The series between the Syracuse Crunch and the Toronto Marlies is going to hinge on which team can execute their game plan the best. For the Crunch, it’s all about pressure and creating offense off of mistakes. Their goal is to force the Marlies to turn over the puck and counter. For Toronto, it’s about playing with structure and support. Forwards have to drop back to help their defense with the forecheck and breakout of their zone under control.
In Game One, the Toronto method prevailed and they beat the Crunch 6-4 on Thursday night.
For the Syracuse Crunch to win a seven-game series against the AHL’s best team in the regular season, they would need everything to go right. They would need to stay healthy so that they could roll four lines, they would need timely saves from their own goaltenders, and they would need to find ways to get the puck past Garret Sparks.
Unfortunately, the Crunch could only manage one of those three things in game one.
All season long the Crunch have dealt with injuries and call-ups. For most of the season, they’ve been able to plug in a player on a PTO or a call-up from Adirondack and make things work out. On Thursday, they might have just been pushed to their limit.
Right before the game started, it became apparent that Gabriel Dumont, who missed a few practices during the week, would not play. To make matters worse, leading scorer Matthew Peca joined him on the sidelines. That meant two of the Crunch’s best offensive threats (and best forecheckers) would be out of the line-up.
Coach Ben Groulx tried to work his roster magic by inserting yet another rookie, Otto Somppi, into the game and moving defenseman Ben Thomas to a forward position. At one point the Crunch’s fourth line had two players who didn’t have AHL contracts (Somppi and Brendan Bradley) joined by a defenseman (Thomas). That’s a pretty tough match-up to send out against Toronto.
The injuries also jumbled up some of the lines that had worked so well against Rochester. Mathieu Joseph and Dumont have created some good chemistry since Dumont re-joined the team, but with Dumont out, that potent combination was missing. Coach Groulx spent most of the first period, a period where Syracuse looked rusty and a bit out of sync, trying to find the right combinations.
Perhaps it was the long layoff (Syracuse had more than a week off going into the contest) that resulted in Crunch playing most of the first period on their heels. Or maybe it was the unfamiliar line combinations, or it was a healthy respect for their opponents. Whatever the reason, the borderline reckless aggression that marked their series sweep against Rochester was lacking. They weren’t able to cut off the Marlies in their zone or force the turnovers that is a hallmark of their offense.
Eddie Pasquale was tabbed as the starter for Game One despite a shaky outing in his previous game. The five goals he gave up in Game Two to the Amerks were more a fault of the whole team failing to manage the momentum. The Crunch had jumped out to a big, early lead and Pasquale’s job was to just keep enough pucks out of the net for the win. He stopped the pucks when he needed to (a 5-on-3 penalty kill in the third period) and played a lot better than the box score indicated.
He also played better than his stats showed against Toronto. Of the five goals that he gave up (on only 20 shots) it was hard to fault him on any of them.
Goal Number One:
It was a nice deflection by Adam Brooks, but it was also going wide until it hit off of Dominik Masin’s leg and then Pasquale’s arm.
Goal Number Two:
This is a nice, patient power play goal by the Marlies. They didn’t force anything and Trevor Moore is in a position in front of the net that makes Pasquale have to stay on him. The goalie is a tick too late to get over to stop Dmytro Timashov’s redirection of a blind pass from Moore. When Erik Cernak was caught between taking Moore out of the play or blocking the pass, Pasquale didn’t stand a chance.
Goal Number 3:
Another power play goal. Travis Dermott wrists a shot from just inside the blue line with two of his teammates screening Pasquale. The goalie never saw the puck. It was an atypically passive penalty kill from the Crunch as they let the Marlies play catch with the puck without any pressure.
Goal Number 4:
The Crunch had a few opportunities before this goal to clear this puck and they failed to do so. Mitchell Stephens and Ben Thomas had the puck along the boards and allowed the Marlies to keep it in. Thomas got tangled up and went down, giving Frederik Gauthier enough space to thread a pass to Mason Marchment. Marchment had outmuscled Cal Foote to get into position to tap the pass past Pasquale.
Goal Number 5:
Pasquale could have played this one a little better, but it all started because the Crunch were caught pinching in. Understandable, of course, as they were trying to tie the game up. Moore gets to the puck behind the defense and then abused Masin with an inside-out move. Syracuse was scrambling to cover and Pierre Engvall was all alone in front of the net to bang it home. Daniel Walcott was slow to pick him up and Pasquale was out of position as he had dropped down low and hugged the post to prevent Moore from wrapping it around from behind the net.
During their run, it seems like either Pasquale or Connor Ingram have been able to pull out at least one or two miraculous saves per game. Often after, the Crunch scored. If Pasquale denies Timoshav at the end of the first period (and 40-some seconds after Joseph had tied it up) and they head to the locker room tied at one, maybe the outcome is a little different.
The silver lining to the loss is that the Crunch were able to generate offense despite the loss of Peca and Dumont. They were able to put four goals on the board against a team that had stifled most offenses all season long.
The first goal was all Mathieu Joseph.
Once he picks Andreas Johnsson’s pocket, nobody was going to catch him. He’s just too fast. Then he makes a nice low shot that beats Sparks on the blocker side.
The second goal was a bit of a surprise.
With Toronto’s dominance on the power play (they were near 90% most of the season), it is almost a given that they will score eventually with the man advantage if given the chance. But Syracuse struggled all season, and certainly still doesn’t have that same guarantee. But when Carter Verhaeghe threw the puck at the net, it somehow made it past an unscreened Sparks. The netminder probably wants that one back.
Down two goals, it seemed like the game was slipping away from the Crunch, but they managed to sneak a third goal past Sparks
The play was pretty innocuous as far as the Marlies were concerned. Alex Volkov skates into the zone, but he’s covered fairly well by three Toronto players. Then the rookie whiffs on his initial pass attempt. That throws everything off and opens up a little space for him. He does the smart thing and throws it at the net where Kevin Lynch stuffs it home.
The fourth goal was one of desperation, but sometimes being desperate can be good.
Down two goals once again and with time fading away, the Crunch have pulled the goalie for the 6-on-5 advantage. Verhaeghe fires the puck across the ice and Joseph immediately fires it on net. Lynch is there for the rebound and he pokes it home to narrow the gap to one.
That play is one to file away for future games, should the Crunch find themselves on the power play. If Toronto leaves the center of the ice open like that, Syracuse can take advantage.
It’s never satisfying to lose in the playoffs. Yet, there shouldn’t be too much gnashing of teeth or mournful wailing after this one contest. Despite not being able to play their game, the Crunch kept the game close and matched the Marlies for most of the night. A little better goaltending and a healthier offense would have made the difference. If Peca or Dumont are back for Game Two and Pasquale can rebound, look for the Crunch to steal one.