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Crunch Corner: Can we start the playoffs now, please?

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The Crunch have an okay week, but it’s hard to not be looking forward.

Courtesy of Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch came into the weekend with little to play for. Normally, that isn’t a positive thing, but for the Crunch it just meant that. Syracuse wrapped up a playoff spot weeks ago, and trails first place Toronto in the standings by an insurmountable deficit. So, the only thing they could check off the list of regular things to do was lock in home-ice advantage for the first round. With three point in three games they accomplished that task. Now they can sit back over the last week of the season and watch Rochester and Utica beat up on each other (and hope both of those teams won’t beat up on them) for the privilege of being the Crunch’s first round opponent.

They did (and do) have one other task - stay healthy. That they weren’t so successful with this pastn week as Gabriel Dumont (21 points in 18 games) and Jamie McBain (number one pairing defenseman) both missed Saturday and Sunday’s game with what Coach Groulx labeled as “day to day” injuries. That’s not good. On the bright side, they did get super rookie Mitchell Stephens back, which helped offset the loss of Dumont.

With little to play for, it’s not unexpected for the Crunch to have some flat play over the next week or so. That was the case for most of the weekend. In the two games against Binghamton (Friday and Sunday), the Crunch were not in their element. They looked and played like they were out of sorts. The Utica game on Saturday was a different story, so they do still have the ability to kick it into gear when they need to.

Standings:

Friday, April 6th: Syracuse Crunch 3, Binghamton Devils 4 (SO)

Highlights

Boxscore

One of the most enduring traits of their recent stretch of winning was the Crunch’s ability to jump on an opponent early and build a lead. On Friday they built a lead in the first period, but it was almost despite their play, which was not great. Luckily they had Eddie Pasquale in net (who stopped all 12 shots he saw in the first period), and had a couple of bounces that went the right way.

Along with Mitchell Stephens returning to the line-up after missing some time, Cal Foote made his professional debut in the game against the Devils. He was used as one might expect a seventh defenseman to be used. He was put in a position to succeed, a lot of offensive zone starts and some power play time. The 19-year-old didn’t seem overwhelmed and contributed offensively.

Courtesy of Scott Thomas Photography

Before he could do that, Pasquale had to earn his keep. And earn it he did. The Devils were driving play for most of the first period and should have had the lead. Like Foote, Michael McCloud, a first round pick for the New Jersey Devils, was making his professional debut. He almost started it off with a bang.

Nathan Bastian worked his way in front of the Crunch net and instead of shooting dished the puck out to McCloud. All the rookie had to do was chip it into the wide open net. He tried, but Pasquale was able to get his blocker on it and deny the youngster his first goal.

Cal Foote also had his first shot on goal deflected, but the result was a little better. Alex Volkov started one of the Crunch’s few forays into the Devils’ zone and circled behind the net. The majority of Binghamton defense collapsed on the Russian and he fed the puck back to Foote at the pont. Foote fired it at the net and the puck glanced off of Bastian’s shins and into the net. Goal number one of many for the Lightning’s first round pick.

The Devils continued to frustrate and deny the Crunch space in the neutral zone. Syracuse couldn’t quite find a way to get their speed to work in their favor. Luckily Binghamton isn’t the most disciplined team. They took a bad penalty with just over five minutes left in the period.

The Crunch rolled out a four-forward-one-defender power play unit. Erik Cernak, the lonesome defenseman, wristed it from the blue line and Dumont deflected it past goaltender Eddie Lack. Tough break for Lack, but he was hung out to dry by the poor coverage by the Devils who left Dumont all alone in front of the net. Mathieu Joseph picked up the other assist as he keeps racking up points despite being snubbed by the AHL and their incorrect all-rookie team.

At this point the Crunch were being outshot 11-4, but leading on the scoreboard 2-0. The physical play started to manifest, not surprising considering the two teams have faced each other a ton over the last two months. The first big hit came when Kevin Lynch checked John Quenneville down and then rode him into the boards. It appeared that the Devils forward twisted his right leg awkwardly when he fell to the ice. He would not return to the game.

The period drew to a close with the Crunch getting outshot 12-5.

The second period started with a questionable interference call on Daniel Walcott. He appeared to be battling with the Devil that last had the puck, but the refs felt Walcott engaged just a little too long. The Devils made them pay. Reid McNeill was caught between Christoph Bertschy and Nick Lappin. Bertschy slid it to Lappin who was set up to the left of Pasquale. McNeill wasn’t able to block the pass or keep Lappin from sliding it to Blake Pietila who crashed the net and flipped it over Pasquale’s shoulder.

Once again, aside from the occasional short stay in the offensive zone, the Crunch couldn’t generate any offense (six shots in the period) and the ones they did get off were stopped by Lack.

