Prior to the opening game of the Syracuse Crunch’s first round series against the Rochester Americans, head coach Benoit Groulx reiterated his philosophy for the playoffs. He once again referenced it as “Game 77” - an extension of the regular season as opposed to the start of the postseason. When pressed for what he was looking for out of his team, he responded with, “Gotta do our things. Gotta play our game. This is what I look for.”
The Crunch played their game, alright. They played it all the way to a resounding 6-2 victory Friday night.
While the final score indicates a blowout, it was a tight game throughout most of the night. Syracuse went into the final period protecting a 3-2 lead. Their aggressive play throughout the game wore down the Amerks, who twice came back from a goal down to tie the game. Gabriel Dumont, who missed the final few games of the regular season and was questionable for the start of this series, proved to be the difference as he scored three times and assisted on another goal.
Things started a bit auspiciously for the Crunch as the first real chance of the game went to Rochester. A Syracuse shot from the blueline was blocked and the Amerks rushed the other way. Justin Bailey was in all alone on veteran Eddie Pasquale with a chance to put the Amerks on the board before the packed crowd was even able to settle in their seats. The Rochester forward swerved to his backhand and tried to wait Pasquale out, but ran out of space and his feeble attempt was easily swatted aside.
The early play continued in favor of Rochester. They looked to neutralize Syracuse’s aggressive forecheck by making quick passes out of their zone. It worked, and the Crunch forwards expended a lot of energy chasing the puck. However, as they chased Rochester’s players in the zone, they made sure to land a hit almost every time a pass was made. The Amerks might get the puck out, sure, but they also would pay for it.
It would be Gabriel Dumont who kicked off the scoring. After he turned the puck over in his own zone, he scrambled back behind the net to recover the puck and regain possession for the Crunch. The puck would end up with defenseman Jamie McBain, another player who has been held out of the final weekend of play, who moved the play up to Carter Verhaeghe.
With the puck in the Rochester end, Verhaeghe knew Dumont was skating to an open spot. He also knew his own time was running out and that an Amerk was ready to deliver a big hit. Verhaeghe took the hit and was violently spilled to the ice, but he also got the puck to Dumont who took his time waiting for goaltender Linus Ullmark to commit. Once the big man was down, Dumont calmly slid the puck into an open net to give the Crunch the lead.
Much like the regular season, Syracuse soon committed a penalty after scoring a goal. With Kevin Lynch in the box, the Amerks won the offensive zone face off. The puck was worked back to the point and Rochester’s leading scorer, defenseman Zach Redmond, blasted a puck past everyone - including Pasquale - to tie the game at one.
With both teams getting their opening goals out of the way, play opened up a bit as the two teams rushed up and down the ice creating chances. The game was also getting physical, with players from each team landing hits. Daniel Walcott, whose sole mission on the night was to hit everything that wasn’t in a Syracuse uniform, fired a shot Ullmark and, in Syracuse’s broadcaster Lukas Favale’s words, “went a little hard to the net”. A less partial observer might say he ran over Ullmark. Luckily for the Crunch, Rochester’s Andrew MacWilliam was a little too rigorous in defending his goaltender’s honor and picked up an offsetting cross-checking penalty.
As the period continued, the Crunch made a habit out of finishing all of their hits, and the Amerks started to be a little quicker and a little sloppier with their passing. The Crunch were waiting to pounce on loose pucks and errant passes. It was only a matter of time before Syracuse would make their opponents pay for their lack of accuracy.
The Crunch retook the lead after a tremendous job keeping the puck in the zone. Alex Volkov started the sequence with a quick backhand pass to Dumont, who flung it across the ice in a way that was almost out of Jamie McBain’s reach. McBain picked off the pass just when it looked like the Amerks were going to be able to break out. Syracuse cycled it around a few times before working it back to the middle of the ice, where McBain wristed a shot through traffic and into the net.
There is one flaw in the Crunch’s pressure-heavy defense (aside from taking penalties far away from their defensive zone): If the other team is able to slip by the forecheckers and the defender hanging around center ice, they are free to skate in with numbers on Pasquale. With less than a minute to go in the period, that’s exactly what happened. Reid McNeill stepped up to try and make a play and was caught flat-footed at center ice. Kyle Criscuolo zoomed by him in and in on net where he beat Pasquale with a pinpoint shot. Despite a period in which the Crunch outplayed the Amerks for long stretches, the score was level at 2 as the whistle sounded to end the first 20 minutes of play.
After some rest and a quick refresher on the game plan, the Crunch came back out onto the ice and took the lead. Dominik Masin brought the puck into the zone and dropped it off for Olivier Archambault. Masin kept going to the front of the net and was in position to poke the rebound home after Ullmark made saves on Matt Peca and Mitchell Stephens. It was a well drawn up entry and that paid off due to excellent execution. While Archambault doesn’t get an assist in the box score, the pass he threaded to Peca for the initial shot on goal was the key to the play.
