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Round One Preview: Syracuse Crunch vs. Rochester Americans

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The youngsters on the Crunch begin their quest for the Calder Cup against a familiar foe.

Courtesy of Scott Thomas Photography

Everything that the Syracuse Crunch did to climb their way out of last place and into a second seed in the division is now in the past. The winning streaks, the shut-outs, the overtime goals - all that is history. It’s playoff time. Their record is 0-0. With a roster that has a distinct lack of AHL post season experience, and such a short series at hand (the first round is best of five), it’s hard to predict what is going to happen.

Are they going to keep rolling along, grinding out wins by overwhelming the Rochester Americans by pinning them back in their own zone and forcing them to cough up the puck time and time again? Or are they going to struggle to reign in their aggression and march continuously to the penalty box? No matter how much Syracuse captain Erik Condra talks about “the habits [Coach Groulx] has taught and preaches everyday are the ones that carry over into the playffs,” it’s just impossible to tell how young players will play until the puck actually drops.

The Crunch have youth, which can be good because they might by oblivious to the added pressure of post-season. But there is also the bad side of youth: they might not be ready for the added pace that comes in the second season. If they struggle to adapt, the series could be over before they know it.

A benefit for the Crunch is that they are playing an opponent that they know well. They’ve seen the Rochester Americans (Amerks) 10 times this season, including four times over the last month and a half.

More importantly, they’ve had success against them.

The Crunch took the season series with a record of 6-3-1 (or 6-4, or 6-2-1-1 depending on how you breakdown your standings). Two of the losses came in that first weekend of the season before the Crunch found their identity, and one one of the loses came on the last game of the season where the Crunch iced a ton of replacement players and sat 10 regular roster players. Regardless of record, Viewers can expect a close series as seven of the 10 meetings between these two teams have been decided by just one goal. Three of them required overtime or the shootout to decide.

The teams share more than a New York license plate on their team bus, which often resulted in those close games this past season. They are aggressive teams that like to score goals. Syracuse and Rochester finished tied for fifth in the league with 234 goals during the regular season.

Both teams also spread out their scoring among their players. Rochester did not have a single player reach the 20 goal mark, but had 7 players score 15 or more. Syracuse had one 20+ goal scorer (Alex Volkov) and four more players that hit the 15 goal mark.

Both squads also make it hard to score on the penalty kill. Syracuse was third in the Eastern Conference with a 84.8% penalty kill rate, while Rochester was right behind them at 84.1%. The big discrepancy with this stat - which could haunt Syracuse into the post season - was the number of times each team was short-handed. The Crunch’s aggressive (sometimes too aggressive) pressure led to them being a player down 376 times (most in the entire AHL!), while the Amerks were down at least one skater a more reasonable 301 times.

Depending on the line-up that takes to the ice on Friday, Syracuse could have up to nine players seeing action in the playoffs for the first time in their career. With the exception of Reid McNeill (31 games), Erik Condra (41 games), and Gabriel Dumont (53 games), no one else on the roster has over 22 games of AHL playoff experience. Most of those that have AHL playoff experience accumulated it over last season’s run to the Calder Cup finals. Even veteran netminder Eddie Pasquale, who has been such a stabilizing force, only has 16 games in net during the playoffs.

A key for the Crunch to winning this series is to keep their aggression, their hound-pack mentality in pursuing the puck, without going over the edge. Any hooking and slashing calls 200-feet away from their own net could come back to haunt them. Luckily, referees in the play offs tend to be a little whistle-shy when it comes to calling penalties, so they might give the Crunch a little more leeway. Maybe.

Health is going to be the other important key to the Crunch emerging victorious in the match-up. Having almost a week off from the end of the regular season is huge for them. As usual, the team is close-lipped about the availability of their walking wounded, with the exception of Dennis Yan, who is definitely out for the weekend. As long as Syracuse isn’t scrambling to sign players to PTOs on Friday it’ll be a good sign that Gabriel Dumont, Jamie McBain, and Olivier Archambault will take to the ice.

When the team is healthy, it’ll be hard for any team (including the Toronto Marlies) to match their three top three lines. Plus, such a talented roster gives Coach Ben Groulx the option to mix-and-match all throughout the series (seriously Lightning fans, if you thought Coach Cooper likes mixing things up, watch Coach Goulx work his magic during a game).

