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Crunch Corner: The State of the Crunch at the All-Star Break

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Things are looking pretty, pretty good for the Lightning’s AHL affiliate.

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch are back on a winning streak. They ended the unofficial first half of the season by emerging victorious in their last four games. Their biggest win was their latest, a 4-3 OT, come-from-behind victory over the Rochester Americans, the team they’re chasing in the standings. Their offense has bounced back as they’ve scored 17 goals in those contests while at the same time they only allowing 8 goals.

Standings

State of the Crunch

The All-Star break marks the unofficial midpoint point of the season. Technically, the Crunch are slightly over the halfway mark, but it’s still close enough that it’s an appropriate time to see what the state of the team is.

That state is: Not bad.

After 41 games, the Syracuse Crunch reside in second place in the North Division. They trail the Rochester Americans, a team they face eight more times this season, by only three points. They entered the break winning their last four games, which came on the heels of them losing five games.

It’s been that kind of season for the Crunch: lose a few games in a row, win some games in a row. Of course, November was a bit of an exception, as they went the entire month without a regulation loss. Combined with a solid December, that stretch propelled them to the top of the standings for a short time. They struggled a bit to begin the calendar year 2019, but righted the ship over the last couple of weeks.

The inconsistency is a product of their overall youth (7 rookies), injuries (who hasn’t been hurt this season?), and a weird start to the season that had them only playing twice a week for the first month. Hopefully, the team can start finding some consistency through a combination of experience, healthy bodies, and a more stable schedule.

There are plenty of things to like about the squad so far this season. Primarily, the offense is the biggest thing the Crunch has going for them.

In their 41 games they have put up 154 goals, which averages out to about 3.76 per game. Scoring almost four goals a game can help cover up a lot of underlying issues. Even better, the scoring has been there almost all season (with the exception of their recent five-game skid), and has come from almost everyone on the roster.

At the top of the scoring charts are Carter Verhaeghe (48 points) and Cory Conacher (44 points). Their point totals are good for second and fifth in the league in scoring. Verhaeghe rolled into the break with a hat trick. He also achieved the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career, and tied his career high in points with his game-winning, overtime goal. Not a bad finish for someone who wasn’t named to the All-Star team.

Conacher, the veteran, nabbed Player of the Month honors in November. During that month, he racked up 23 points (8 goals, 15 assists) and had eight multi-point games. All that happened in just 11 games (I told you the early part of the season was messed up). He’s cooled a bit since then (8 points in December and 9 in January), but does have multi-point games in two of his last four outings.

The rookies are holding their own, as well. Alex Barre-Boulet is leading first year players with 39 points, and Taylor Raddysh, despite a bit of a recent slump, is fourteenth with 27. Barre-Boulet is also leading the entire league with 12 power play goals, a total that shows some of the scoring acumen that led to his success in junior hockey career.

All told the Crunch have eight players that have 20 or more points on the season and six players with 10 or more goals. Coach Ben Groulx has spread his goalscorers throughout the line-up, so at anytime during the game Syracuse has someone on the ice that can put the puck in the net.

While the offense usually gets all of the attention, the defense has been doing their part as well. As a team they’ve allowed the second fewest goals in the league - 113. That averages out to about 2.76 goals per game, which isn’t bad at all in the AHL.

The Crunch may not be getting the offensive contribution from the defense (with the exception of Cameron Gaunce), but the blueliners have held their own in keeping the puck out of the net. After losing Erik Cernak to the Lightning, Coach Groulx has gone with a steady rotation of Gaunce, Cal Foote, Hubert Labrie, Ben Thomas, Dominik Masin and Nolan Valleau. He kept the pairs together pretty consistently until he had to shoehorn Slater Koekkoek into the rotation during the former Crunch’s brief tenure. An injury to Masin followed, but Jan Rutta has stepped in nicely to fill the void temporarily.

The defense was a big question mark heading into the season as the organization pretty much overhauled the blue line. The team brought in Gaunce and Labrie, jettisoned veterans Jamie McBain, Reid McNeill and Mat Bodie, and then gave rookie Cal Foote and second year player Cernak much bigger roles. Despite losing Cernak to Tampa Bay, the rest has pretty much worked out. Gaunce has become the leader of the defense and is enjoying a career-year in a system that plays to his strengths. Labrie has been a steady, physical presence, and Foote has grown tremendously in his first season in professional hockey.