With the Crunch on power play, Volkov took a bad penalty. Michael Latta was jawing at him as the puck left the Crunch zone and Volkov took his legs out from under him with his stick. It would cost the Crunch the lead. With time winding down on the penalty and in the period the Devils rushed up the ice one last time. Crossing into the Crunch’s zone Lappin threw the puck on net and Pasquale stopped it with his right pad but the rebound popped right to Brett Seney who shot it past the sprawled out goalie for the game equalizer.

Four minutes into the third period and the Crunch had their best shift of the game. Matthew Peca, Carter Verhaeghe and Volkov kept the puck in the zone. Peca and Volkov both outworked their Devils opponents to cause turnovers on separate occasions. Peca joined in the fun by out-hustling a defenseman to keep possession. It paid off as Verhaeghe was able to squeeze a puck past Lack and it trickled across the goal line just before the net was knocked off the pegs. It was a hard work goal that gave the Crunch the lead back.

Their lead wouldn’t last long. With a delayed penalty coming up on the Devils for delay of game, Alex Gallant threw an extra punch in the post whistle scrum earning him two in the box for roughing. No power play. Pasquale stops a breakaway. During the four on four, Ben Thomas couldn’t handle a pass at the Crunch blue line. Lappin pounced on it, skated in and fired a shot at Pasquale that was stopped. The puck fell to the ice in front of him. Kevin Rooney won the race for the rebound swatted it into the net.

Regulation ended with the score tied at three. Nothing much happened in overtime, and the Devils won the skills competition 3-2 to pick up the extra point

Saturday, April 7th: Utica Comets 0, Syracuse Crunch 1

Highlights

Boxscore

With little rest, the Crunch returned to the War Memorial Arena to take on the Utica Comets in their 11th meeting of the season. Why, yes, the AHL is quite heavy on divisional play. At some point in the game against Binghamton Jamie McBain and Gabriel Dumont were banged up. They were scratched for the game. In their place was Troy Bourke, recently of the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL. Olivier Archambault, who had been battling an illness, also returned to the line up as Coach Groulx went with a 12/6 formation.

The Crunch looked a lot more Crunch-like as they came out skating (in their Pucks for Paws special jerseys). Their offense had a lot more flow and were directing the puck toward the net with a lot more regularity than they had the previous night. Neither team seemed particularly interested in playing defense through the neutral zone.

The Crunch had their chances throughout the first period but could not convert. Kevin Lynch dangled the puck on defenseman Adam Comrie, passing it between the defenders legs, but Thatcher Demko denied the finish with a sprawling save.

Dominik Masin was stopped on a little breakaway as he broke out of the penalty box and then Alex Volkov drilled one off of the post. Foote hit Archambault with a Hedman-esque stretch pass to send the forward in all alone. Demko stopped the shot.

The goalie would then show that he has a bit of a feisty side.

After Demko flipped away a long shot from Erik Condra, he got into a slashing battle with Gallant. They escalated it into a wrestling match which brought everyone into the crease, well, except for Pasquale, who kind of hung out at the Crunch blue line. Demko ended up with his jersey ripped off while Gallant ended up in the box with the extra penalty.

For the record, both Demko and Gallant were issued roughing minors, but only Gallant was called for slashing. After the game, Gallant mentioned it was the second time in his career that he had scuffled with a goalie. The first time was with….Louis Domingue.

With the power play the Comets kept the puck in the Crunch zone and eventually put the puck in the net. Lukas Jasec maneuvered in and slid the puck across the ice around a sliding Syracuse defender. The puck reached a crashing Comet who collided with Pasquale and slid into the net just after the puck. The refs waived it off immediately, ruling incidental contact with goaltender.

It was an entertaining period that had a little bit of everything - disallowed goal, goalie/forward scuffle, breakaways, tremendous saves and puppies on jerseys. The Crunch racked up 15 shots while Eddie Pasquale turned aside all seven shots he faced.

That jersey is a good doggo!
Courtesy of Scott Thomas Photography

The second period didn’t start with the frenetic pace that defined the first twenty minutes. Utica realized that they couldn’t run and gun with the Crunch all night long so they tried to play more a half-ice game and were successful for long stretches of play. The Crunch responded with their usual quick transition game where they attacked in waves but had little sustained pressure in the zone.

Neither style led to a goal as both goalies earned their pay. Pasquale made a nice left pad save on Cole Cassels down low while the Crunch were killing a penalty. Demko matched that pad save with one of his own on Stephens who was released from the penalty box and seeking his 20th goal of the season.

