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AHL Round Two Preview: Syracuse Crunch vs. Toronto Marlies

A rematch of last year’s round two pits the top two teams in the North Division against each other.

Let the games begin!

Four score and seven days ago, the Syracuse Crunch beat the Rochester Americans to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Okay, it wasn’t quite that long ago, but it has been a week since they took the ice. Considering there was three days between Game 2 and Game 3 in that series, the Crunch have only played once in the last two weeks. That’s not a lot of hockey at this time of year. So, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for them to be a little rusty when they kick off their series against the Toronto Marlies today in Toronto.

The Marlies, thanks to a scare thrown at them by the Utica Comets, did go the distance in round one, but they’ve been off since Sunday. So, both teams should be well-rested when the puck drops at Ricoh Coliseum at 7:00pm.

The schedule for this round is a bit, how shall we say, unique? Game One is on Thursday in Toronto and Game Two is on Saturday, also in Toronto. That is fairly normal, but then things get a bit squirrelly. Game Three is in Syracuse - on Sunday. That’s right, the teams play back-to-back games in different cities. While that is normal in the regular season, it is a bit odd for the playoffs. Game Four is Tuesday and, should the series continue, the rest of the games are spaced out normally.

That little glitch leads to four games in six nights for the teams and will most likely lead to at least one start for Ingram. The team has been rotating between the two all season long so it shouldn’t be too big of a deal, but it is something to look out for.

How to follow the Crunch as things get going tonight

  • The pre-game radio broadcast with Lukas Favale will start at 6:45 EST on ESPN Syracuse. You can listen to the game in its entirety for free.
  • AHL Live has special playoff pricing deals for every game of the AHL playoffs, as well as team-specific packages. There’s also a pay-per-view option.
  • Be sure to follow the team on Twitter and Instagram for updates if you’re away from other options.
  • Look for pre-and-post-game interviews on the Crunch’s YouTube.

Series preview

The focus of the series will be Syracuse’s suddenly unstoppable offense (averaging a robust 6 goals per game) against Toronto’s staunch defense which led the regular season with a 2.24 goals against average.

It’s also a rematch of last season’s second round classic that the Crunch won in seven games on their way to the Calder Cup Finals. The Marlies rebounded from their early exit by having an extraordinary season. Remember when the Crunch were struggling at the beginning of the season? Well, the Marlies were winning. And when the Crunch started to figure it out in late November? The Marlies were winning. Then when the Crunch were darn near unbeatable at the end of the season? Yup, the Marlies were still winning.

Most of that winning was on the back of Garret Sparks in net. The veteran goalie posted a 1.79 goals against average and a .936 save percentage. He accounted for 31 of the Marlies 54 wins and was named the league’s outstanding goaltender for the season. So, he has that going for him.

In the first round, his overall numbers looked a little more pedestrian (.906 SV% and 2.66 GAA), which is traced directly to the two bad games in Utica that Toronto lost. He won all three games in Toronto, posting a .958 SV% and 1.33 GAA. That is pretty darn good. So was his 37-save shutout in Game Five.

Okay, so, how will the Crunch win?

The challenge for the Crunch is simple (at least on paper): Find a way to score. They’re not going to win these games 2-1 or 1-0. They have to find a way to get the puck in the net and the best plan, at least to head coach Ben Groulx, is to simply “play our game”.

What is “our game” when it comes to the Syracuse Crunch? It’s playing with speed and aggression, especially when they don’t have the puck. Earlier in the week, Daniel Walcott talked about the importance, especially for his line, of playing with “energy”. Translated, that usually means running into opposing players while on the ice.

The Crunch forces the other team into bad decisions when at their best. That leads to turnovers, which leads to quick transition, which leads to the Crunch getting scoring opportunities. Expect the Crunch to dump the puck in and attack with a pretty tenacious forecheck. This will be much like they did early in the series against Rochester. Also expect some physical play with Syracuse trying to hit everyone that has the puck. If they can force the Marlies to rush some passes or fling the puck out of the zone blindly, they can then try to impose their will offensively.

As a bonus to all of this, if the Crunch is pressing on offense it’ll negate some of Toronto’s firepower. The Marlies aren’t slouches when it comes to scoring, as they outpaced most of the league during the regular season. Their 254 goals were third overall, and were twenty more than the Crunch scored. So it would behoove the Crunch to make Toronto’s forwards work hard on defense and backchecking as opposed to letting them roam free up the ice.

An aggressive forecheck will help keep the Toronto forwards closer to their own zone and prevent them from using their skill. Coach Groulx considers them the most skilled team in the league in terms of offense. The Crunch will need to force Toronto to carry the puck up as much ice as possible and make it difficult for them to get set up in the zone. Do this, and the Crunch can carry the play.

While it most likely won’t happen, it would also be nice if the Crunch cut down on the penalties. Not so much because the Marlies are power play juggernauts, but because penalties get Syracuse out of the flow of their game. Several times the Crunch were dictating the pace of play against the Amerks only to take a series of bad penalties (and they always seemed to come in bunches), allowing Rochester to gain momentum.

The Crunch were short-handed 16 times against the Amerks in the first round of the playoffs. They can’t afford to keep playing with fire like that and not expect to get burned. Toronto will take advantage. Their 18% success rate with the extra skater belies how good they are on offense, and in a tight series the Crunch can’t afford to keep giving them extra opportunities.

Other game information

The Crunch should be okay for the series health-wise. One nice thing about the long layoff is that some of their banged-up players were able to recover a little more. Alex Volkov and Gabriel Dumont were held out of practice early in the week and are officially “day-to-day,” according to the head coach. Most likely things would have to take a serious turn for the worse for them to miss Game One.

