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Crunch lose their first game of the year

Syracuse starts 2019 with a sloppy effort against Utica and lose 4-2

Scott Thomas Photography

There may be no one rooting more for Thatcher Demko to get called up by the Vancouver Canucks than the Syracuse Crunch. Wednesday night, the young netminder turned aside 31 of 33 shots as the Utica Comets snapped the Crunch’s five-game winning streak with a 4-2 victory. Alex Barre-Boulet and Cory Conacher scored power play goals for Syracuse, but it wasn’t enough as Utica outplayed them for much of the game.

Following a trade by their NHL affiliate, the Vancouver Canuks, this afternoon the path is open for Demko to get called up as early as this weekend. Unfortunately that wasn’t soon enough for the Crunch, as he was the main difference in the game tonight. He made several sharp saves during a busy second period.

Unlike the last time these two teams met, it was the Comets that had the early edge in shots as they tallied the first four of the game. In fact, it wasn’t until over five minutes into the game that the Crunch had their first dangerous shot. Conacher unleashed a one-timer from the right circle that Demko blocked straight up into the air. He lost sight of it and it came down on top of the net before deflecting away harmlessly.

The Crunch did start to get their legs about midway through the period, bolstered by a penalty from Utica. While Syracuse didn’t generate much with the extra man, it did slow the momentum of their opponents a little bit and the shot counter evened up a bit.

The Comets were determined to make the Crunch’s night difficult and not allow them the time and space in the neutral zone that Syracuse enjoyed on Friday night during their 10-1 victory. Utica’s checking was much tighter and they did a much better job of knocking aside passes. They also had some help from the Crunch as once again turnovers blunted the Syracuse offensive attack.

A prime example, but far from the only one, came from Hubert Labrie. He was skating out of the Crunch zone on the left side of the ice when he telegraphed a cross ice pass in the neutral zone. Evan McEneny read it, stole the puck and charged into the zone. A nifty toe-drag move left him with a clean shot at the net that Eddie Pasquale knocked aside.

While the play on the ice might not have been very crisp, the first period was at least brisk. The two teams skated for about five to six minutes without a whistle following the Crunch’s power play. Seemingly this would be in Syracuse’s favor as they are the better skating team, but they just couldn’t sustain puck possession and were unable to force turnovers deep in the Utica zone.

A drive to the net with just over two minutes to play did lead to another power play as McEneny hooked Andy Andreoff just in front of Demko’s crease. The ensuing power play was much better as the second unit gained the zone and held it in for more than a minute. The only thing lacking were quality shots, and the only dangerous chance, a blast from Cal Foote in the left circle, was easy turned aside by Demko.

Barre-Boulet came in the zone for one final rush as the penalty expired and time wound down on the period. His pass back was flubbed by Cameron Gaunce and the puck trickled to Zack MacEwen (not a Crunch player). He spied Reid Boucher gliding down the center of the ice and hit him right on the tape with a pass. Boucher went into the Crunch zone unburdened by any type of Syracuse defense, drew the puck to his forehand for a deke, flipped to his backhand and slid it underneath Pasquale’s pad for the game opening goal.

There was no need to panic. Sure, the Crunch didn’t play the best of periods but thanks to Pasquale’s other nine saves they were only down by one. In the four previous road games that they had found themselves in this predicament, they managed to win twice. They were calm and relaxed in the second, and put together their best twenty minutes of the night. This resulted in the Crunch drawing even with the Comets before the period expired.

With the help of two power plays in the first ten minutes of the middle frame, they fired a healthy seventeen shots at the Utica net. Unfortunately for them, Demko showed why he is likely to be catching a plane to Vancouver before the weekend as he turned aside sixteen of the attempts.

His best moment came late in the period with the score tied. Alex Volkov skated into the Utica zone and left a pass for Ross Colton. The rookie fired a tricky wrister from the left circle that hit Demko square in the mask. The puck ricocheted out to the right circle and Slater Koekkoek, looking for his first Syracuse goal this season, quickly flung the bouncing puck back at the net. Demko calmly slid over and absorbed the shot.

The one shot he couldn’t stop came on the power play. During the Crunch’s five-game winning streak their special teams have stalled a bit, going two-for-twenty with the man advantage. In the last few games they were starting to get chances, but failing to turn their shots into goals. Barre-Boulet changed that with a nice little move from behind the net.

He started the play behind Demko’s net with a little back and forth passing with Conacher along the right side boards. That drew defenseman Guillaume Brisebois away from the net a little, opening up space along the goal line. In front of the net, Andreoff shielded off Brisebois’ partner Jaime Sifers. That gave Barre-Boulet enough space to spin out from behind the net. Demko stopped his initial stop, but the undrafted free agent kept jamming at the loose puck and forced it past Demko for his league-leading tenth power play goal of the season.