Scott Thomas Photography

The final key will be the goaltending. Both Connor Ingram and Eddie Pasquale have been very, very good down the stretch. As of Tuesday, Coach Groulx would not announce a starter, stating that more information would come today (Thursday). If he truly believes that this is just “Game 77” - in other words, just another regular season game - he’ll keep the rotation going. The series does start off with back-to-back games, so each goaltender getting a start wouldn’t be that surprising.

Looking ahead, with a day off between game 3 on April 25th and game 4 on April 27th (if necessary), Coach Groulx could continue to rotate them out. Or, he could choose to ride the hotter hand like he did with Mike McKenna during the 2017 playoffs.

In a short five-game series, there isn’t a lot of time to adjust. If playoff “jitters” cost the Crunch a game in Syracuse, that could swing all of the momentum to the Amerks. The good news is that the style that Syracuse has played for most of the season is very conducive to playoff hockey. There isn’t much they have to change to continue their success. A series against a team they’ve have success with during the regular season should be a good baptism for the Crunch.

In order to give Syracuse fans a look at the other team in the series we reached out to the staff of Let’s Go Amerks with some questions. Keith was nice enough to respond.

Question number one: What the heck got into Zach Redmond this year? His production outpaces any numbers he’s put up in the pros throughout his career.

He was put in a position to play and took advantage of it. It also helped that players like Taylor Fedun and Matt Tennyson were called up early in the season along with an injury to Nathan Paetsch. Those three players out of the lineup gave him top playing time. He stepped up and never stopped.

Question two: With the Sabres missing the playoffs, they were able to send a few reinforcements down to the Amerks. Which player of those returned is going to make the biggest impact?

The obvious answer is Linus Ullmark. When he was up with the Sabres at the end of the season the Amerks struggled in net. There’s two other players that were gone longer that need to have a big impact: forward Nick Baptiste and defenseman Casey Nelson. They spent the second half of the season with the Sabres and proved themselves as NHL players. Casey Nelson has the easy description, play defense. Last season Baptiste had 25 goals in 59 games, these should be the last AHL games he plays before a full time NHL career.

Question 3: Which Crunch goalie would you rather see the Amerks face - Connor Ingram or Eddie Pasquale?

We’re 1-2 vs Connor Ingram and 0-1 vs Eddie Pasquale so I’ll go with Ingram since we’ve beat him once. No preference either way.

Question 4: What do you remember, if anything, from the Benoit Groulx coaching days in Rochester? (The current Syracuse coach ran the Amerks bench for two seasons from 2008-10)

I remember a lot and there probably isn’t enough space to go into details. He didn’t have a lot of talent to work with the first season, and the second season was full of conflict and ego’s within the team - that includes the players. The team was built to dominate but it fell apart. That was a long time ago and he’s probably grown as a person and coach. Chris Taylor [current Rochester head coach] was a player on that team and always speaks highly of Groulx with a lot of respect.

Question Five: After watching these teams match-up 10 times this season, what worries you the most about the Crunch? Conversely, what should be the thing that worries Crunch fans the most about the Amerks?

I’m worried that the Crunch will stay out of the penalty box. The Amerks are going to need every advantage. Crunch fans should worry about the Amerks flipping a switch. If they can roll four lines playing their best hockey they’ll be a dangerous team. The moment either team has a breakdown of some sort the other team is going to take advantage. That’s the obvious cliche answer and it would apply to any team in the North Division this season.

Bonus Question (from Alexandra): Section 25? WTH? Everyone knows Section 23 is the place to be.

That’s where the Crunch ticket office offers tickets to the Amerks booster club, they put us in the corner! A bunch of us have sat there often so we keep going with it. We’ll make sure you can hear us in 23!

Thank you to Keith. Follow him and the rest of the staff on Twitter at @LetsGoAmerks or at their site - Lets Go Amerks!

The Schedule

GAME 1 - Amerks @ Crunch - 4/20 | 7:00 PM

GAME 2 - Amerks @ Crunch - 4/21 | 7:00 PM

GAME 3 - Crunch @ Amerks - 4/25 | 7:05 PM

GAME 4 - Crunch @ Amerks - 4/27 | 7:05 PM (if necessary)

GAME 5 - Amerks @ Crunch - 4/28 | 7:00 PM (if necessary)

Predictions

JustinG.’s prediction - Crunch win in four as Coach Groulx continues to split time between his goaltenders. At least three games go into overtime (costing me valuable sleep) with Matt Bodie and Gabriel Dumont scoring OT winners.

Achariya’s prediction - Playing in Rochester will be like Crunch home games. Crunch in four.

Alex’s prediction - I’ll be nauseated.