Having as many healthy forwards as they can will be important for the Crunch as they will rely on depth to generate offense. Don’t expect many changes in the line up front, aside from Coach Groulx’s usual in-game tinkering. Dumont and Mathieu Joseph should continue to key the top line while Matt Peca, Olivier Archambault and Mitchell Stephens drive play on the second line.

There are some rumors that Otto Somppi, the Lightning’s 7th round pick in 2016, might see some playing time. He has been practicing with the Crunch since his junior season at Halifax wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. The center posted 83 points in 59 games for the Mooseheads. If the team continues to produce like they did against Rochester, it could be hard for him to crack the line-up. However, he could be rotated in if Coach Groulx feels the team needs a spark.

Speaking of rotations, as of Wednesday night, no formal decision had been made on who will be starting in the Crunch net on Thursday. In all likelihood it will be Eddie Pasquale, but that doesn’t mean Connor Ingram will be riding the pine for the entire series.

A Toronto perspective

Fellow staff member Hardev joins us now to answer a few questions. He will be covering the series from Toronto, so make sure to follow him on Twitter @HardevLad and at Pension Plan Puppets.

1. Seriously, what happened during those two games in Utica in round one? Compared to the other three games, it seems Toronto just forgot to show up.

Everything bad that happened in Utica was a result of the Marlies giving up the first three goals of the game each time. One that third goal went in, no matter how much the Marlies were out-shooting the Comets, the game was over. As to why those goals went in, it was poor defense, plain and simple.

I went back and watched all six goals — they’re in the game highlights on the Marlies YouTube channel, which I highly recommend everyone watch — and there was a common theme among the goals. Two high-quality offensive plays by Reid Boucher in the offensive-zone, two giveaways at the defensive blue line, and two giveaways at the offensive blue line. Basically, the Marlies defense was getting overwhelmed by the Comets’ intense forecheck, something they turned on to an incredible degree at home, and gave the puck away, leaving a gaping hole behind them. Uncharacteristically, it was Justin Holl, who made a pair of these terrible plays and left youngster Andrew Nielsen — who is known for his poor defensive play — all alone on multiple 2-on-1’s.

This was something they cleared up in game 5 by having the forwards support a lot more, so their breakout passes didn’t look so Hail-Mary. Another thing that probably helped them was that they got the lead early in the game off a power play goal and it allowed them to not have to take dangerous risks.

2. Which player sent down from the Leafs (Dermott or Johnsson) will have the biggest impact during this round?

After game 4, I would’ve said having a puck-mover of the calibre of Travis Dermott would’ve made the biggest impact for this team. They just looked like they couldn’t get the puck out of their zone cleanly at all. The Marlies defense has not been anywhere close to what they were in Utica all season long, and I doubt it’s about to go back to that any time soon. Dermott will have a big impact, but based on practice on Wednesday, another player who spent half the season with the Leafs, Andreas Borgman, will return from an injury he suffered in game 1.

However, after watching Andreas Johnsson slice through the defense of the other team with his linemates Miro Aaltonen and Carl Grundstrom, I realized how much the Marlies were missing a forward with that level of dynamism up front. The Marlies have plenty of quality and skill all over the top-12, so much so that each line almost feels interchangeable. However, they were still missing that dominant player up front that could create a goal on almost every shift. They had this for the majority of the season with Kasperi Kapanen and Johnsson up front. But they didn’t have them, or anyone like them, from February until game 5. Now that they have one of them back, and Grundstrom turning into a real problem for opponents all around the net, everyone looks that much better.

3. Can the Crunch survive against the Marlies if they keep taking 6 penalties a game?

Nope.

The “Swedish power play” that contains “three Swedes (Johnsson, Grundstrom, Engvall), a Finn (Aaltonen), and a Canadian (Dermott)” have joined forces and they look really good, and really hot. This unit used to contain Kapanen on the wing and Kerby Rychel (traded to Montreal) in front of the net as the first unit. Now, Engvall is on the wing and Grundstrom is in front of the net, creating a much more free-flowing power play group where all five guys can essentially do it all. It’s created passing lanes and confused penalty killers, which as been uber effective. They scored two goals on five full power plays in their last game.

4. Since Jake Dotchin isn’t playing, which Crunch player will be most-hated by the Marlies’ fans?

To be honest, I think most fans still assume Dotchin is on the roster, so it’ll take them a few shifts to figure out who they want to be mad at. I don’t think there is anyone on the roster right now that the players hate, it was pretty much just anger at Dotchin for injuring three of Toronto’s prospects (Kapanen, Gauthier, and Johnsson) at a time where all three looked like they were just taking a step forward in their development.

After these next seven games, I’m sure there will be someone new each team will hate.

I think Crunch fans are going to really hate Mason Marchment and/or Grundstrom. Both bang and crash, and Marchment has shown a temper in these playoffs. He’s a 22-years-old rookie and spent the first half of the season locked in the weight room (because he was tall and super skinny). He’s a very interesting story if you’d like to get to know him before you hate him.

5. Aside from Garret Sparks, which Toronto player should Crunch fans worry about the most?

I would argue Johnsson and Dermott are better players than Sparks, so aside from those three, I would say be wary of dark horse Trevor Moore. I know, you’re going to see the lineup and say ‘but he’s a fourth-liner!’ Well, you’d be right, but he’s been a top-line quality player ever since taking over for Kapanen on the first line. Moore is a 21-year-old late-blooming winger with a very slick pair of hands and a nose for the goal. The majority of his points came in the second half of the year and he can do wonders with his linemates Marchment and Adam Brooks, especially against a third defense pair. The Marlies’ best asset is their depth, so the fourth line being young and skilled is something Keefe exploits, especially at home.