Shortly after the goal, Pasquale made his save of the game denied Seth Griffith on a breakaway after the Crunch turned the puck over once again in the neutral zone. If the Amerks had manged to scored that quickly after a Crunch goal for the second time in the game, they would have definitely had the momentum and the result might have looked a lot different.
The Amerks got their first sustained pressure of the period after the Crunch found themselves out of sorts. They iced a few pucks (once by necessity, twice by accident) and Matt Peca turned the puck over with a few blind passes. Pasquale, who to this point only had to make a save at a time, turned aside a few consecutive attempts before covering the puck.
The Crunch finally got their first power play when Nicolas Baptiste got a little frisky with his stick and walloped Masin in the face with it. Keeping with the theme that this is just game 77 of the regular season, Syracuse was unable to convert with the extra skater. Too many cross ice passes were left wanting, and Rochester had a relatively easy time keeping them off of the scoreboard.
Play evened out as the period continued, with both teams trading chances but not able to sustain much pressure. Rochester tightened up in their zone and were able to avoid the Crunch pressure, while Pasquale (and the post) helped keep the Amerks off of the scoreboard. Through two periods the Crunch led 3-2 in goals and on the shot clock 27-20.
The third period started out cautiously with the first five minutes of play going back and forth. Archambault brought that to an end with an unneeded slash on Baptiste, a move that gave the Amerks a power play. Rochester was unable to capitalize with their advantage and a short-handed break for Syracuse led to a scary moment as Walcott was turned into the boards behind the Rochester net by Redmond. The Crunch forward collided with the endboards without being able to brace himself and was slow to get up. His pain provided an advantage as Redmond picked up a boarding penalty, negating the Amerks man advantage.
While nothing came out of the four on four or the short power play for the Crunch, Walcott had his revenge on his next shift as he gobbled up the puck in the neutral zone and peddled into the Amerks zone. He slid the puck over to Brendan Bradley who poked it into the net. Bradley, who was signed to a PTO in the final week of the season, netted his first career AHL goal with the tally.
The two goal lead and the constant physical play by Syracuse seemed to take its toll on Rochester. After spending the first two periods relatively penalty free, a 30 second burst of folly doomed their hopes. First Brendan Guhle picked up a cross checking call and then Taylor Fedun hooked a Crunch forward to give Syracuse a 5-on-3 power play. With two extra men on the ice they were able to find the back of the net. Erik Cernak powered a slapshot from the blueline that Dumont deflected as it whistled past him to improve the score to 5-2 in favor of the Crunch.
Despite there being five minutes left in the game, it was over and Rochester knew it. The Amerks did try to push the play a little, pulling Ullmark with over a minute to go in the game, but even that didn’t pan out as Dumont was able to hit the empty net from center ice to finish off his hat trick. The Crunch skated away with a comfortable win and 1-0 lead in the series.
- Pasquale faced 30 shots in the game and stopped 28 of them, but it was kind of a weird game for him, especially in the first two periods. The Amerks didn’t have a lot of sustained pressure, but it seemed every shot they did generate forced a tough save from the veteran Crunch netminder. There were several odd-man rushes and shots from players along in front of the net. There would be long lulls in action for him followed by the need to make a spectacular save. He was up for it and it will be interesting to see if Coach Groulx plays him in back-to-back games.
- The Amerks gave the Crunch way too much space and way too many turnovers in the offensive zone. Whether it was from them being on their heels because of the forechecking or just bad decisions, there were too many loose pucks and open players in their zone. They did a commendable job of limiting Syracuse’s offense in the first two periods, but were worn out by the third.
- Daniel Walcott had a very strong game and, along with Troy Bourke and Branden Bradley, they set the tone for most of the game. However, his hit on Ullmark was over the line. There was no need to run the goaltender, especially one that was just coming back from a concussion. For the rest of the game he flirted with the line between physical and dirty very well, and it was a big part of the Crunch’s victory.
- Jamie McBain had three points on the night and the defense sans Ben Thomas played very well. Cal Foote continued to impress and had a solid game despite not showing up on the scoreboard. The blueliners were solid in their own zone and chipped in on offense, pinching at the right times and not getting caught out of position (except for McNeill on the second Amerks goal).
- Special teams: The Crunch took six penalties and had to kill off five power plays. That’s not ideal, but with the style they play it’s going to happen. It shouldn’t burn them too much against a Rochester team that was average with the man-advantage, but should they advance it could decide a series. On the other hand, their power play was stagnant and plagued with a lot of problems they had during the regular season - inability to get into the zone and bad passing once they did get set up. They did convert on the five-on-three, which is nice, but a little more effort on the regular power play would be nice to see.
Game Two is tonight in Syracuse. Expect some line-up changes from the Amerks, but more of the same from the Crunch.