Valleau, signed to an AHL contract, and Rutta have added the ability to carry the puck out of the zone, which frees up the forwards to scamper down the ice and attack the other team’s net. Thomas has been okay; he has had flashes of the talent that made him one of the top defensive prospects for the Lightning early in his career, but it just hasn’t translated to results yet (7 assists in 34 games).

The goaltending tandem of Eddie Pasquale and Connor Ingram has been solid when they’ve been together. Pasquale had almost a month-long stay in Tampa, and Ingram missed about four weeks with an injury, but when they’ve been on the roster at the same time, they’ve produced at the same level they did last year. Ingram it top ten in the league in Goals Against (8th, 2.49), Save Percentage (7th, .918) and Shut Outs (2nd, 4). Pasquale is 11th in wins with 14, and has a respectable 2.79 GAA.

So, what does the future hold for the Crunch? Is this team a contender for the Calder Cup? Based on their play over the first 41 games, the answer has to be yes. They are right there in the mix with Rochester, Charlotte, Bridgeport and Utica for best team in the Eastern Conference. Their offense is as good, if not better, than any team in the entire league, and it might get better over the next month.

While he has been tremendously noncommittal over the return of a couple of his injured players, Coach Groulx has to be looking forward to adding Kevin Lynch and Mitchell Stephens back into the line-up soon. Both of those players could add double-digit goals to the team over the next 30+ games if they are ready to go soon. The team also has Jonne Tammela (21 points in 18 games in Orlando) fighting his way to get back up to Syracuse.

They do have some flaws that they will have to cut down on in order to make it all the way. They have a tendency to turn the puck over a lot for long stretches of games and get mired down in their own defensive zone. They also take way too many penalties (202 time shorthanded). While they can outscore those issues in the regular season, those problems will doom them in the postseason against the top competition.

It should be an exciting sprint to the finish for the Crunch over the next two-and-a-half months. Coach Groulx’s team have tended to improve as the season wears on during his tenure with the organization. If that happens again this season, the Crunch could finish atop the North Division and be primed for a long run in the playoffs.

Players of the First Half

Carter Verhaeghe - 41 Games, 20 Goals, 28 Assists - Somehow Verhaeghe wasn’t named an All-Star despite leading best offense in the Eastern Conference in points. The 23-year-old is on pace to obliterate his career numbers (48 points ties his career-high) and has been shockingly consistent over the entire season. He’s never gone more than two games without recording a point, and he’s only gone more than two games without a goal twice.

He’s been an even strength goal machine with 14 goals coming at regular hockey. Yet, he’s been a big helper on the power play, as 14 of his assists have come with the man advantage. He has two overtime goals and three game-winning goals. He is tied for the team lead with 4 first goals so he’s been known to kick start the offense as well.

Cameron Gaunce - 38 Games, 7 goals, 27 assists - There were a host of players that could have made this list, from Conacher to Barre-Boulet to Andy Andreoff or Ingram. Gaunce edges out the others because he has given the Crunch something they missed last year - a defenseman who can generate offense. Last season Mat Bodie led the team with 37 points, but Gaunce has almost equaled that amount in 36 less games.

Kind of shockingly, despite Gaunce’s place as a key part of the first unit of the power play, only nine of Gaunce’s 34 points have come on the man advantage. This probably due to the fact that the Crunch love to make that extra pass on the power play. If they had third assists on goals, Gaunce’s numbers would skyrocket.

He’s also been a good influence on Foote. It’s no surprise that the rookie’s numbers started to go up a bit once he was paired with Gaunce The fact that Gaunce has been willing to flip back and forth from the left side to the right side (sometimes during the same game) also shows his versatility and importance to the team.

Recaps

Monday, January 21st: 2-1 win over Binghamton (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Friday, January 25th: 6-1 victory over Springfield (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Saturday, January 26th: 4-3 (OT) victory over Rochester (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Upcoming Schedule:

The Crunch kick off February by finishing off their homestand against a couple of North Division rivals. They continue their intrastate rivalry with Utica and then wrap up their season series with Cleveland.

Friday, February 1st vs. Utica Comets 7:00pm

Saturday, February 2nd vs. Cleveland Monsters 7:00pm