Crunch aggressively attacking the puck carriers. It might behoove the Lightning to phone up Syracuse and ask for some tips on how to defend a power play, because they were quite efficient all week long.

Following the penalty, Lack made a couple of nice stops on Mathieu Joseph and Gabriel Dumont, but he couldn’t keep the Crunch’s swarming attack off the board much longer. Mitchell Stephens ramped up the forecheck and picked off a weak pass behind the Devils net. He fed the puck to Dennis Yan who put it in the net before Lack knew where the puck was.

A late power play for the Devils made the shot totals an almost respectable 14-7 after the first 20 minutes, but the play was all Syracuse for most of the period.

After the teams traded slashing penalties less than a minute into the first, things looked to get even worse for the Devils when Brian Strait knocked Matthew Peca into Lack and the Binghamton goalie twisted to the ice awkwardly. He remained down for a few minutes before slowly getting back up and remaining in the game.

Seeing their goaltender knocked down and having been thoroughly outplayed in the first must have lit a spark under the Devils as they picked up their play and finally managed to put one behind Domingue. Reid McNeill did a good job of knocking down John Quenneville in front of his net. Unfortunately, McNeill took a long loop around the goal after the hit and in the time it took him to get back in front of the net, Quenneville picked himself up and deflected a shot by Steven Santini past Domingue for the goal.

The Crunch didn’t let that phase them. They held their ground and halfway through the period Dennis Yan took advantage of a hopping puck. Strait tried to keep a bouncing puck in the Crunch zone and had it bounce past him. Yan bounded by him, collected the puck and broke in all alone on Lack and put it just under the bar for the third Syracuse goal of the game.

The bouncing puck almost cost the Crunch a few minutes later as Volkov had the puck hop over his stick in the defensive zone. Kevin Rooney pounced on it and snapped a shot on Domingue who gloved it for his best save of the night to that point.

After Mitchell Stephens drew a boarding penalty, new guy TJ Melancon found himself on the power play unit in place of Erik Cernak, who left the game with an injury. The new blood didn’t help as the power play fizzled. Kevin Lynch didn’t need a man-advantage as he cut in on net and tapped home a pass from Mitchell Stephens after Daniel Walcott was denied a few times.

The Crunch, took another undisciplined penalty late in the period as Daniel Walcott was whistled for a cross-checking penalty at center ice with less than a minute to go. It came back to haunt them as Binghamton pinned them in their zone to start the third period. Bracken Kearns slid the puck across the crease and Quenneville was able to sneak it in the near post before Domingue could recover for his second goal of the game and the Crunch lead was trimmed to 4-2.

That would be the closest the game would get as the Crunch finally capitalized on a power play eight minutes into the third. They may not be scoring many man-advantage goals of late, but the ones they do score sure are pretty. Joseph on the near side whipped it cross ice to Carter Verhaeghe who immediately saucered it back across the ice to Volkov who was sitting alone at the back door. He tucked it over the goal line for the fifth Syracuse goal of the game.

Minutes later they added another goal on the power play, so there are some signs that it’s been brought back to life. Erik Condra zipped a pass to Olivier Archambault, who slammed it home on the back door. That ended the scoring and the Crunch had their 37th victory of the season. More importantly, as Toronto beat Laval, they also clinched a spot in the playoffs. Domingue finished with 28 saves in his return.

Friday - Syracuse 3, Springfield 2 (OT)

In: Ben Thomas, Jonne Tammela, Craig Wyszomirski

Out: Jamie McBain (injury), Reid McNeill (injury), Dennis Yan (injury), Erik Cernak (injury)

For the second straight game, a new member of the Crunch made his debut on the defense. Craig Wyszomirski, who had appeared in 60 games with the Manchester Monarchs in the ECHL, signed a PTO on Friday to help the suddenly thin Syracuse blueline. Domingue was back in net for his second straight start.

With the Crunch having clinched a playoff spot the game before and this being the last road game before a nice stretch at home, it would have been easy for them to dial it back and let this one go against a non-division opponent. However, the opposite occurred as they once again outplayed the other team in the first period.

They racked up 15 shots against the Thunderbirds in the first 20 minutes and were first on the scoreboard again. Dumont picked up his 100th career AHL goal on a fairly simple play. All he had to do was tap in a puck that was sliding toward the goal line after a shot by Matt Bodie trickled through to the goaltender. The goal came short-handed. In fact, all three of Dumont’s goals since he returned to the Crunch this season have been short-handed.

Matthew Peca doubled the lead in the second period as he scored his first goal in five games. It was a power play tally assisted by Condra and Michael Bournival. That lead would last until the final frame when Curtis Valk and Francois Beauchemin scored for the Thunderbirds to tie the game.

Regulation would end knotted at two a piece, with Domingue making 25 saves. He would add another three in overtime, but the highlight reel was reserved for Oliver Archambault. He delivered a goal that left his teammates staring at the scoreboard in disbelief to watch the replay.

The stick move he put on Greg Chase was so good that he took a full stride and a half before Chase even realized he had been faked out. Then to add the move he put on goalie Harri Sateri - that was just cruel.

Saturday - Laval 2 , Syracuse 5

In: Connor Ingram

Out: Louis Domingue

With Domingue set to return to Tampa (we hardly got to know you in Syracuse this time, Louis) the Crunch went back to their normal rotation of Ingram and Eddie Pasquale. Due to the inclusion of Domingue and Budaj over the last two weeks, Ingram had only appeared in one game since February 24th.

