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The Good, The Bad, The Crunch lose 5-4

Some signs of life from the offense are not enough to overcome a bad first period for the Crunch.

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch did not win their game against the Utica Comets on Wednesday night. They did have a furious third-period rally that almost brought them all the way back, but it wasn’t enough as the Comets held on to win 5-4. There was some good and some bad in the game last night.

Bad: The First Period

Where to start? A goal surrendered twenty-five seconds into the game? A top-three defenseman leaving after one shift? The Crunch being outshot 13-5? Syracuse having no shots through the first 14 minutes of play? The five penalties taken and two goals conceded?

To paraphrase Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, that period was so ugly it could be a modern art masterpiece. For a team that needed a fast start in hopes of turning around their recent losing streak, they managed to do the complete opposite.

The Comets, in their glow-in-the-dark uniforms, simply outskated the Crunch through the first twenty minutes of play. Tom Pyatt started the scoring off less than 30 seconds into the game when Carter Verhaeghe tried a backhand pass along the boards in his own zone. It didn’t work. Utica picked the pass off and Reid Boucher fed it to Pyatt in front of the net and he roofed it over Eddie Pasquale.

On the very next shift, Dominik Masin stumbled and fell trying to stop Zack MacEwen in the Crunch’s zone. Masin finished his shift with no apparent issues, but never returned to the game. Syracuse was down to five defensemen for the rest of the game.

The rest of the period didn’t get any better. If it wasn’t for Eddie Pasquale, they could have scored four or five goals. Syracuse was on the back foot for almost the entire period. Once they did start to calm things down, they then took a few bad penalties that led to an extended five-on-three. Predictably, that resulted in Jonathan Dahlen jamming home a power play goal for the Comets with under two minutes to go in the period. Pasquale slowed down a cross-crease pass from Tanner Kero, but Dahlen was still able to pounce on it and put it past the goaltender before he could slide over.

Good: The Penalty Kill

The five-on-three was the only power play goal the Crunch surrendered in seven opportunities. The penalty kill continues to excel on the road, stopping 89.8% of the power plays against them. As the night wore on, those on the shorthanded unit got more aggressive, particularly Boris Katchouk, who had a mini-breakaway after Hubert Labrie forced a turnover at the Crunch blueline. Katchouk tried to stuff a backhand underneath goaltender Ivan Kulbakov, but was denied.

Even those out there for Utica’s five-on-three did a fairly decent job of limiting chances. Coach Groulx made an interesting personnel choice as he deployed Alex Barre-Boulet, Gabriel Dumont and Labrie as his penalty killers, but they did a good job until the goal happened. (Yes, that’s like saying the Titanic voyage was going great till it hit the iceberg, but we’re looking for positives here).

Bad - Cory Conacher’s Unsportsmanlike Penalties

That’s right, he had multiple. The first led to the aforementioned five on three. With the Crunch on the power play, Conacher started the rush in the zone, but was tangled up with Brendan Gaunce and falls to the ice. It looks like he landed on Gaunce’s stick, but the ref, from way across the ice, decided he was holding onto the stick and whistled him for the penalty. Conacher had a few choice words for the ref and the first unsportsmanlike penalty tacked on. Twenty seconds later, Ben Thomas was nailed for boarding, and the Crunch’s power play was all of a sudden a penalty kill.

In the second period, with the Crunch down 5-2 despite having played somewhat decently in the period, Conacher knocked down a puck with an obvious high stick (it was over his head) and then fired a shot at Kulbakov from the blueline. That was frowned upon by the Comets and the refs, and Conacher was back in the penalty box.

These were just two unbelievably poorly timed actions on Conacher’s part. Yes, the first penalty was dubious at best, but the refs are still the ones in charge and mouthing off to them never results in anything positive happening. The second penalty was most likely the result of a brain freeze. Conacher was unhappy with the game, with the way things were going, and just didn’t think when he fired the puck at the net. Frustrated players whack the puck into the boards all the time; they just can’t fire it on net. There was no way the refs weren’t going to call him for it.

Good: Ben Groulx’s in-game adjustments

Short one defenseman, the head coach did a great job of juggling the pairings to make sure the defense wasn’t too overworked. Cameron Gaunce was the primary player doubleshifting, but Labrie took some more shifts than normal, and Nolan Valleau was on the ice quite a bit as well. Masin is a big minutes eater, especially short-handed, so the defense had a lot of time to fill and they did it fairly well.

Groulx also moved Dennis Yan up to a line with Verhaeghe and Barre-Boulet in the final period. The third-year forward was one of the best Crunch players in the first two periods and deserved to see more ice time after starting on a line with Troy Bourke and Ross Colton. Yan also manned a point on the second power play unit as the went with a four-forward-one-defender line-up for the first time in a long while. It paid off as that combination scored the first Crunch power play in their last 20 opportunities.