The Comets started to pin the Crunch back more consistently halfway through the period and had their best chance ring off the post after McNeil dropped a pass to an empty area near Pasquale’s net. Michael Carcone ended up with the puck right in front of the Crunch netminder and blistered a shot off of the iron.

The period ended like it started: scoreless. It was Utica that led in shots (12-6) and both goaltenders were looking solid.

Condra had an early chance in the third period stopped by Demko after Peca weaved his way through traffic towards the net. The Crunch, perhaps frustrated by Demko’s play, were looking to make an extra pass instead of shooting it on net as they had been earlier in the game.

At the ten minute mark, things boiled over a bit. McNeill dumped Andrew Cherniwchan with a clean hit along the boards. Then Walcott and Cernak teamed up to dump a Comet forward who took an extra swing at a puck covered up by Pasquale. While all the players paired off, there weren’t any actual fights, just a lot of sweater-tugging, bear hugs and head locks. A bunch of roughing penalties were handed out and play continued.

The scrum seemed to energize the Comets a bit as for the first time in the period they kept the puck in the Crunch zone. Syracuse held their form and kept Utica off the board. A couple of tripping calls (and an embellishment on Joseph) led to a Crunch 4-on-3 power play.

It became the Matt Peca show at that point. He had one chance smothered by Demko. A second opportunity went just wide, but he found a third opportunity and buried it. With Utica collapsed around the goaltender, Peca, Matt Bodie and Stephens ran a bit of a three man weave. Peca ended up with it at the high slot and wristed it through traffic, where Condra deflected it off the post and past Demko for the games first goal.

Condra snapped a 12-game goalless streak with the tally. Condra admitted it “barely touched the top of his stick” but hopefully it gets him going for the rest of the season.

With the lead, the Crunch kept up the pressure over the last five minutes of the game. Utica wasn’t able to pull their goaltender until just over a minute was left in the game. The Comets did get one last shot on net with two seconds left, but Pasquale stretched out to make the save and cover the puck. It was his 26th and final save of the night and he picked up his first shutout in a Crunch uniform.

As the final horn rang, Vincent Arseneau jumped Cernak and the two started pummeling each other, with Arseneau raining down a few extra punches with Cernak on the ice. These two teams have one more game against each other and may meet in the first round of the playoffs.

That should be fun.

Sunday, April 9: Binghamton Devils 4, Syracuse Crunch 2

Highlights

Boxscore

When two teams meet at the end of a season and the end of a weekend where they both were playing their third game in three days, the play can be expected to be a bit sloppy. That might be the nicest way to describe a game that had 20 combined penalties and 15 combined power plays.

It was not fun to watch.

The Crunch rolled out the same line-up they had against Utica the night before with one change. Connor Ingram, after an emotional weekend, was back in net

After the two teams traded opportunities for most of the first 20 minutes Syracuse started the parade to the penalty box late in the period. A questionable hooking call on Archambault led to a power play for the Devils. A shot blockered to the corner by Ingram led to a cross-check by Condra, and the Crunch were suddenly down two players on the ice.

With two more skaters on the ice than the Crunch, the Devils were finally able to score. Jacob McDonald fired a shot from the point was knocked into the air by Ingram. He lost track of it and instinctively dropped to the ice to protect as much of the net as possible. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to get his skate to the near post in time to stop Christoph Bertschy from stuffing it past him.

The deficit was only minutes in the offering. Carter Verhaeghe took the puck in the Crunch offensive zone and zoomed up the far boards, he squeezed past a couple of Devils and passed it to Alexey Lipanov in the slot who twirled a backhand pass to a streaking Troy Bourke and Bourke, in only his third game with Crunch, roofed it over Ken Appleby’s glove and into the net.

Unfortunately, the tie didn’t even make past the announcement of the Bourke goal. The Crunch were a little discombobulated on a Devils dump in with Ingram partially leaving his net to play it, but stopping to let Foote and Stephens go after it. They weren’t able to retrieve it and the Devils quickly moved the puck in front of the net where Tim Kennedy crashed in and cashed in by deflecting it past Ingram.

The second period started with a short power play for the Crunch. They don’t convert and then find themselves shorthanded after a lazy penalty (this time a hooking call on Cernak). Stephens tried to tie the game shorthanded as he rushed down the right side and Appleby was forced to make a tough save.

The refs kept busy as they called a slash on a Devils player with 15 seconds left on their power play. Joseph and Archambault almost connected for a beautiful goal but Appleby got in the way yet again. The Crunch weren’t able to capitalize on the power play, but the Devils gifted them another chance just a few minutes later.

Syracuse had some issues keeping the puck in the zone, not because of anything the Devils were doing, just because they kept passing the puck to empty spots on the blueline. Jan Mandat picked off one of those empty passes and Ingram squeezed the pads together to deny his breakaway attempt.

