The Syracuse Crunch had three games this week and for the first time in awhile they didn’t make a clean sweep of it. After beating Binghamton for the millionth time this season on Wednesday, they beat fellow New York team Rochester on Friday before succumbing to the southernmost-most team on their schedule - the Charlotte Checkers on Saturday.
Still, the two wins were enough to bump the Crunch over the 90-point threshold and have them on the verge of clinching home-ice in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs. They currently sit ten points up on third place Rochester and 11 points up on fourth place Utica with six games remaining for each team. So if the Crunch can secure two points over the next two weeks they will wrap up second place in the North Division. They still have a mathematical shot of catching the Marlies for first, but trailing by nine points it isn’t very likely.
While the Crunch’s winning streak ended at seven games, the good news is that some of their injured players are back in the line-up. While Michael Bournival remains out for the season and Jonne Tammela, Dennis Yan and Mitchell Stephens are day to day, all of the banged up defensemen are back and playing again which is a good thing for a unit that has struggled at times this season.
The Crunch do still have shot of setting some franchise records. The all-time high water mark in wins is 47 which was set by the 2005-06 club. That team, led by Mark Hartigan (75 points) and Andy Delmore (72 points) also recorded a franchise-best 102 points. Both of those marks are within grasp of this year’s collection of rookies skating for the Crunch.
Wednesday March 28th Binghamton Devils 1, Syracuse Crunch 5
With Mitchell Stephens out due to an injury, there was a little reshuffling of the lines. Alex Volkov joined Mathieu Joseph and Gabriel Dumont on the top line and the young Alexey Lipanov found himself in the line-up. With 18-year-olds there is going to be some ups and downs in their game and the Wednesday game definitely had it’s good and bad moments for the Lightning third round draft pick.
On his first shift he threw the puck into the center of the ice of his own zone forcing Connor Ingram into an early difficult save. Lipanov would also pick up a cheap hooking penalty later in the first period. Yet, despite his early struggles the coaching staff would still get him his regular shifts and he would reward their trust with steadily improved play (and a lot of face-off wins).
The Crunch would, as they have so often in the month of March, draw first blood. Their goal would come on the power play (which entered 8-for-34 against the Devils on the season) after a lot of sustained pressure. The first unit was precise and quick with their passing and the puck movement kept the Devils moving constantly. Carter Verhaeghe capped off the play by wristing a shot through a double screen provided by Gabriel Dumont and Olivier Archambault. Eddie Lack never saw the puck until he was digging it out of the back of the net and the Crunch had an early 1-0 lead.
After giving the Devils a power play right after the goal (aren’t the Crunch generous) Syracuse doubled their lead on a nice odd man rush goal. Kevin Lynch (the man who took the penalty) rushed down the ice with the puck and slid it over to Archambault. The puck was slightly deflected by the Binghamton defender and Archambault had to reach back to grab it. He was still able to get enough mustard on it to sling it past Lack.
It wasn’t all offense for the Crunch. They did play some solid defense, especially after making mistakes. Matt Bodie did something bad with the puck (tried to force a pass that was blocked) and the Devils broke in on Ingram two-on-none. However Joseph used his speed, not for offense this time, and hustled back to eliminate John Quenneville’s passing lane. The Devils forward was forced to drive in on the net and he fumbled the puck and danger was averted.
With time winding down in the period Dumont flung a puck on net in hopes of squeaking in one last goal. The shot was knocked down but Carter Verhaeghe was hanging around the net and was able to backhand the puck home just before the horn sounded to end the period.
The Devils came out with a little more gumption in the second period and controlled play for most of the early part. They were rewarded with a goal on a bit of a broken play in front of the Crunch net. Connor Ingram made a nice play to poke a puck away from his crease. He put it into an empty area. Unfortunately Steve Santini, who is not one of Ingram’s teammates, was the first to the puck and he rocketed it over Ingram who had not had a chance to reset.
Ingram had a strong period despite the goal and he made two of his best saves on Bracken Kearns who had two chances at goal after Jamie McBain fell down.
Alex Gallant managed to get his seemingly mandatory one-per-game fight in later in the period as he took down Michael Latta in a one-sided affair.
Lipanov had his best chance for his first professional goal in the third period as his countryman fed him from behind the net. Lipanov tried to stuff it home but Lack, who had made several good saves in the second and third period after a weak first 20 minutes, held strong and denied the Russian. Lipanov seemed to adjust to the speed of the game as it went along and made several nice plays in both the offensive and defensive zone.
