The Syracuse Crunch are back in the AHL playoffs once again. They’re doing it coming off of a run last season to the Calder Cup Finals. But this team looks a good bit different from that team that made such an amazing run into the playoffs. This season’s version of the Crunch is doing it with youth and depth.
The top of the Crunch’s scoring line-up last season was led by veterans Cory Conacher, Matt Taormina, Yanni Gourde, and Erik Condra. Following them were four older prospects in Matthew Peca, Tanner Richard, Joel Vermin, and Adam Erne. Two more minor league veterans followed them in Mike Halmo and Jeremy Morin. Peca and Erne were the only two players in their first two years of professional hockey in the Crunch’s top ten in scoring. Eleven players in total broke the 20 point threshold for the Crunch. Two hit the 60 point plateau. Only one player broke 20 goals, but ten players had at least ten goals.
This season though, there’s not quite as much of a high end as last season. There’s still some games left to play to finish out the season, but thus far only one player has broken 40 points and no one has gotten past the 20 goal mark. However, 15 different players have scored at least 20 points and ten have ten or more goals. On top of that, eight players have hit the 30 point mark. Only the Manitoba Moose with eleven and the Charlotte Checkers and Lehigh Valley Phantoms with nine each have more 30 point scorers.
Going into the season, I had my reservations about how the Crunch were going to do. The Lightning have had some success before when sending a large group of rookies to the AHL back when they did that with the Norfolk Admirals in 2011-12 and won the Calder Cup. The Lightning have done that a time or two since moving to the Syracuse Crunch, but it has rarely been met with much success as the rookies took time to develop into professional hockey players.
So my prediction had been that this team either be utterly bad or incredibly good. With so many rookies, I was worried that they would not transition to the professional ranks quickly. It turns out that they did take some time to transition. Early in the season, the Crunch were downright bad. But something clicked about 15 games into the season for them. One of those things was the acquisition of Louis Domingue for Tye McGinn and Michael Leighton.
Domingue solidified the goaltending situation and allowed the team in front of him to get more comfortable. They played better defense. They played better offense. Just all around they were a much better team. Even when Domingue was recalled to Tampa after Peter Budaj’s injury, the Crunch continued to role with Connor Ingram reinforced by Eddie Pasquale who has been nothing short of spectacular playing for the Crunch.
While plus-minus is a flawed stat, it still shows something about the team that at the end of December, most of the skaters on the team were in the negative. A handful of players like Alexander Volkov and Dennis Yan were right around or just above even, but almost everyone was in the negatives.
Now, only three players that have played for the Crunch this season are below the even mark; Cory Conacher who has been up with the Lightning for most of the season now, Alex Gallant who has only played 27 games mostly in the beginning of the season, and Stephen MacAulay who spent three games with the team on loan from the ECHL.
I don’t generally get too worried about players being in the single digits in either direction for plus-minus, but when you get them going far from zero, you do sit up and take notice because it does mean something is going right when that player is on the ice at even strength. Rookie defenseman Erik Cernak sits at plus-30, veteran defenseman Mathew Bodie sits at plus-29, and second year defenseman Dominik Masin sports a plus-23.
Going into the playoffs
The Crunch are cruising their way into the playoffs in the AHL. Kind of like my prediction from before the season, I feel that they will either be bounced in the first round or take it all the way to the end. But, I believe that they’re more likely to make a lot of noise in the playoffs rather than go out with a whimper.
These rookies may be young and inexperienced, but they’ve been involved in high level junior tournaments and playoffs in the junior level. They know what playing at a high level in their peer group is like. They know the pressure of playing for their country in the World Junior Championships. And they know how to win. Below is a selective list of the accomplishments the Crunch roster as it stands right now has under their belts.
- Connor Ingram (R) - U20 World Junior Championship (WJC) Silver Medal, 13 WHL Playoff Games
- Eddie Pasquale - AHL Championship (as a back-up), 16 AHL playoff games
- Matthew Bodie - NCAA Championship, two-time NCAA Conference Championship, 15 AHL playoff games
- Erik Cernak (R) - OHL Championship, WJC Bronze Medal, four U20 WJC appearances, Two-time Czech League champion, 5 games in Memorial Cup, 35 OHL playoff games
- Dominik Masin - U20 WJC Silver Medal, two WJC appearances, 22 AHL playoff games
- Jamie McBain - U18 WJC Gold Medal, U20 WJC Bronze Medal, World Championship Bronze Medal
- Reid McNeill - 31 AHL playoff games, 31 OHL playoff games
- Ben Thomas - U18 WJC Bronze Medal, 22 AHL playoff games, 24 WHL playoff games
- Michael Bournival - U20 WJC Bronze Medal, Memorial Cup Championship, 14 NHL playoff games
- Erik Condra - AHL Championship, Two-time NCAA Conference Championship, 41 AHL playoff games, 26 NHL playoff games
- Gabriel Dumont - QMJHL Championship, 53 AHL playoff games, four Memorial Cup games
- Mathieu Joseph (R) - QMJHL Championship, 4 Memorial Cup games, U20 WJC Silver Medal
- Kevin Lynch - U18 WJC Gold Medal, NCAA Conference champion, 20 AHL playoff games
- Mitchell Stephens (R) - U18 WJC Bronze Medal, U20 WJC Silver Medal, two U20 WJC appearances
- Jonne Tammela (R) - U18 WJC Silver Medal
- Carter Verhaeghe - U18 WJC Gold Medal