The goal showed great vision by Cal Foote to see Alex Volkov lurking on the backdoor. His slap-pass was right on the tape, and Volkov easily deflected it past Kulbakov for the goal. It was Volkov’s ninth of the season and second in the last thirteen games. If he starts heating up, the Crunch could be back to their high-scoring ways.

There was one final roster move Coach Groulx made in-game. Following the first unsportsmanlike penalty, he benched Conacher for the rest of that period and then roughly the first half of the second period. Conacher may be one of the veterans on the team, but he is also accountable for what he does. By sitting him for half a period, Groulx demonstrated to the younger players that actions have consequences.

Bad: Five Goals Allowed

This is by no means a slight on the record of Eddie Pasquale. As already mentioned, if it wasn’t for his play in the first, the game would have been a blowout long before the 5-2 score in the second period. This was a total team effort on the goals allowed.

Goal One - Turnover by Verhaeghe in the defensive zone

Goal Two - Five-on-three power play goal.

Goal Three - No one picks up Adam Gaudette in front of the net and he tips Carter Bancks shot past Pasquale

Goal Four - Brendan Gaunce sprung Dahlen with a nice pass between Valleau and Ben Thomas, and he beats Pasquale over the left shoulder (the goalie may want this one back)

Goal Five - Brady Brassart loses a puck battle in the neutral zone which sets up the Comets rush. A shot is blocked in front of Pasquale and Brassart can’t tie up Kole Lind’s stick and he bangs it home for the fifth goal of the night.

The fourth goal was a backbreaker. The Crunch had clawed their way back to within one goal by scoring twice within a minute. With the momentum going the Crunch’s way, Syracuse had to make a stop on that play if they wanted to keep it that way. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It was a simple two-on-two rush with B. Gaunce coming down the middle. Valleau drifted over to intercept him and that left just enough space for Dahlan to get behind him, and B. Gaunce slipped the pass through. Pasquale tried to snag it with his glove, but wasn’t able to get it and Utica’s lead was back to two.

Good: Four goals!

For the first time in 2019, the Crunch reached the four goal mark during this game. They scored twice in the second and two more in the third to make the game closer than it should have been.

Their goals were of all varieties. The first was a dirty goal:

Barre-Boulet followed up his own shot and jammed the loose puck into the back of the net when everyone else thought Kulbakov had it covered up. That was the 19th goal of the season for the rookie.

A minute later Gabriel Dumont scored to make it 3-2.

There was some good work done by Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk to win puck battles along the boards down low. Then Dumont, with the puck behind the net, faked as if he was going to the far side, drew Kulbakov over, then cut back to the near side and stuffed it home. It was Dumont’s 4th goal of the season, and it snapped a six-game goalless streak.

He didn’t wait nearly as long to score his fifth goal as he beat Kulbakov from between the circles in the third period to make it a 5-3 game.

The Utica defenders had drifted over to cut off Raddysh heading down the boards. They were too late in picking up Dumont streaking down the middle of the ice and Raddysh’s pass was perfect. Dumont didn’t have to slow down and he ripped a shot that beat Kulbakov cleanly on the glove side.

The final goal was the power play goal shown above. Hopefully, with both Dumont and Volkov getting on the board, this is a sign that some of the secondary scoring is starting to heat up.

One Last Good Thing:

Martin Ouellette (finally) made his Syracuse Crunch debut. After a month of sitting on the bench (or in the zamboni entrance), the back-up finally got on the ice for some in-game action. He started the third period and played just over 18 minutes, stopping both shots he faced. It wasn’t an action filled period for him as the Crunch dominated the final stanza. In fact, most of the period he spent slowly skating behind his net to settle pucks down for his teammates. It wasn’t until about thirteen minutes into the period that he saw his first shots, shots that came on a Comets’ power play.

It was a nice reward for his patience in the process as the Crunch wait for Connor Ingram to return from his injury. It can’t be easy for a professional to sit game after game and only face shots in practice. His time with the Crunch is most likely drawing to a close, so it was good that he got into a game. It was also a nice rest for Pasquale who has had a beast of a workload over the last three weeks.

Final Thoughts

So, despite not enough good things happening to pull out a victory, there were some glimmers of hope. The third period was the best period they’ve had in a week. Some of their secondary scorers found the back of the net and the offense shook off a little malaise. Hopefully this is all enough to build on and produce a victory against Belleville on Friday.

Three Stars of the Game:

3. Taylor Raddysh - 2 assists

2. Gabriel Dumont - 2 goals

1. Jonathan Dahlen - 2 goals

Box Score Highlights