Despite his rough start to the game Lack was money when it came to stopping Crunch breakaways. He denied Joseph and Peca who both darted in unmarked from the blue line and then the Devils goaltender stoned Verhaeghe on a breakaway.
He wasn’t so good on other odd-man rushes. Joseph snuck through a scrum in his own zone and poked the puck to the neutral zone, he zoomed after it and fed it over to Volkov who beat Lack. Nice play for his 50th point for the rookie.
Kevin Lynch made it 5-1 after Lipanov won a face off. Lynch fought through a crowd to back hand it over Lack. For Lipanov the assist was his first professional point.
Friday March 30 Belleville Senators 1, Syracuse 4
With a few days off, the Crunch got a little healthier. Ben Thomas returned to the line-up after missing the last few games. With Thomas healthy, the Crunch released T.J. Melancon from his PTO. For the first time in weeks the core defense was back and playing together. Surely, they wouldn’t give up an early goal, right?
Wrong. Three minutes into the game Belleville’s Boston Leier found himself along in front of Eddie Pasquale and managed to stuff it past the Crunch’s goalie. Not to spoil the ending, but it was the only goal the Senators would get past the goal line.
It was a noteworthy goal because it was the first time since the 17:52 minute mark of the third period on March 11th that the Crunch were trailing in regulation. That’s over two weeks and six games that the Crunch either were tied or held the lead against their opponents. It speaks to their ability to score early and hold onto leads during their scorching hot play in the month of May.
It seemed that Coach Groulx was experimenting with line combinations as he mixed and matched all game long. It was one of those temporary lines that would equal the score. Alex Gallant, known more for his pugilistic prowess made a nice play at the Belleville blue line and passed the puck to Gabriel Dumont. The former Ottawa Senator touched the pass to Alex Volkov and the Russian made a nifty move and put a backhander past Belleville goalie Filip Gustavsson.
Other than some penalties there wasn’t much happening through the rest of the period. The Crunch ended up with a 9-7 shots advantage, good but not quite as good as they had been in first periods over their six game winning streak.
The Crunch did pick up the pace in the second period as they spend most of the first five minutes in the Senators zone. The few times that Belleville managed to get the puck out of their zone, it was a quick one and done before the Crunch were rushing back down the ice.
The Senators were helped out by a questionable too many men on the ice penalty where it seemed like the referees just plain miscounted the number Crunch on the ice. Belleville weren’t able to take advantage of the gift, although they did ting one off the post for a momentary scare.
As they have done over the last two weeks the Crunch withstood the pressure and responded, The Russian Rookie, Volkov, slammed home a one-timer from the slot off of a nice pass from Mathieu Joseph. The assist gave Joseph his 51st point of the season which is sixth all time for Crunch rookies.
Kevin Lynch, who has been picking up the points lately almost added another as he broke in all alone on Gustavsson shorthanded (Alex Gallant was in the box after taking a bad penalty). The 19-year-old goaltender was up to the task and denied Lynch to keep the Crunch lead at one.
Joseph extended the lead early in the third period as he slung home a shot right off of a Dumont face-off win.
The Crunch didn’t get long to enjoy the lead as Reid McNeill hauled down Nick Paul and the refs awarded Belleville a deserved penalty shot.
Paul made a nice move to get Pasquale to commit and go down, but as Paul brought the puck to his forehand he couldn’t elevate it and the Crunch goaltender was able to stop it with his right pad. The Senators got another power play as Gallant checked a Senator into the bench. Which would have been ok if he still had the puck and it wasn’t from behind.
The Senators controlled the play following the Joseph goal. Pasquale’s best non-penalty shot save came against Ethan Werek. Werek came in on a 2-on-1 and he tried to pass it in front of the crease, Jamie McBain made a nice play to block the pass, but Pasquale had already left his post to cover the potential shot. The puck bounced back to Werik who fired it on net. Pasquale recovered and shot out his left pad to deflect the puck behind the net.
The offense rewarded Pasquale’s solid play as Kevin Lynch salted away the victory as he ripped the puck past the goaltender for the fourth Crunch goal. Young Alexey Lipanov made a perfect pass past three Senator defenders to set up the goal.
