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Crunch keep the offense rolling in a 6-5 win

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Coach Goulx might have preferred a less wild win, but the Crunch goes to Rochester with a 2-0 series lead.

Courtesy of Scott Thomas Photography

Chances are, if a game is highly entertaining to the fans, it is a game that will drive coaches insane. After playing a near perfect first game, the Syracuse Crunch’s performance in their second game against the Rochester Americans most likely sent head coach Benoit Groulx scrambling for the nearest bottle of Pepto Bismol. Luckily, they had just enough offense to hold off the Amerks by a score of 6-5.

Rochester was nearly skated off the ice in the third period of Game One on Friday night. They clearly wanted to set the tone early in Game Two that they wouldn’t be pushed around. Following a stoppage of play just a few seconds into the game, both Colin Blackwell and Matt Tennyson took extra shots at Erik Cernak. That was just the start of an intense contest.

During the next minute or so of play, the Amerks were throwing checks around all over the ice, emulating the Crunch’s game plan from the previous night. Coach Groulx responded by unleashing Daniel Walcott. Walcott did what he does best: throw his body into other players. He dumped Tennyson into the benches with a check, and the Amerks defenseman over-retaliated with a couple of extra shoves. He was sent to the box for roughing.

It didn’t take the Crunch long to capitalize on the man advantage. After sustaining a ton of zone time, Matthew Peca scored on a wrist shot from just outside the circles. It wasn’t the hardest shot he ever released in his career, but it was accurate enough to get past Linus Ullmark.

The Crunch weren’t quite as physical as they had been in the first game. They were, unfortunately, as undisciplined as they had been in Game One. Three straight penalties over the next ten minutes sapped any momentum that they had generated with the Peca goal. While they killed the first two penalties fairly easily, the third one cost them.

The penalty came about in a bit of a weird way. There was a battle for the puck to Eddie Pasquale’s right side. It looked like the puck was either on the side of the net or underneath the crush of bodies lying on the ice, but the ref refused to blow the whistle for about an extra eight or nine seconds. When he finally did there was the customary pushing and shoving that comes with goal mouth scrums. As it was dying down, Colin Blackwell went down as if he was speared. It didn’t appear to be actually clear if it was Matt Bodie who caused him to go crashing to the ice, but it was the Crunch defenseman who ended up in the penalty box with a slashing penalty.

There was no permanent damage to Blackwell because he was right back on the ice for the Amerks power play. He recovered from the injury in time to tip home a point shot from Stuart Percey to tie the game at one.

The physical play continued. Mathieu Joseph was rocked on a clean open ice hit by Andrew MacWilliam. While the Syracuse rookie would skate off the ice right after the collision he wouldn’t miss his next shift.

What a shift it was.

Three Amerks converged on Carter Verheaghe as he brought it into the Rochester zone. Just before getting squashed against the glass Verhaeghe was able to slip the puck to Dominik Masin. The defenseman then slid it to Peca at the side of the net, who instantly fired it to a charging Joseph who slammed it home into the net that had been vacated by Ullmark as the goaltender glided over to stop a shot from Peca. It was pretty...so pretty.

Despite only having six shots on net, the Crunch ended the first period with a 2-1 lead. The Amerks controlled a lot of the play thanks to their three power plays, but they also did a good job of bottling up the Syracuse offense for most of the period. While the play wasn’t as great as it could have been, both coaches were probably pleased with the effort their teams put forth in the first twenty minutes.

It was the next forty that would have both sides questioning their life choices.

The Crunch jumped out of the gates in the second period. Just 90 seconds into the middle frame Olivier Archambault was in front of the net and in perfect position to put home a rebound from Mitchell Stephens shot. On just their eighth shot of the game, the Crunch had a 3-1 lead.

The ninth shot for Syracuse went in as well, and it came from an unlikely source. Reid McNeill had played 60 games in Crunch uniform (59 regular season and one playoff) and he had not recorded a goal. That streak came to an end at the 2:15 mark of the second period on Saturday night when he flung what appeared to be a harmless shot at the Rochester net. Somehow Ullmark never saw it and it went in. The Crunch were up 4-1, and it appeared that the rout was on.

Rochester head coach Chris Taylor could see the series slipping away from his team. Despite playing fairly well, they were down by three goals and the Crunch faithful were in full voice. So he did what any coach would do - he called a time out.

At first it didn’t seem to help as the Crunch went on the power play and had a chance to put the game out of reach. For a brief second it looked like they might have scored their fifth goal of the game. A scramble in front of Ullmark led to a whistle being blown and Syracuse players emphatically pointing at the net as if to indicate the puck went in. The refs took a look and after a brief review ruled that there was no goal.

That break helped the Amerks. Shortly after, the Crunch were a bit careless with the puck and Kevin Porter intercepted a pass near the blue line. His pass sprung Justin Bailey on a breakaway. Pasquale wasn’t able to bail out the defensemen and the lead was cut to 4-2.

A minute later Stuart Percy pulled off a Reid McNeill imitation with his own floating shot at goal, and it, too, eluded the goaltender. It was a goal Eddie Pasquale would surely like back. Just like that, the Crunch’s lead was down to one.

Both teams quickly realized that if they continued to play in this fashion they were risking the ire of their respective coaches, and a possible bag skate at their next practice. Play settled down. There was a lot of skating back and forth, but no more scoring as the defenses on both ends tightened up in their zone. The horn sounded to end the period just before Verhaeghe fired one more shot on net. His tardiness set off the Amerks and everyone joined up to shove and tug on each others jerseys, although no penalties were awarded.

