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Crunch use offense and timely goaltending to advance

They scored 18 goals over 3 games, but it was the key saves that propelled them to the North Division finals.

Syracuse Crunch Daniel Walcott (85) congratulates goalie Connor Ingram (39) on his first American Hockey League (AHL) Calder Cup Playoff game against the Rochester Americans at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. Syracuse won 6-3.
Scott Thomas Photography

“He’s been awesome.”

That was Coach Groulx’s assessment of rookie goaltender Connor Ingram’s play this season. So he wasn’t worried about the young netminder making his first career playoff start Wednesday night against the Rochester Americans. Ingram proved his coach right as he turned aside 33 of the 36 shots he faced in the Crunch’s 6-3 victory.

With the win, the Crunch advance to the second round of the playoffs to face the winner of the Toronto/Utica match-up.

It’s easy to look at the final score and dismiss the goaltender as an afterthought. Yet, without Ingram’s strong play early in the game and when the Crunch were shorthanded (which was often), this series could easily still be going on.

Two weeks had passed since Ingram faced a puck fired in anger and it was important that he get his mind into the game early. The Amerks were more than happy to oblige as they directed a couple of shots at him as the game got underway. Ingram calmly deflected one with his right pad and then swallowed up another.

He would face more pressure after Dominik Masin was sent to the box for tripping. The Crunch were doing a decent job of killing the penalty and it looked like they were heading for another clear as Kevin Lynch tried to get to a loose puck near the top of the circles. Rochester’s Kevin Porter got to it first and zipped a pass over to Zach Redmond. The defenseman continued his breakout season by lifting the puck just past Ingram to give the Amerks their first lead of the series.

Trailing for the first time all series, the Crunch responded with some pressure of their own. They started to dominate the play at even strength and spent a lot of time in the Amerks zone. It was obvious that Rochester was focused on denying the Crunch their cross-ice passes that have been so effective throughout the series. The home team did an excellent job of breaking up passes and deflecting shots away from the goaltender, and stymied the Crunch offense.

A series of bad penalties put the Crunch back on their heels. First Daniel Walcott elbowed Sahir Gill in the neutral zone. Forty-two seconds later, Erik Condra was called for a slash and the Crunch were facing a lengthy 5-on-3 penalty kill. They deployed the same strategy they used at the end of game two: block shots and hope your goaltender is the best player on the ice. They did and he was. Rochester was unable to extend their lead.

Following the penalties, the Crunch started to generate some offense of their own. Gaining the zone, they focused more on shooting the puck at Linus Ullmark instead of trying to connect on two or three passes. More shots came from the point as they tried to find a deflection or lucky bounce to beat Ullmark, who looked sharp in the first period. He made a nifty glove save on Alex Volkov on a 2-on-1 with under 3 minutes to play.

The game plan finally paid off just before the end of the period. Domink Masin threw an innocent shot at the net right before he was hit by an Amerk. There wasn’t much on it, but Matthew Peca was open about three feet in front of Ullmark and he got his stick on the puck. It changed direction just enough to handcuff the goaltender and it squirted under his arm and across the goal line.

Despite spending a lengthy time killing penalties, the Crunch escaped the period tied at one. They started the second period shorthanded, as Kevin Lynch was assessed a roughing penalty at the end of the first period. Once again, Ingram was there to keep the game level. Jamie McBain gave up the puck behind his own net, which is a very bad place to do that. The puck came out to Nicholas Baptiste who fired it right at the net, but Ingram kept the paddle down and denied the effort.

Play slowly started to open up. The Crunch, with their side-to-side game nullified by the Amerks so far, tried a couple of long passes to spring their forwards. The passes were successful, but Rochester was able to recover in time to deny any real solid breakaway chances.

Just as Syracuse looked to be building up another solid run of play, the Amerks capitalized on a face-off win in the Crunch zone. Sean Malone cleanly won a face-off from Gabriel Dumont and Justin Bailey pounced on the puck in open space. He snapped it at the net and it went past a screened Ingram to give the Amerks a 2-1 lead.

As they did after the first goal, Syracuse responded with pressure. This time it paid off. Twenty-nine seconds after the Bailed goal, Cal Foote blasted a puck from the top of the left circle and it trickled past Ullmark. For Foote, it was his first career AHL playoff goal.

A side effect of the Crunch switching their attack to more of a point-shot based attack is that it opens up more space as their opponents move out towards the defense to block that shot. That opens up some passing lanes in front of the net and nineteen seconds after the Foote goal, the Crunch showed what they could do with a little space.

Peca rushed down the boards in the Amerks zone and skipped past a defender to retrieve a loose puck. He quickly backhanded a pass to Mitchell Stephens at the side of the net. Stephens didn’t hesitate to send the puck on a further journey as he slid it over to Olivier Archambault at the other side of the net. The former PTO player ended the puck’s journey by sending it past Ullmark.

The Crunch could smell the blood in the water and kept the pressure on. Two minutes after the Archambault goal, Stephens got one of his own. He teed up a puck from between the circles and ripped it past Ullmark. A stunned Rochester crowd could only watch silently as their team went from a 2-1 lead to a 4-2 deficit in just three minutes of play.