Two goals for Volkov, two points for Dumont and Joseph, and twenty-seven saves for Pasquale led the Crunch to their seventh straight victory and 43rd overall on the season.
Saturday March 31st Charlotte Checkers 4, Syracuse Crunch 1
The month of March came to an end and so did the Crunch’s winning streak. The Checkers came out fast and overwhelmed the Crunch with 17 shots in the first period. They also scored a goal. They also scored another in the second and two more in the third. Sadly, Syracuse could only muster one, meaningless power play goal in the third and were “taught a lesson” in the words of Coach Groulx.
Connor Ingram got the start and was “spectacular” according to his head coach, especially in the first period where he turned away 16 of 17 shots and kept the score from getting out of hand. The Crunch had a little issue in dealing with the Checkers speed early on and they hung out Ingram with some sloppy play that led to turnovers.
Ingram made several impressive stops including one on Andrew Poturalski as he flashed out the right pad to deny the Checker forward at the doorstep (check the save out at the :53 mark of the highlight video above). The one puck that did get by him in the first was an innocuous shot from the point from Trevor Carrick that was deflected on its way to the net.
The next two goals for the Checkers were almost identical. Charlotte slips through the Crunch defense and Greg McKegg taps home easy goals that Ingram had no chance to stop. Olivier Archambault did draw the Crunch within two as he converted a one-time pass from Erik Condra on the power play.
The Crunch managed to keep the pressure on goaltender Jeremy Smith but he was up to the task as he stopped Erik Condra on a breakaway and Carter Verhaeghe from a similar angle that Archambault has scored from.
As Condra said after the game, the Crunch can’t expect to “win every game” and the effort they put forth after the first period was commendable. Sometimes the other team is just better for that night.
Rookies, Rookies everywhere, but not a first-rounder in sight
Lindsay Kramer had an excellent post on how well Ben Groulx is doing this season despite the large influx of rookies. Once of the points that is mentioned in the post, despite starting upwards of 10 rookies in a game, not a single one of the rookies that played for the Crunch this year was a first round pick (that is expected to change this week with Cal Foote joining the team at the conclusion of his junior season).
That’s indicative of two things:
1: The Lightning are very good at finding talent in later rounds of the draft.
2: The Lightning have developed a very short leash with their first round picks and are more than willing to deal them early rather then have them languish in the minors hurting their value.
As quick as the Lightning have been to deal their first round picks under Mr. Yzerman’s leadership, not having a first-rounder play this year is more an abnormally than any type of concrete plan moving forward. Here are the first round selections during the Yzerman Era:
2017: Cal Foote - not eligible until this week
2016: Brett Howden - 5 games - not eligible due to age, he did appear in a few games at the end of last year after his juniors season ended.
2015: no first round pick
2014: Anthony DeAngelo 69 games in 2015-16
2013: Jonathan Drouin 19 games over two season for rehab/conditioning stint purposes
2012: Slater Koekkoek 180 games over three seasons
2012: Andrei Vasilevskiy 37 games over two seasons
2011: Vlad Namestnikov 134 games over three seasons
2010: Brett Connolly 137 games over two seasons
Based on how the Lightning treat their prospects the first round picks that would be in the AHL this season would have been from the 2013-15 draft classes.
Drouin was an elite talent, albeit one that appears to be maxing out at 50 points a season, and was slotted for the NHL the minute he was drafted. If the AHL allowed 18 year-olds there is a good chance he would have ended up there following his draft year. He was too good for juniors, but not quite ready for the NHL.
DeAngelo had spent a year with the Crunch and was most likely going to spend at least one more with them before he was traded. If he was still with the organization, there is a good chance he would have been shuffling back and forth between the Lightning and Syracuse this season.
Howden and Foote were too young to start the season in the AHL, so they spent the year in juniors. Most likely Howden would have been a key piece for the Crunch next season if he hadn’t been included in the Ryan McDonagh trade.
So, not having a first round pick was just a product of some of the deals Mr. Yzerman had made over the last couple of seasons. That’s an anomaly that will continue next season as well as Foote will most likely return to his junior team for another season. After that he should spend at least one season with the Crunch before heading to the Lightning.
The next few seasons will continue to feature lower round draft picks getting their reps in with the Crunch before the organization decides on if they are ready for the big time or not.
Friday April 6th at Binghamton 7:05 pm
Saturday April 7th versus Utica 7:05pm
Sunday April 8th versus Binghamton 5:00pm