Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Syracuse Crunch play well enough to win, but can’t score on the power play and do dumb things that lead to the other team scoring.
Like some sort of perverse Groundhog Day scenario, the Crunch lost to the Utica Comets 3-2 on Saturday night. It’s the fourth loss in a row for Syracuse. Coupled with a Rochester win over Toronto, they now sit three points behind the Americans in the race for the top of the North Division standings.
Much like in their losses to Cleveland and Binghamton, the Crunch did a lot of good things against the Comets. They just didn’t do enough of them, and when they were able to string a few chances together, goaltender Ivan Kulbakov was there to turn them aside. Side note: This game had to be sweet revenge for the Russian netminder. The last time he faced the Crunch, they hung eight goals on him in a 10-1 victory (the victory that used up almost all of their goals apparently). Saturday, he made 28 saves on 30 shots, including several huge stops on the Crunch’s power plays as he picked up his 8th win of the season.
The game did not start well for the Crunch. Remember the dumb things mentioned earlier? Well, starting the game by taking two penalties within the first two minutes of play wasn’t very smart. With the Comets enjoying a two-man advantage, it was only a matter of time before they scored. Eddie Pasquale, starting in a tenth consecutive game, made a nice stop as he kicked a rebound into the corner. Tanner Kero collected it and fired it across the crease where Pasquale again made the initial stop but Jonathan Dahlen poked the rebound underneath his pads for the goal.
Stunned a bit by the early goal, the Crunch slowly regained a momentum. All game, they were the better team at even strength. They got their own chance at a power play when Carter Verhaeghe drew a penalty after he toe-dragged around a defender and Carter Bancks had to hook him from behind to prevent him from scoring. On the ensuing power play, the Crunch’s top unit flat out dominated.
They moved the puck with precision. They retrieved pucks on rebounds and after blocked shots. They wore the Comets defenders ragged and it all looked like it was going to pay off when Alex Barre-Boulet took a one-timer from the right circle with a nearly wide open net in front of him. Sadly, nearly wide-open is not totally wide open, and somehow Kulbakov was able to stick out his left pad to deny the rookie his 19th goal of the season.
There was no goal, but things looked really good. Even after the penalty expired, the Crunch kept the pressure on as Cory Conacher just nudged a puck wide of the net with Kulbakov spread out in the crease. They may have been down one goal, but the Crunch were fighting back.
A lucky bounce and a heads up play kept the deficit at one. With about four minutes to go, Jesse Graham fired a shot at Pasquale. The veteran goalie stopped it and tried to punch it away with his blocker. His intentions were good, his execution was not as the puck rolled up his blocker and behind him. Luckily, Hubert Labrie was in position to keep it from going over the goalline.
Another late power play faltered for the Crunch as they launched shot after shot wide of the net. This was an issue throughout the game. The times that they got a clean look at the, net their shots were off target. The end boards must have resembled a 1986 Honda hatchback that survived a hailstorm with all of the shots the Crunch dented them with.
The second period was pretty calm. Pasquale made a nifty save on Zack MacEwen after Boris Katchouk’s lazy backhand clearing pass through the middle of the ice was picked off (not every bad play ended up in the back of the net). At the other end of the ice, Andy Andreoff tried to beat Kulbakov on the short side, only to have the post get in the way. Later in the period Conacher would also find the iron as one of his shotgun one-timers pinged away off of the crossbar.
With time winding down in the period it looked like the Crunch would be just down one and have a little momentum going into the final frame. Then dumb thing number two happened. The Crunch had a little pressure in the Comets’ zone. A puck came up the right boards and Utica’s Tom Pyatt had control. For some reason Labrie lunged at it and Pyatt easily passed it around him to Tanner Kero. Kero left the flat-footed defenseman in his wake and rushed up the ice with Reid Boucher.
Kero held the puck just long enough to let a sliding Ben Thomas go by and passed it over to Boucher. His shot was stopped by Pasquale, but again the puck was behind him. Kero was able to poke it over the line before help could arrive for the beleaguered Crunch goaltender. Two nothing Comets.
Heading into the night the Crunch’s record when trailing after two periods was 1-9-1. After the game it was 1-10-1, but for awhile it looked like they might pull off the comeback. With the offense struggling all they needed was a lucky bounce. Four minutes into the period they finally got it.
After jawing with a Comets player in the defensive zone and looking like he was ready to drop the gloves, Andreoff skated the puck into the Utica zone. His centering feed was knocked up into the air by Cliff Watson. Cameron Gaunce, skating in his 600th game, bunted the puck out of mid-air, over Katchouk’s shoulder, and over the goaltender who never saw it after it left Andreoff’s stick and then into the back of the net.
It was initially credited to Andreoff despite the fact that it obviously hit a stick after his. Later it was credited to Katchouk. If he hit it with his stick then he has remarkable peripheral vision as he had his back completely turned to the play. The only explanation as to why he got the goal is if it him on the way by after Gaunce hit it. Either way, Andreoff picked up his 100th AHL point and Gaunce received his 200th point as they were credited with the assists (I wonder who gets to keep the puck to celebrate the milestones).
With the lead sliced in half, the Crunch had a little bit of jump in their step, but they just couldn’t find the equalizer. Andreoff visited with iron on yet another shot, and then Barre-Boulet absolutely unloaded a one-timer from the top of the left circle that Kulbakov juggled but held on to.
With just over seven minutes to go, Kulbakov won the game as he stopped Taylor Raddysh point blank on a snap shot off a feed from behind the net from Alex Volkov. The goalie then turned aside the rebound attempt from Volkov as the Crunch were swarming around the net.
With the Crunch pressing so hard, it wasn’t long before the Comets had an odd-man break. They got it with two minutes to go. Utica had a partial 3-on-1 rush that the Crunch did a pretty good job of breaking up. The puck came to Nolan Valleau, who had a chance to clear it. Instead he wheeled back towards the Crunch net and lost it to Carter Bancks. The puck came to Brendan Gaunce, who fed it to Wacey Hamilton in front of the net. His shot was kicked aside by Pasquale, but Gaunce pounced on it and put it into the back of the net.
The comeback was quashed. Syracuse did make it interesting as Cory Conacher snapped home a shot from the top of the right circle that beat Kulbakov and popped the water bottle off of the top of the net for his 15th goal of the season, but it was too little, too late.
One final spinning backhand from Barre-Boulet was stopped with four seconds left on the clock and the Comets held on to the win. After a day off and a couple of practices, the Crunch will be right back in Utica on Wednesday as they look to find their missing offense.
Three Stars of the Game:
3 Cameron Gaunce - 2 assists (or 1 goal and 1 assist after they review the first goal again)
2 Tanner Kero - 1 goal, 1 assist
1 Ivan Kulbakov - 28 saves on 30 shots and sweet, sweet redemption