Another week in the books and the Syracuse Crunch continue their slow march up the standings. With an overtime win over division-leading Toronto, the Crunch now trail by only six points. Two months ago, the thought of the Crunch having a shot at catching the Marlies was inconceivable; now, with a couple of more weeks of solid play, that is a distinct possibility.
Their recent success has also separated them from the rest of the pack that is fighting for a playoff spot. Utica’s recent six game losing streak has given the Crunch a six-point cushion over fourth place and a whopping twenty-four point lead over Laval, who are currently in fifth place. Coach Benoit Groulx has done an excellent job of steering the team back into the race despite a roster that has been in almost constant flux.
Now the challenge to keep the momentum going after a February that saw the team finish the month with a five-game winning streak and go 8-3-1 overall. An overtime loss to Laval on Saturday snapped their victory streak, but ran their points streak to eight games. A few of those wins might have been undeserved, propped up by unsustainable goaltending from Connor Ingram and Eddie Pasquale. The good news is that it seems the power play seems to have found it’s stride again after a 2-for-51 stretch.
Wednesday February 28th: Syracuse 4, Toronto 3 (OT)
The Crunch have been winning a lot of games lately. Many of those wins have come against teams near or below them in the standings. Wednesday’s game was a different story.
Although Lehigh Valley recently eclipsed them by one point for first in the league, Toronto is still arguably the best, most consistent team in the AHL this season. They are also the team that the Crunch are chasing for the North Division lead. Seven times they’ve met this season, and five of those times Syracuse has come out on the losing end. Their eighth and final meeting of the year took place at 11:00 am on Wednesday morning. The Crunch came out victorious.
All of the good and the bad came shining through in this match-up. The Crunch used their speed to build a lead, but were victim of their own aggression in allowing the Marlies to come back and tie the game late. The uptempo pace that the Crunch play it is fun to watch, but it does put a lot of pressure on their defense.
Toronto was on the board first as Reid McNeill came out to challenge Andreas Johnsson at the blue line. It was a poor choice as Johnsson faked to the inside and then cut around McNeill. The Crunch defenseman was a step slow and gave the Swede enough room to pass the puck in front of the net to Ben Smith who tapped it past Eddie Pasquale.
It didn’t take long for the Crunch to tie it up in the second period. Mathieu Joseph came down the near side with his head up. A shoulder fake sent Toronto defender Justin Holl sliding by like a curling stone and Joseph sent the puck over to Anthony Cirelli. Cirelli easily put the puck in the net because not only did Holl not block the pass with his ill-timed slip and slide, he also clipped goaltender Garret Sparks on the way by.
Five minutes later Cirelli gave the Crunch the lead. Speed, speed and more speed. Gabriel Dumont collected the puck at his own blue line and raced down the ice. A crowd of Marlies scrambled to stop him and Cirelli. That left Ben Thomas open and Dumont found him. Sparks stopped the shot, but Cirelli was there to stuff the rebound into the back of the net.
Dumont set up the third Crunch goal, as well. Circling around the Marlies’ net Dumont fed the puck through some skates and it ended up on Dennis Yan’s stick. His shot found the back of the net before Sparks could get over and Syracuse was in control of the game.
There was, unfortunately, a large portion of the third period left to play, and Toronto is not without a little bit of talent. Andreas Borgman scored at the 9:27 mark and Chris Mueller tied the game exactly 10 minutes later. It had to be disappointing to be 30 seconds away from picking up a clean two points on the division leaders, but the Crunch didn’t let it get them down.
Mathieu Joseph showed why a player with speed and quickness can be dangerous in overtime. Gathering in the puck in his own zone, he had nothing but wide open ice to skate up. He enters the Marlies zone and goes wide. Defenseman Calle Rosen does not make a good play and spins in the wrong direction. That leaves just enough of a crease for Joseph to hop through and cut in front of Sparks. He fakes a shot to pull Sparks out of position and then deposits it into the back of the net for the overtime winner.
Friday March 2nd: Binghamton 2, Syracuse 3
The big question for the game against Binghamton revolved around the Crunch’s line up in a post-Cirelli world. With one of their top scorers in Tampa, Syracuse would have to find the right combination in order to keep the offense rolling.
There was some good news as Kevin Lynch returned to the line-up after missing a few games due to an unspecified injury. He opened the game on a line with Erik Condra and Michael Bournival. Matt Peca stepped into Cirelli’s spot on a line with with Joseph and Dumont. Carter Verhaeghe, Yan and Mitchell Stephens started the game together while Jonne Tammela, Alex Volkov and Dennis Walcott rounded out the restructured lines.
Throughout the first two periods there were signs that the new lines were having some issues. They played with their usual aggression but couldn’t seem to finish. They managed to get into the offensive zone on a regular basis, but once there things stalled out. They couldn’t string enough passes together to generate chances on Devils goaltender Ken Appleby.
With players adjusting to new teammates there was bound to be a miscommunication. Sure enough, a series of mistakes led to an early deficit. Midway through the first, McNeill pinched in low to keep the play in the zone. He managed to get the puck to Verhaeghe. The Crunch forward wasn’t able to protect the puck and had it poked off his stick. The Devils’ Nick Lappin gathered the puck in and led a 2-on-1 breakaway. Lappin kept the puck himself and was able to slide the puck under Ingram’s pad.
The Crunch had their chances as they drew three penalties in the first. Unfortunately, with a 2-for-49 power play it isn’t much of an advantage. Those three chances didn’t improve their percentage. It was the same story as it has been for the last 14 games or so. The Crunch were fine if they were in the zone, but once their opponent was able to clear the puck, Syracuse struggled to re-enter. If they chose to dump the puck in, they weren’t able to recover it in time and the puck would be cleared. If they attempted to carry the puck into the zone, they were dispossessed or offside.
