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Crunch Corner: The regular season is over

Now the fun begins.

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch wrapped up their last week of play in the regular season by going 2-1, splitting two games with Rochester and beating Utica in overtime in between. The games meant nothing to the Crunch, as they had wrapped up the second seed long ago, and they iced a line-up accordingly.

A slew of new names dotted the Crunch line-up on Friday and Saturday. With the Crunch playing for literally nothing other than pride, and the Comets and Ameks fighting to not play the Toronto Marlies, Syracuse made the decision to rest some regulars and start some players signed Friday afternoon. Stay with me: The Crunch signed Brandon Marino, Brendon Bradley, Josh Pitt, TJ Melancon, Matt Petgrave, and Ben Wilson to PTOs. They also “called up” Shane Conacher and Matthew Spencer from Adirondack.

Busy day for the equipment manager.

But the Crunch recall machine wasn’t done. For Saturday’s regular season finale they even called up Olivier Mantha from Adirondack and gave him the start. That move resulted in quite a bit of AHL experience, as he faced 42 shots in the 4-2 loss to Rochester. The win for the Amerks locked them into the third seed and the honor of playing the Crunch in the first round of the playoffs. The two teams will start their series on Friday at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse.

Coach Groulx took the prudent route by resting the bulk of his everyday starters. It was an exhausting run down the stretch for the Crunch, and with a young team it was a good call to give them a long period of rest before they start the grind of the playoffs. Playing two more games wouldn’t have benefited them, and could only have held the potential for injury.

Unfortunately, they didn’t make it through the entire weekend unscathed as Olivier Archambault appeared to suffer an upper-body injury in Saturday night’s game against the Americans. Reports had him favoring his right arm after being checked into the boards with five minutes left in the game, but the team hasn’t updated his condition yet.

Losing Archambault would be a big blow to an offense that might also be without Matthew Peca, who is currently on emergency recall to the Lightning. Archambault, a former Canadiens draft pick, started the season in the ECHL before signing a PTO with the Crunch. In 29 games with Syracuse he parlayed 10 goals and 8 assists into an AHL contract that covers next season as well.

With the playoffs starting, the Crunch are locking down on the status of their players. Officially, all of the players that have been banged up recently (Jamie McBain, Gabriel Dumont, Archambault and Dennis Yan) are “day-to-day”. Michael Bournival is the only one who is definitely out, and there really won’t be more definitive information available until the teams take to the ice on Friday. The Crunch did sign David Dziurzynski to a PTO on Monday, and there are rumors that Lightning prospect Otto Somppi might join the team as well, now that his junior season is over.

Look for a series preview later in the week!

The Final Regular Season Standings

The Games

Wednesday, April 11: Syracuse Crunch 1, Rochester Americans 0

Box Score

Highlights

Connor Ingram 38 saves. #HumboldtStrong

Friday, April 13th: Syracuse Crunch 2, Utica Comets 1 (OT)

Box Score

Carter Verhaeghe in overtime for the Galaxy Cup win (Yes, that’s a thing.) (Editor Alex here - Uh, it’s a long story).

Saturday April 14th: Rochester Americans 4, Syracuse Crunch 2

Box Score

Highlights

Alex Volkov with two goals

The Regular Season

Courtesy of Scott Thomas Photography

On Sunday November 19th, 2017 the Crunch lost to the Toronto Marlies 3-1. That dropped their record to 4-9-3, and dropped the team into last place in their division. That game came a week after they gave up 11 goals total to Laval over a two-game series.

Things were not looking good. To be fair, it wasn’t that their rough start was unexpected. It’s not easy to incorporate 9 rookies into a line-up and expect immediate success. That rarely works in professional sports.

On top of having such a young roster, the signing of Michael Leighton as a veteran presence in the net and mentor of Connor Ingram wasn’t working out as planned. In nine games with the Crunch he posted a 3.03 GAA and .868 save percentage. He was soon shipped out to Arizona along with Tye McGinn for Louis Domingue.

Domingue started his first game with the Crunch on November 18th, a 2-1 loss to the Marlies that seemed to stabilize the goaltending situation a bit for Syracuse. He went on to play 18 games for the Crunch, winning 13 and positing a .919 save percentage before getting the call up to Tampa to replace an injured Peter Budaj.

During that time the Crunch righted the ship as the rookies started to find their stride in the AHL. Mathieu Joseph earned his way to the top line just by being too good for Coach Goulx to keep him on the fourth line. Mitchell Stephens played his way onto the All-Star team (replacing a recalled Peca) while Erik Cernak developed into a steady presence on the blue line.

Following the Sunday loss to the Marlies late in November, the Crunch won their next 10 games and started to climb up the standings. After a couple of losses, they then went on a 9 game winning streak. The season would continue that way: A couple of losses would be followed closely by a winning streak.

Along the way the one constant was that the Crunch found themselves shorthanded, a lot. They finished the season with 1225 penalties, the most of any team that qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs. The one silver lining was that spending so much time shorthanded made them very, very good at killing penalties. Their 84.8% PK rate was third in the league and their 13 shorthanded goals was also second in the league.

At times during the season, their shorthanded unit was actually more dangerous than their power play. The Crunch only converted on 15.7% of their opportunities with the extra player. Much of their trouble on the power play stemmed from an inability to get the puck into the offensive zone. If they were able to set up, they were fine, but should an opponent clear the puck, it might take the Crunch another 45-60 seconds to get back into the zone.

Despite their winning streaks, the Crunch had to deal with their own injuries and injuries to their parent club, as all AHL teams have to. Peca and Bournival had a couple cups of coffee with Tampa while Domingue, Adam Erne. and Anthony Cirelli were eventually called up never to return to Syracuse.

General Manager Julien BriseBois made several shrewd moves to keep the talent flowing in Syracuse. He signed Archambault to a PTO in January. At the end of the month, with it apparent that Domingue was in Tampa for the long haul, he traded Nic Riopel and Ty Loney to Bakersfield for Eddie Pasquale. The veteran goaltender has appeared in 15 games with the Crunch and won 10 of them, posting a very optimal 1.72 GAA and .938 save percentage.

The Lightning also swooped in and plucked a previously-claimed Gabriel Dumont off of waivers when Ottawa tried to sneak him through. Dumont returned to Syracuse and put up 21 points in 18 games. He fit right in on the tenacious penalty kill especially - his first three goals in a Crunch uniform this season were short handed.

Those moves solidified the roster down the stretch and led the Crunch to their best season in history (factored by percentage of points won) and the second seed in North Division. What makes them a strong team isn’t any particular player, although they have a wealth of individual talent. They are a deep team that can carry each other if one player is struggling.

As is optimal in a developmental role, the Crunch plays a mirror-image style of the Lightning: Hold-on-to-your-seat defense backed by stellar goaltending and an explosive offense. Their goals come off of quick transitions and a relentless forecheck that pins teams back in their own zone. They use their speed at forward to harass opponents all the way up and down the ice.

A team can shut down Dumont, Joseph, and Stephens, and still get burned by Verhaeghe and Archambault. Keep all four of those players off the board and you still have to deal with Alex Volkov, Erik Condra, and Kevin Lynch.

The 2017-18 Syracuse Crunch never did things the easy way, but their resiliency allowed them to overcome all of the obstacles that cropped up along the way.