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Crunch Corner: Syracuse keeps winning

The win streak reaches five with two victories over the weekend.

Scott Thomas Photography

It was a relatively light week for the Syracuse Crunch as they only had two games on the schedule. The reduction in games came at an opportune time for them as they are a little banged up, especially on the defensive side. The rest did them some good, and they didn’t lose their mojo as they picked up two more wins.

They continued the trend from last week of getting an early lead and holding on, as they were the first team to score in both of their contests. What has to be encouraging to the coaching staff is that both wins featured solid defensive efforts. The win against Utica had, in Coach Groulx’s words, “a playoff feel” to it. There will more likely be more 2-0 and 3-1 games in the second season then there will be 6-5 or 7-4 games, so it’s a positive sign that the Crunch don’t have to rely on just their offense to win games these days.

The two wins didn’t do much in terms of getting them closer to first in the division as Toronto keeps winning as well. It looks at this point that Syracuse is pretty much cemented in the second spot in the North Division as they trail the Marlies by seven points. The good news is that they also have an eleven point lead on third place Rochester.

Standings

Friday March 23rd - Bridgeport 1, Syracuse 4

Highlights

After a long week of practice (and injury recovery), the Crunch were back on the ice against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The Crunch were happy to see two of their defensive leaders, Reid McNeill and Erik Cernak, back on the ice, but, unfortunately, news dropped earlier in the week that Michael Bournival would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Still, as has been the case since November, the Crunch absorbed the line-up change and found a way to win. On Friday night, it was Carter Verhaeghe stepping up (against his old team, even) and leading Syracuse to their fourth win in a row. He scored twice in the 4-1 victory. Eddie Pasquale got the start between the pipes and turned aside 22 of 23 shots in picking up his 7th win of the season with Syracuse.

The game marked the return of Kristers Gudlevskis to Syracuse. The popular netminder was traded in the off-season to Bridgeport for Verhaeghe, and it only took a few minutes for his old teammates to welcome him back with a power play goal.

Well, not quite his former teammates as three players he never played with connected for the goal. With the man advantage, Matt Bodie and Mathieu Joseph cycled the puck along the near boards as Verhaeghe crept into the slot unmarked. Joseph found him with the pass and Verhaeghe wristed it past his trade partner to give the Crunch a 1-0 lead.

The Crunch would add to the lead early in the second as Kevin Lynch won a face-off in the offensive zone and moved the puck to Alex Volkov. The rookie fired the puck on net. Gudlevskis made the save, but the puck bounced right to Daniel Walcott who chipped the puck home for his 4th goal of the season (which matches his career high set last season).

Bridgeport would sneak one past Pasquale six minutes into the third period to crawl to within one goal, but the Crunch clamped down defensively, allowing only five shots in the period. Verhaeghe put the game out of reach with his second goal of the game by converting on a two-one-one with Matt Peca.

Peca starts the play by racing down the ice with the puck. As the Bridgeport defenseman lays out on the ice to try and take the pass away, Peca moves to his backhand to open up a little more space to slide the puck to Verhaeghe. The Crunch forward redirects it on net and Gudlevskis makes a good save to stop it, but is sprawled out and out of position as Verhaeghe collects his own rebound and puts into the back of the net.

Kevin Lynch added an empty net goal to make the final score 4-1 as the Crunch prevail in another solid, workmen-like victory. They held Bridgeport to just 23 shots despite missing Bournival and defensive stalwarts Jamie McBain and Ben Thomas. Since giving up five goals to Rochester on March 11th, the Crunch have only given up 8 goals in their last 4 games, all of them wins.

Saturday March 24th - Utica 0, Syracuse 2

Highlights

There was little time to celebrate the victory against Hartford as the Crunch returned to the ice to face the Utica Comets on Saturday night. Another rookie made his debut for Syracuse as the Lightning’s 2017 third-round pick Alexei Lipanov made his professional debut. The young Russian was held off of the scoresheet in his first game, but it didn’t matter as Connor Ingram held off all of the Comets in pitching his third shutout of the season in the 2-0 Crunch victory.