They did manage a decent chance during their second opportunity by bending the rules a little. With Joseph carrying the puck through the neutral zone, Dumont slowed up just a bit at the blueline and just happened to get in the way of the Devils’ forward trying to skate out. One might say it was interference, but it did allow Joseph to skate in unimpeded and drop the puck back to Dumont, who found Tammala all alone at the net. The Finn hesitated just long enough for goaltender Ken Appleby to slide over and rob him with his big ol’ trapper.
The AHL’s rule preventing players from throwing the puck into the net cost the Devils a chance at their second goal. After Ingram blocked a shot high into the air, the Devil’s Jan Mandat caught it in front of an open but had to drop it to his stick. By the time he did that he was at a bad angle and the Crunch defense was able to recover.
It wasn’t just the lack of familiarity that kept the Crunch off of the scoreboard in the first two periods. They were held to only 13 shots on net during the first 40 minutes, and there was also a bit of bad luck. The few times they managed clean shots on net, the puck managed to find the posts behind Appleby. Five times rubber met iron for the Crunch.
While the offense struggled, Ingram kept them in the game. He saw 14 shots in the second and turned them all aside. He was sharp on his angles and kept the rebounds out of dangerous areas. The first goal might have been a little soft, but after that he was on his game.
Four times the Crunch took a penalty within a minute of their power play expired. The fourth time, it came back to haunt them. With Dennis Yan in the box for a hooking call, the Devils doubled their lead. To add to their misery, Binghamton made it look so easy. A couple of quick passes and a harmless wrist shot by Jacob MacDonald from just inside the blue line eluded everyone and found the back of the net.
With just ten minutes to go in a frustrating game, it looked like the winning streak might be coming to an end. But then a power play, of all things, changed the course of the game. First, Blake Speers took a tripping call. Thirty seconds later, Brian Strait cross-checked Yan into the boards with no call. Having gotten away with one, he tried it again as he buried his stick into the back of Gabriel Dumont. The ref remembered that cross-checking was illegal and sent Strait directly to the penalty box.
Individual effort can overcome a team-wide slump. Peca took a touch pass from Dumont at the blue line and charged at the net as three Devils converged on him. He was able to get his shot off cleanly and beat Appleby over the right shoulder.
The five-on-three goal sparked some life into the Crunch. With another minute and a half to go with the one-man advantage, the Crunch got the puck into the zone and pucks that were hopping over sticks were now sticking to them. After a series of quick passes, Verhaeghe got the puck at the near circle and ripped it past Appleby to tie the game.
With the Devils on their heels, the Crunch completed the comeback. Peca turned some coal into a diamond a few minutes later as he found himself alone next to the net. He tried to one-time a pass, whiffed and tumbled to the ice. As he fell he managed to backhand the puck to Erik Condra who put it past a distracted Appleby.
The Devils weren’t able to generate any sustained pressure over the last seven minutes and the Crunch skated away with the victory.
Saturday March 3rd: Laval 5, Syracuse 4 (OT)
The Crunch started the game with a couple of their regulars out of the line-up. Mathieu Joseph, who took a few big hits against Binghamton, was out, as was Jamie McBain. Olivier Archambault returned to replace Joseph, while rookie Matthew Spencer stepped in for McBain.
Unfortunately, those substitutions weren’t able to propel the Crunch to victory as they lost 5-4 in overtime to the Laval Rocket.
Dumont, Condra, Yan and Matt Bodie scored for the Crunch, but Syracuse blew two-goal leads twice in the game. The loss snapped their winning streak at six games, but they still managed to pick up a point in their seventh consecutive game.
For the first time in a while, Eddie Pasquale had a bit of a struggle in net as he gave up five goals on only twenty-two shots. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the power play connected twice for the second consecutive game.
They have a few days off early in the week to recover and see if they can tighten their defense up a bit.
So Long, Cirelli
The Lightning made a couple of moves that affected the Crunch this week. First Michael Bournival was recalled on the 27th after Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson were both banged up in the game against Toronto on Monday.
Bournival saw action in the 2-1 loss to Buffalo and then was dispatched back to Syracuse when the Lightning recalled Anthony Cirelli on Thursday. Cirelli made his debut against Dallas and picked up a goal and an assist. The first year pro was impressive in his 8:14 of ice time. He showed the Lightning exactly what he brings to the table. A little bit of offensive talent with a lot of tenacity and speed. He’s cut out of the same mold as Yanni Gourde, Peca and Dumont - undersized forwards who never seem to stop skating an always seem to end up in the right place to cause a turnover.
That lends itself well to him sticking around with the Lightning. If he plays his game, he should stick on the roster, but that leaves a pretty big hole in the Syracuse line-up. Cirelli’s line generated a ton of offense in Syracuse and for a team that has been struggling to put the puck in the net recently, losing their leading scorer is not going to help them. The pressure is going to be ramped up on the other rookies (Joseph, Stephens and Volkov) to maintain the offense.
The re-acquiring of Gabriel Dumont should help fill the void a little bit, as will the return of Kevin Lynch (if he can stay healthy). But it will still be interesting to see how the lines play out over the rest of the season. There most likely isn’t much help arriving in the form of new players anytime soon, so it’s on Coach Groulx to figure out how to manage the roster he has in front of him right now.
Friday March 9th - Hershey vs. Syracuse, 7:00pm
Saturday March 10th - Rochester vs.Syracuse, 7:00pm
Sunday March 11th - Syracuse at Rochester, 3:05pm