With three wins in three games, the Syracuse Crunch end 2018 atop the standings in the North Division. Both the Crunch and the Rochester Americans have 42 points, but due to the Crunch achieving that mark in three less games, they get the nod with the better winning percentage (.700 vs .636). The Crunch join the Charlotte Checkers (.735) and the San Jose Barracuda (.714) as the only teams in the AHL to win 70% of their games so far this season.
Not bad for a team that struggled a bit at the beginning of the season.
Coming and Going
It was another relatively quiet week on the transaction wire for the Crunch. The only moves involved defensemen. Slater Koekkoek was sent to Syracuse from the Lightning on a conditioning assignment. He will most likely spend the full two weeks playing for the Crunch as he gets back into game shape, barring any injuries in Tampa.
With an extra defender in Syracuse, Matthew Spencer was reassigned to Orlando for the second time this season. The 21-year-old only saw action in one game during his latest recall as Coach Groulx was happy with how his current line-up was performing. On the season, Spencer has played in seven games with the Crunch, recording one assist. He’ll get much more playing time with the Solar Bears over the next few weeks and will likely be called up again once Koekkoek heads back to Tampa.
The good news is that there were no new injuries this past week. As for the currently injured - Kevin Lynch, Mitchell Stephens, and Brady Brassart - they are all skating on the ice, which is a good thing, but fans will have to wait just a little longer for their return. Per the head coach, it will most likely be Lynch returning first in about “ten days to two weeks,” with the other two sharing similar time frames. Stephens was originally thought to be out until Christmas, but it looks like it will be a little longer for the Crunch center.
Goaltender Connor Ingram was scheduled to be reevaluated this week, which should lead to an update on how long he will be out. For right now he is still out “at least two weeks,” but that could change based on what the findings are.
Thoughts on Games
Ben Groulx is an All Star
For the second time in three years, Ben Groulx will be coaching in the AHL All Star Game as he has led the Crunch to the top of the North Division. In almost two-and-a-half seasons in Syracuse, his coaching record is 104-54-24 and he’s led the team to one Calder Cup Finals while making the playoffs in both years. That’s pretty damn good.
Over the last two seasons he’s managed to continue the success despite an influx of a large number of rookies. This year he has already iced seven rookies, while last year (including the end of the season defenseman-of-the-week signings) he had a whopping seventeen rookies appear in at least one game. That’s a lot of young minds to mold.
Mold them he has done, and done well. Three of the rookies from last season are now with the Lightning (Mathieu Joseph, Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak) and unlikely to return anytime soon. Yes, that speaks to the talent the players have, but also to Groulx continuing their development and not mucking things up, which isn’t always easy.
The job he’s doing this year may be his best. Not only is he dealing with his usual set of rookies, but he’s taken the team to the top without some key veterans. Kevin Lynch had 14 goals for the Crunch last season. Michael Bournival chipped in 15 and was a key part of their penalty kill. All around forward/defenseman Daniel Walcott had five goals. Those players have combined for a total of five games this season, all of them from Bournival (Lynch and Walcott have yet to play in Syracuse due to their injuries).
Groulx asks a lot of his players, not only in practice but in games. The style that the Crunch play is not easy. It requires a lot of skating, a lot of second effort in order to retrieve pucks in the offensive zone or the neutral zone. When they are in sync, they harass their opponents in all three zones and make it difficult for them to go 200 feet up the ice. When watching a game, try to count how many turnovers are caused by the pressure they put on in the offensive zone when the other team has the puck.
Groulx will hold the players accountable during the game, and it doesn’t matter if a player is a second round pick or an undrafted free agent. If the effort isn’t there, ice time will be affected. For instance, this happened a few times with Alex Volkov early in the season. When the winger made a couple of mental errors, he found himself off of the power play and off of the top line.
At the same time, effort will be rewarded. There doesn’t seem to be a permanent doghouse with Coach Groulx. Players can work their way back into their roles with effort and smart play. Just as quickly as Volkov was demoted, he was right back up once he picked up his play.
The good news is that he is the Crunch’s head coach, and as long as he is, they should be successful. The problem occurs when other organizations recognize the success. He will be in the NHL at some point, and with the Lightning seemingly committed to keeping Jon Cooper around, Coach Groulx will most likely get his shot with another organization.
The Crunch scored twenty goals this week. Yes, ten of them came at the expense of the Comets, but take that game out and they still averaged five goals a game in their other two contest. That is slightly above the four goals a game they’ve been averaging on the season. They are currently second in the AHL with 121 goals despite playing three less games than the Chicago Wolves, who top the league with 128.
They are adept at scoring at even strength (79), on the power play (second with 36 goals), and even shorthanded (9). The Crunch can be expected to score a goal at basically any point of the game. Part of that is their aggressive mentality when it comes to pursuing the puck. An example of this came against the Comets when they were killing off a five-on-three penalty yet refused to sit back. At one point, Cory Conacher was out at the blue line hounding the puck carrier, and he almost caused a turnover that would have led to a breakaway. That’s not the safest way to kill of a two-man disadvantage, yet it worked out.
It isn’t just one player carrying the offense, either. Five players have at least ten goals, and two more are knocking on the door (Dennis Yan has 8 and Volkov has 7). Two of the five are rookies (Alex Barre-Boulet and Taylor Raddysh), while the other three are veterans. Andy Andreoff reclaimed the team lead from Barre-Boulet with a two-goal performance against Springfield. His 15 goals doesn’t even come close to cracking the top ten in the league.
Having so many players scoring usually means the Crunch don’t go into a slump very often. The Crunch have been held to less than three goals in back-to-back games only once this season. That happened during their two-game losing streak two weeks ago. In fact, they’ve been held to less than three goals in regulation during only seven games this season. That’s pretty impressive for a team thirty games into the season. In order to beat the Crunch, you’re going to have to score at least four goals, and that puts a lot of pressure on opposing teams.
Players of the Week
Cal Foote - 3 games played, 4 goals, 1 assist. After scoring two goals over the first 27 games of the season, the rookie defenseman exploded for four goals this week. He’s starting to show some signs of being the two-way defenseman that could be an important part of the Lightning’s future. He has played solid defense all season and now, as he plays with more confidence, the offense is coming as well. Funny enough, the league itself seemed to agree with this assessment, as Foote was named the AHL Player of the Week yesterday.
Gabriel Dumont - 3 games played, 1 goal, 4 assists. There may have been some players that had better numbers over the week, but Dumont was all over the ice in all three games. Not only did he see his offensive numbers tick up after having just one assist in the previous six games, but he was his usual feisty self, finishing his checks and generally irritating his opponents.
It’s another three-game week for the Crunch as they journey to Utica on Wednesday and then return home for games against Bridgeport and Toronto. Wednesday should be a tough game as the Comets will be looking to exact some revenge after the 10-1 beatdown suffered at the hands of the Crunch this past week.
Wednesday, January 2nd at Utica Comets, 7:00 p.m.
Friday, January 4th vs. Bridgeport Sound Tigers, 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, January 5th vs. Toronto Marlies, 7:00 p.m.