Unlike Saturday’s game, Rochester didn’t take a timeout following a flurry of Syracuse offense. They did, however, get a chance on the power play. They tried their best to take advantage with Alex Volkov in the box for interference. A combination of blocked shots, solid goaltending, and the fickle nature of a rolling puck kept the Amerks from scoring despite spending most of the two minutes in the Crunch’s zone.

Even with the quick turn of events, it still seemed like Rochester was in the game. All season long they had made a habit of coming back late in games and with the Crunch’s free-wheeling style of play, the Amerks might have been able to take advantage of a few defensive miscues to crawl back into the game. After all, that is what happened on Saturday. So, the third period would be tense.

With their season on the line, the Amerks came out with pressure as they peppered the Crunch net with a few shots. Ingram swatted them aside. For a long stretch of play Syracuse seemed content to sag back and make it hard for the Amerks to come into their zone with the puck. When the Crunch did have the puck, there was a lot more dumping in of the puck then is normal. It was effective as Rochester had a hard time keeping up that early pressure are were often forced to retreat to retrieve the puck.

The Crunch drew a penalty and went to work on the power play. Well, they tried to go to work. It was almost a disaster. Erik Cernak brought the puck up the ice and whiffed on a pass at his own blue line. The puck was sitting there for Colin Blackwell to steal and he rushed in all alone on Connor Ingram.

A goal here and it’s 4-3 with a lot of time left to play. The crowd, which had been silenced (except for the raucous Crunch supporters that had made the trip), would be back into it, and the momentum would be firmly back with the home team.

They didn’t get the goal because Ingram made the biggest save of the game. Blackwell tried to beat the rookie on the near side with a backhand, but Ingram got his skate on it to keep it out of the net.

Blackwell was shaken up on the play and slow to get up, so the Crunch rushed down the ice on what was effectively a five on three. Volkov spun a backhand to an uncovered Joseph and he slammed it past Ullmark. It was a two-goal swing that put the Crunch firmly in control.

That didn’t stop the Amerks from pressing the action. A bit later, Ingram dialed the clock back to the 1980s by stacking his pads and kicking away a shot attempt by Alex Nylander. It’s not often that a goaltender can be the difference in a 5-2 game, but between the stop on Nylander and denying Blackwell’s breakaway, he showed how important it is to have solid goaltending no matter how effective of an offense a team has.

Those two saves would prove even more important since Rochester was able to put the puck past him and creep within two with six minutes to go in the game. The Amerks came down the ice and things went a little wonky for the Crunch in their own zone when Joseph blew a tire. That gave a lane for the Amerks to attack.

Reid McNeill tried to cut them off at the net by sliding over. Somehow his glove went flying, as well. (I’m not saying he threw it, but it was suspiciously launched in the same direction as the skater with the puck) It wasn’t enough of a distraction as Danny O’Regan put the puck past Ingram to make it 5-3.

Things got even more uncomfortable for the Crunch as they took a penalty with four minutes to go. With the season on the line, Amerks coach Chris Taylor pulled his goaltender and Rochester went to work with a six on four advantage. Connor Ingram stood tall and dropped low to keep the puck out of the net making several key stops. Rochester was missing one of their top scorers as Justin Bailey had been upended by Daniel Walcott shortly before the power play and left the ice holding his shoulder.

Syracuse ended any chance for potential drama as Alex Volkov scored an empty net goal with less than a minute to go to put the Crunch up 6-3. That was the score when the final horn sounded on the Syracuse sweep.

They move onto the second round.

Random Thoughts:

  • It was kind of surprising that Ullmark wasn’t pulled after the fourth Syracuse goal, even if it had just been to wake up the Rochester team. Despite giving up 16 goals in three games, he wasn’t the reason the Amerks lost. Unfortunately, he also wasn’t able to come up with a key save at any point, so he wasn’t the reason they were able to steal any games either. That was the difference between the netminders for the two teams in this series: when the Crunch needed a stop they got if from Pasquale and Ingram, while the Amerks didn’t get any from Ullmark.
  • Matthew Peca was dominant on offense. He ended up with 8 points in the series (2 goals and 6 assists), but was especially effective in the last two games as he had 4 points in Game 2 and 3 points in Game 3. He was also effective in front of the net. His passing was slicker than normal and whenever he was racing for a loose puck he seemed to always be the first one there.
  • The depth of the Crunch’s scoring is going to give fits to whomever they face in the next round. Sixteen of the seventeen skaters that appeared in the series recorded a point (sorry, Troy Bourke), and twelve of them had multiple points. Eleven different players recorded a goal, including four defensemen. That type of distribution is hard to defend.
  • The Crunch will have to find a way to limit the penalties next round (broken record is broken). They were shorthanded 16 times against the Amerks, and while they ended up killing off 13 of them, playing with that kind of fire will burn them in the next round. Toronto was third in the league with 62 power play goals in the regular season, while Utica had 57. Both of those teams will have more firepower than when the Crunch faced them during the regular season due to their parent clubs no longer playing (sorry, Leaf fans).
  • While Bourke might not have a point, his line with newcomer Brenden Bradley and Walcott (or Joseph) was really good in Game 3. They did a real good job of shutting down the Amerks when they were on the ice and played physical. Even without showing up on the scoresheet, they were a big reason the Crunch advanced in three games.