That was certainly a pretty sizable break for the young netminder, so Ingram coming in sharp was going to be key. A defensive pairing (Melancon and Wzy..Wsy..Wysz...Craig) that didn’t even exist the last time he was in net added to the uncertainty of the evening. It was clearly going to be interesting game.

It did turn out to be interesting, but not because of Ingram. He was sharp in turning aside 19 of 21 shots in the victory. Making the 21 shots allowed number even more impressive was the fact that the Crunch were short-handed seven times in the game. Granted, they were also credited with eight power plays as things got a little spicy on the ice as the game went on, but, still, the makeshift defense in front of Ingram was pretty impressive.

Melancon and Bodie saw a tremendous amount of ice time in all situations, especially after Ben Thomas left the game with an apparent injury that may have been caused when he was absolutely run over by Adam Cracknell. A lot of credit should also go to Matthew Spencer, who logged some important minutes. The rookie has had a rough season and has been shuttled back and forth between ECHL Adirondack and Syracuse a few times, so it’s nice to see him get some sustained minutes with the Crunch.

The Crunch opened the scoring late in the first period as Kevin Lynch tipped home a shot from Thomas (who had yet to have been knocked from the game). For Lynch, it was his second goal in three games after having a rough two months where he was in and out with injuries. The tip drill must have been fun this week in practice, as Archambault tipped home a Dumont shot thirty seconds later to double the lead.

Another early period penalty (slashing by Dumont) led to an opponent scoring on the power play. The unfortunate part was that the penalty kill did an excellent job of blocking shots and keeping the puck on the perimeter for the first minute, despite being hemmed into their zone. Things only fell apart when they cleared the puck and then got caught on a line change. Chris Terry slid a puck across the ice and Niki Petti redirected it past Ingram.

What’s that saying - If at first you don’t succeed, try again? Taking it to heart, the Crunch took another slashing penalty. This time it was Matthew Peca. The second time around, they avoided the awkward line change and managed to kill the penalty. In fact, they were perfect on the kill for the rest of the game. They just needed to get that bad moment out of the way early!

The teams began the parade to the penalty box in the second and the Crunch had a brief four-on-three power play. They used their man-advantage to control the puck and enter the zone. As the penalty expired, they spread out the defense with some crisp passing that left Bodie wide open in front of the net. He blasted it past the goaltender.

Thanks to some undisciplined play on the part of the Rocket, the Crunch started off the third period with a clean sheet of ice and a five-on-three power play. Coach Groulx rolled out a five-forward power play unit and it paid off. Laval netminder Michael McNiven was sharp as he made several big stops as the Crunch strung together some very nice passing plays.

However, he couldn’t stop the red-hot Archambault, who took matters into his own silky mitts and sniped the puck over the goalie and into the back of the net for a 4-1 Syracuse lead. It was Archambault’s 8th goal of the season and 13th point in 19 games for the Crunch. The time is ticking on his PTO, and as Alex mentioned earlier this week, he’s more than earned a contract with the Crunch

Connor Ingram did let in a bit of a soft goal to Pettie with 8 minutes to go in the game. The Laval forward skated in with a Crunch defender on him, slipped to his backhand and somehow squeezed the puck past Ingram. It really was the one blemish on an otherwise strong night for the Crunch rookie.

As the game delved into more penalty-filled nonsense (the teams combined for 26 penalties, 10 of them came in the last 11 minutes of the game) the Crunch held on to the lead and Dumont ended any chance of a Laval comeback by depositing the puck into an empty net with two and a half minutes to go.

The only bad part of the third period is that Michael Bournival left early after being checked hard into the sideboards. With the way the injuries piled up, it’s a good thing they are off until Friday the 23rd.

Next Man Up:

It can’t be stressed enough how good the Crunch have been since the end of November despite a roster that has been in almost a constant state of flux. Since November 20th the Crunch are 35-10-2-2 and have gone from last in the North Division to clinching a playoff spot. They’ve done that despite injuries, call-ups, trades, and a rotating cast of goaltenders.

At this point Coach Groulx and his staff might not know what to do if he was able to roll out the same line-up in consecutive games.

A big part of their success has been that the players who have been on the ice have produced, whether they are rookies or veterans. Case in point: Bodie against Laval on Saturday. He’s had his ups and downs throughout the year, but he really, really stepped up when they needed him.

The rookies just keep piling up the points. Syracuse radioman Lukas Favale pointed out that Mathieu Joseph’s 46 points are the most by a Syracuse rookie since Peter Holland had 60 in 2011-12. Mitchell Stephens (39) and Alex Volkov (35) aren’t far behind him either. It has been a total team effort that has propelled them to success.

Even the players brought in on PTOs have contributed. Archambault’s contributions have been documented on this site already. Melancon may not have a point yet in three games, but he’s found himself playing big minutes on the power play and penalty kill. If any of the Crunch’s regular defenders are seriously hurt, Melancon may end up playing a pivotal role down the stretch.

Good coaching and solid leadership (along with an immense amount of scoring talent) has really kept this season from imploding for the Crunch.

Upcoming Schedule:

Friday March 23rd - vs. Bridgeport

Saturday March 24th - vs. Utica