In game one, the Crunch took over the game in the third period. For a hot minute it looked like it would happen again, despite a close call three minutes in when Stuart Percy rang a shot off the post. After dodging that blow, the Crunch struck. Alex Volkov tapped home a pass from Jamie McBain to give Syracuse a 5-3 lead.

Originally, it looked like the Crunch had overpassed their way out of a prime scoring opportunity after McBain kicked a drop pass down to the blue line. As he went to retrieve it, he peeked in front of the net and spied Volkov. His pass was on the money and the Crunch’s leading goal scorer in the regular season deflected it past Ullmark.

Before the Crunch goal could be announced or the crowd could taunt Ullmark, Kevin Porter dashed into the offensive zone to receive a drop pass. He slithered to the center of the ice and snuck a shot through Pasquale to get the deficit back to one. It was another goal that Pasquale would like to have back. It’s possible that playing on back to back nights was wearing on the goalie, who had been so good down the stretch.

It must have been frustrating for Syracuse (and their fans) to be unable to keep separation from the Amerks. Every time it seemed like the Crunch would have some breathing room, Rochester would find a way to climb back into the game. That can be demoralizing for a team, and for some it might have been too much. But the tenacious Crunch kept going.

Thirty seconds after the Porter goal, Alex Volkov picked up his second goal of the night. Cal Foote fired a puck that was blocked by the Amerks. The rebound came to Matt Bodie who was able to glove it down and then flick it towards the net. It hit a crowd of players in front of the net before dropping to the stick of Volkov who swatted it into the net before Ullmark could recover. The lead was back to two.

The celebration wouldn’t last long. The Amerks quickly scored not long after Volkov’s second of the night to make it 6-5. Nicolas Baptiste deflected a shot from Andrew MacWilliam past Pasquale. There is apparently a rule somewhere that the Crunch can’t have a multi-goal lead for more than two minutes.

The Crunch were on their heels a bit, and Erik Condra made things a little worse by taking a penalty. On the ensuing penalty kill, Gabriel Dumont fell to his knees after a face off. With the puck right in front of him, he stuck his hand over the puck for just the briefest of moments. Unfortunately, it was long enough for the refs to consider it a delay of game. Despite an animated disagreement from Dumont, the Amerks had a 5-3 advantage for 47 seconds.

During the two-man disadvantage, Pasquale remembered he was one of the best goalies in the league over the last few months and turned aside several quality shots from Rochester to preserve the lead. With their goaltender regaining his form and the Crunch’s penalty kill putting in some solid work, the Crunch killed off both penalties.

As time dwindled down, it became apparent that the refs had decided to let the teams settle it without the benefit of a power play. At one point, the puck was pinned up against the boards in the Syracuse zone and Dumont delivered four straight cross-checks to Blackwell’s back. The young Amerk calmly turned around and cross-checked Dumont in the face right in front of the ref. No call.

In the final minutes, a strong forecheck helped keep Ullmark in the net more than the Amerks would have liked. Even when they had the chance to pull him, the Crunch’s defense tightened up enough so that Rochester had trouble keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Time expired and the Crunch walked away with a hard-fought 6-5 win. Pasquale finished with 20 saves on 25 shots while Linus Ullmark stopped 16 of 22.

The series takes a few days off before continuing in Rochester on Wednesday. The Crunch have a chance to close it out, while the Amerks hope some home cooking will help them stave off elimination.

Random Thoughts:

  • After Game One, Coach Groulx struggled to come up with some areas that the Crunch could improve on. He won’t have that problem after Game Two. The Crunch were nowhere near as aggressive as they were in Friday night’s game. They also over complicated some of their offense (an issue they’ve had off and on all year long). Their defensive zone coverage was lacking at times as well.
  • Eddie Pasquale did not have his best game of the season. The Porter and Percy goals were ones he should have stopped. Yet, when the Crunch needed him to step up on the five-on-three penalty kill, he did. There are some games where the stats don’t show how important the goaltender was in the game. This was one of them. If he gets beat during that PK and the Amerks tie it up, the entire momentum of the game swings. It will be interesting to see if Coach Groulx starts him in Game 3 or if he gives Connor Ingram the chance to close out the series in Rochester.
  • The Amerks made a few roster changes for Game Two. Stuart Percy replaced Casey Nelson on defense, and he responded with a goal and an assist. Chances are Percy is back in the line-up in Game Three.
  • Before the game, Coach Goulx stated that the team that made the adjustments would win the game. Rochester made the right adjustments.The Amerks didn’t allow the Crunch as much space in the offensive zone as they did in the first game. However, Syracuse responded by just trying to get the puck on net. It worked, as they scored on a couple of rebound goals. While the Amerks did a good job of cutting down the passing lanes, they did a poor job of marking players in front of the net. The Joseph goal, the Archambault goal, and both of Volkov’s goals were the result of Crunch players being left alone in front of the goaltender.
  • There was a lot of physical play in the game, but it was clean roughhousing. Mathieu Joseph was the victim of at least three huge hits, including the MacWilliam hit at center ice. On the other hand, Matt Tennyson seemed to be picking himself off the ice every shift after a big hit. The two teams played a hard, clean game - hopefully that continues for the rest of the series.
  • Rochester did a good job of shutting down Gabriel Dumont for most of the game. They had no answer for Matt Peca, though. The Crunch’s depth is going to do them well as the playoffs continue.
  • The three stars of the game were Erik Condra, Alex Volkov and Matt Peca. It took a little hometown cooking to get Condra the third star. A strong case should have been made for Justin Bailey and/or Kevin Porter, who were thorns in the sides of the Crunch all night long, especially when Syracuse was shorthanded.