Ingram outdueled Thatcher Demko as he stopped all 23 shots the Comets threw his way in picking up his 6th win in a row and 18th overall in his rookie season.

Scott Thomas Photography

The highlight save of the night for the young netminder was when he came racing out of his crease for a loose puck and made a sprawling dive to poke it away from an on-charging Zack MacEwen.

The diving stick save helped keep the game scoreless through the first two periods.

With just over twelve minutes to score, the Crunch finally broke through thanks to Gabriel Dumont’s tenacity. The Syracuse forward hounded Utica’s Wacey Hamilton into turning the puck over in the Comets zone. Dumont then directed a puck on net that Demko stopped but he couldn’t control the rebound. Mitchell Stephens was in front of the net and the rebound bounced off him and past Demko. It wasn’t his prettiest goal, but after going 12 games without one, Stephens will take it.

It would be the Crunch’s forecheck that sealed the game late in the third. With Demko out of the net and on the bench for the extra skater, Syracuse pinned Utica back in their own zone. First Walcott outskated the Comets on a dump in and fed Erik Condra who put the puck off the side of the net. Utica recovered the puck, but Condra harassed Michael Chaput into making a bad pass which Peca swooped in on. Peca fed Cernak the puck and the defenseman didn’t miss the empty net. The clock expired with the score 2-0 and the Crunch had their fifth straight victory.

Missing Michael

Late in the game last Sunday against Laval, Michael Bournival was checked awkwardly into the boards. It was readily apparent that something was wrong and he didn’t return to the game. On Friday, the Crunch announced that he would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. It’s expected that he’s going to be out about six months while recovering from surgery.

Bournival is in his second season with the Crunch. He re-signed in the summer to provide veteran leadership to a very young Syracuse team and depth for the Lightning overall. He responded to the new deal by having his best professional season with 15 goals and 19 assists. That’s even with him joining the Lightning for five games in January.

Along with the production aspect, the Crunch lose one of their better defensive forwards. Bournival was a tenacious forechecker who was skilled at causing turnovers in the offensive zone, which is a key part of the Syracuse attack. He was also one of their top penalty killers and provided key scoring depth in the line-up.

While the Crunch have posted two solid defensive efforts in the games he has missed, it remains to be seen as to who steps up as the season progresses.

Hello, Alexei

Bournival’s absence does open up a roster spot for another player. In lieu of signing someone to a PTO or calling them up from the ECHL, the Crunch and the Lightning decided to fill it with another rookie - Alexei Lipanov. The Sudbury Wolves, his junior team, have seen their season end, so he is eligible to play for the Crunch despite only being 18 years old. He’ll most likely return to juniors next season, much like Brett Howden did this season after getting in some Crunch games at the end of last season.

Lipanov becomes the second player from the Lightning’s 2017 draft class to play for the Crunch, as he joins Volkov in Syracuse. It’s likely that having a fellow Russian on the roster played into the decision to have Lipanov join the team. This is Volkov’s first season in North America, and having a countryman by his side could help with the transition.

It was a bit of a mixed year for Lipanov, who started his junior season in Barrie where he put up 30 points in 35 games playing alongside top 2018 draft hopeful Andrei Svechnikov. Following a December trade to a not-very-good Sudbury team, his production plummeted and he ended the season with 9 points in 20 games. He was also handed a five-game suspension for violating the league’s harassment and diversity policy.

The 6’, 170 lbs center is profiled to be a playmaker who can play with a bit of an edge. In Raw Charge’s draft recap, he was compared to former Red Wing Igor Larionov as an offensive center who is also responsible in his own defensive zone.

He follows the model that General Manager Steve Yzerman and Director of Amatuer Scouting Al Murray seem to like - undersized forward with skills and hockey sense. In his debut, he impressed head coach Ben Groulx with his play in the defense zone despite a “quiet night” in terms of shots and offense.

Upcoming Schedule

Wednesday March 28th vs Binghamton

Friday March 30th vs Belleville

Saturday March 31st vs Charlotte