The Crunch got their own 5-on-3 after Michael Latta was called for roughing. Granted it was for only 5 seconds long and they didn’t convert. Nor did they convert on the ensuing 5-on-4 despite a few good looks at the net.

After the power play, the Crunch had their strongest pressure of the game as they kept the puck in the zone and started building up shots. Appleby denied them all. Not sure what he did to upset his teammates, but they decided to take another penalty (Ben Thompson covered the puck with his hand after blocking a Ben Thomas shot) so the Crunch were once again on the power play (Guess what - they didn’t score).

With so many power plays in a row for Syracuse, it was only a matter of time until the Devils got one of their own. Archambault slashed a player with his stick and was sent to the box to think about his actions. (Guess what - the Devils scored). Brett Seney had a clear path into the zone and snapped a shot over Ingram’s shoulder. It looked pretty easy. The Crunch should try that.

Another penalty on the Crunch was followed by another penalty on the Devils. Back to four-on-four. Amazingly the two teams made it through the last 20 seconds of the period without breaking any more rules.

It took all of two minutes into the third for the Crunch to go back on the power play. They didn’t convert. A minute after that unsuccessful power play expired the Crunch got their eighth chance with the extra man. Their power play was getting progressively worse the more chances they got. They are trying passes that are low-percentage, making extra moves allowing Devils’ defenders to get their sticks on passes and seemingly second-guessing every offensive decision.

All of the zone time and power play time the Crunch racked up over the last period and a half was for naught as Jan Mandat raced into the zone and fired a puck off of Ingram’s glove and into the net. That may be one the young netminder wants back. It sucked the life out of the building.

With 2:21 left to go in the game there was a lot of pushing and shoving over at the Devils’ bench. Gallant was on the ice, so he definitely got a penalty (a ten-minute misconduct, which leads to another game where he has more penalty minutes then actual minutes played). There were some other handed out, and after it was sorted out, the Devils had an extra penalty. Whether Coach Groulx asked to decline the man advantage is unknown, but if so, he was told “no,” so the Crunch had to go back on the power play.

And on the ninth power play of the game…..the Crunch score! Matthew Peca rang a one-timer off the post and in the net. Cernak set it up with a nice cross-ice pass and Peca didn’t wait to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to pull off a miracle comeback and the game ended with the Crunch on the wrong side of a 4-2 score.

Snubbed

During the week, the AHL announced a few honorary awards. On Thursday they named their first and second all-star teams. Of the twelve names listed, none were from Syracuse. Honestly, that’s not that surprising. While the Crunch have been driven by a lot of offense, it has been a team effort. None of the skaters are in the top 10 of any offense category and the defense has been so banged up it’s hard to consider them for any of the open spots on either team.

Mathieu Joseph leads the team with 53 points which is tied for 19th in the league. However, the Crunch have five players with 40 or more points. They would have had five, but Anthony Cirelli is currently kicking butt in the NHL and is stuck on 37 AHL points.

The forwards have also been a little banged up. Among their top scorers only Alex Volkov has played all 72 games. How many more points would Carter Verhaeghe have if he hadn’t missed 17 games? Matthew Peca missed 10 games due to his call up, so he’d most likely be over the 50 point mark if he hadn’t spent time in Tampa. Not getting any players on that list isn’t the worst thing in the world.

What may be the worst thing, is that the Crunch, who dressed 14 different rookies and still won 44 games, were shut out of the all-rookie team that the AHL announced on April 4th. Not quite sure what Mathieu Joseph or Mitchell Stephens had to do to get some accolades for their season, but it seems ridiculous that they were shunned.

Dylan Strome had a decent season Joseph’s numbers were comparable (Strome had more goals, but Joseph more assists). Connor Ingram might have had a pedestrian .910 save percentage, but the rest of his stats are in line with San Antonio’s Ville Husso and there is no way Husso spent anywhere near as much time facing an opponent’s power play (the Crunch were short handed more than any other team in the league).

In the end, both of these honorary teams don’t really mean much, but a little recognition of the Crunch’s season would have been nice.

Upcoming Schedule:

Only three games left on the schedule, but in an interesting scheduling quick, all three are against a possible first round opponent. Two are against Rochester and one against Utica.

Rochester currently has a two point lead over Utica. They will be battling down to the last game for the honor of facing the Crunch. It will be interesting to see how Coach Groulx coaches. Does he go all out or does he hold back and maybe rely on some players who won’t see as much time in the play-offs?

Wednesday, April 11th at Rochester Americans

Friday, April 13th at Utica Comets

Saturday, April 14th vs. Rochester Americans