With the game tied, the Crunch drove most of the play for the remainder of the period as their forecheck finally started pinning the Comets back and forcing turnovers. They just couldn’t solve Demko. The period ended with the score tied and the Crunch outshooting Utica 25 to 17.

All season long, the Crunch have dominated the third period. They have outscored their opponent 36 to 15 in the final frame and posted an impressive 5-1 record when entering the third period tied. On the other hand, the Comets have had some rambunctious third periods, surrendering 41 goals (second worst in the AHL) while scoring 34. They’ve only emerged victorious twice in the six times they entered the final period tied. So all signs pointed to a Syracuse victory, right?

Wrong.

All of the bad things that the Crunch did in the first, they did again in the third as the Comets outskated and outscored them in the final frame to emerge victorious. For the first time all season Syracuse gave up three goals in the final frame (albeit one was an empty netter) and could only score one late on a two-man advantage. Utica outshot them 14-8 and once again continued to stifle almost every offensive rush the Crunch had.

The Comets converted on a power play five minutes into the period to regain the lead. On the shifts prior to the goal, the Crunch were hemmed in and Pasquale was bailing them out with some fantastic saves. Following one such save, the Comets won a faceoff in the offensive zone. The puck came back to Jesse Graham, who walked it to the middle of the ice and wound up for a slapshot that eluded Pasquale on the stick side. With a heavy screen in front of him, there just wasn’t much he could do.

A few minutes later thing got weird. Taylor Raddysh took a tripping penalty away from the play. Ten seconds into the power play Brisebois bungled a pass at the Crunch blueline. Quicker than a snap of the fingers Conacher was on the puck on sprinting the other way. He was clear from the defender and ready to take a shot when Brisebois hooked him from behind. The puck skittered away harmlessly, Conacher crashed into Demko and the net, and the referee who called the penalty emphatically pointed at the center of the ice to signal a penalty shot.

It would be Conacher’s second shorthanded penalty shot against Utica, as he converted one back on October 20th in his first game with the Crunch this season. Following the scrum behind the net that is required anytime someone makes the slightest of contact with a goaltender, the officials got together for a group session. They chatted, maybe about proper wedding gifts and jammed eyelids, but at the end of their discussion they picked the puck up and brought it from center ice to the Comets’ zone. No penalty shot.

The decision seemed to deflate the Crunch a bit and Utica took advantage. Evan McEneny skated one-on-two to the Syracuse blue line. He was happy to flip it past the two players and chase after it. Instead the puck was deflected by Koekkoek and dropped to the ice in between the three players. Ben Thomas looked at it and then looked at McEneny skating past him with the it. A quick shot beat Pasquale and the Comets had the lead.

Time ticked away. Two minutes went by when Nolan Valleau was whistled for a “crosscheck” that came when Cam Darcy, already falling down, slammed into the boards after Valleau nudged him with his stick. Pasquale made a fantastic save with the Crunch shorthanded, going into a full split to deny a Comet forward with his left pad.

Coach Groulx elected to pull his goaltender with 3:21 to go in the game. Still, the Crunch couldn’t get anything going. They needed help from Utica and got it when McEneny crosschecked a Crunch player in a scrum along the boards with under 90 seconds to go.

It didn’t take long for the Crunch to score. Following a faceoff win by Andreoff, Gaunce fed the puck to Conacher at the top of the right circle. He was ready for it and unleashed a one-timer that Demko had no chance of stopping. The Crunch were within one and had a chance to tie it.

They came so close to doing it. They came back into the zone following the power play goal by Conacher, and Barre-Boulet had it in the right corner. He flung a back handed shot at the net that hit either Demko or a skate and wobbled it’s way to the front of the net where Carter Verhaeghe, the Crunch’s leading offensive weapon, was waiting to fire it into an empty net. Demko dove across the net and apparently got a piece of it to send it away from the goalline. Boucher picked it up and fired it to Brendan Gaunce, who skated to just inside the red line and then fired it into the empty Crunch net. His brother Cameron angrily slammed it into the glass as the home fans cheered the victory.

It was a hard fought game by the Crunch, but they just couldn’t overcome Demko and their own mistakes. They will look to clean it up before they return to the ice in Syracuse to take on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Friday.

Raw Charge Three Stars of the Game:

3. Cory Conacher: 1 goal, 1 assist

2. Reid Boucher: 1 goal, 1 assist

1. Thatcher Demko: 31 saves on 33 shots

(Box Score)