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Crunch Corner: The post-holiday malaise

A lackluster week knocks the Crunch off of the top of the table.

Scott Thomas Photography

With two losses on the week, the Syracuse Crunch drop out of first place in the North Division as the start to the new year is a bit bumpy. The Crunch were a little inconsistent as they sandwiched one of their most complete games (the 3-1 win against Bridgeport) with two of their more lackluster efforts. The offense has struggled a bit out of the gate and hasn’t been able to mask the issues that they have with the penalty kill on home ice.

Standings

Injuries

The Crunch went another week without suffering any major injuries. Not only that, but another player returned to the line-up as Brady Brassart suited up for the weekend games. His return should strengthen the team’s overall defense as he’s been strong on the penalty kill and in his role as a bottom-six forward. It’s been a bit of a struggle for him offensively as he has only one goal and three assists and is on a nine-game pointless streak that started back before his injury.

Coming and Going

With the return of Brassart to the active roster there was a bit of a glut in the forwards department. Olivier Archambault was deemed the odd man out and was sent to Orlando to get some ice time and work his game back into shape. It’s been a rough season for Archambault, who was still recovering from a shoulder injury sustained in last season’s playoffs.

On Monday the Crunch also recalled Oleg Sosunov from Orlando. The towering defender played in 11 games with the Solar Bears recording 4 assists and 8 penalty minutes. The Crunch are currently carrying seven healthy defenseman. It is possible that Syracuse just wants Sosunov to have a full week of practice with them in anticipation of Slater Koekkoek rejoining the Lightning at the end of the week.

The Games

Wednesday, January 2nd: 4-2 loss to Utica (Box Score) (Highlights) (Recap)

Friday, January 4th: 3-1 win vs. Bridgeport (Box Score) (Highlights) (Recap)

Saturday, January 5th: 5-2 loss to Toronto (Box Score) (Highlights) (Recap)

Players of the Week

Cory Conacher - 3 games played, 2 goals, 2 assists. After a ho-hum December, Conacher is back to piling up the points. He has a five-game point streak going with three goals. Two of the goals were on the power play and one shorthanded.

Carter Verhaeghe - 3 games played, 2 goals, 3 assists. The veteran forward isn’t letting the All-Star snub affect his game. He had back-to-back multipoint games this weekend and now has recorded more than one point in a game thirteen times this season.

Thoughts

Lack of Offense:

For the last two months or so, the Crunch have been one of the most prolific offensive teams in the AHL, at one point averaging more than four goals a game. This week that offense deserted them a bit, as they only recorded seven goals over the three games played.

Perhaps more concerning is that of the seven goals they scored this week, four of them came on the power play. That’s a good sign for the power play, but not so much for their five-on-five offense. Part of the problem is that, unlike during their recent winning streak, they aren’t getting chances from all four lines. Against Toronto, for instance, the bulk of the pressure came from the reconstituted top line of Andy Andreoff, Cory Conacher and Carter Verhaeghe.

It’s possible that the constant mixing of lines due to the eleven forward line-up is part of the issue, but Coach Groulx believes that his team is at its best when it has his version of depth. He defines depth as the ability for any player to step into any line or role and have success. At this point, that isn’t the case for the Crunch.

Another problem was highlighted by Coach Groulx after the Toronto game - the team lost, in his opinion, “every puck..every 50/50 was Toronto’s puck.” Syracuse’s offense comes from pressuring the puck and attacking in waves. They need to win the battles along the boards and in front of the net in order to keep that pressure on.

They set up their forecheck by dumping the puck behind the defenders, battling along the boards and then cycling the puck out. Against Toronto, they lost those battles and the Marlies were able to clear the puck with one or two quick passes out of the defensive zone. If the Crunch are constantly behind the play, they aren’t able to disrupt those exit passes or set up in the zone and they end up chasing the puck all night long.

The Penalty Kill:

Overall, the Syracuse Crunch are ranked 10th in the AHL at killing penalties. Their 82.4% success rate is good and they lead the league with nine short-handed goals. On the road they are even better as they have killed off 67 of 74 chances against, which ranks them second in the league at an outstanding 90.5%. They’ve scored four times shorthanded, which is also fantastic.

At home, the picture isn’t quite as rosy. Yes, they still have an impressive five short-handed goals, but they’ve also given up quite a bit more. Following the three power play goals allowed against Toronto, they are now dead last in home penalty kill at 75.8%. They’ve allowed 22 goals on 91 chances in the 16 home games they’ve played so far.

The first problem lies in the fact that they’ve been shorthanded 91 times in 16 games. They are giving opponents more than five power plays a game in their War Memorial Arena. Giving that many chances to a team like Binghamton - who only converts on 14% of their power plays - isn’t good. Giving it to a team like Toronto - who cashes in 23% of the time - is a recipe for disaster.

There are no systematic differences between the two units on the road and at home. It’s the same players killing penalties, they just aren’t as successful for some reason. Unfortunately, there isn’t an overwhelming amount of data in the AHL available to be able to break down where the scoring chances are coming from, but the eye test can still be informative. For whatever reason, the Crunch struggle with their coverage at home and tend to get trapped in their zone for long stretches of time.

The third power play goal for the Marlies on Saturday is a good example.

Brassart makes a nice play to intercept the pass intended for Jeremy Bracco. He has time to clear it and tries to muscle it out off the boards on his backhand. He doesn’t get enough on it. Alex Volkov is a little late in challenging Calle Rosen at the blueline and once Rosen passes the puck over to Sam Gagner, the Crunch are scrambling to cover. Chris Mueller is able to get into position to deflect the puck home.

Much like with their offense, the Crunch have to win puck battles in order to be successful with their penalty kill. Because they are so aggressive attacking the puck at the point, if they lose those battles they get out of position. Prior to the highlight starting, the Marlies had a shot stopped by Eddie Pasquale. The rebound came out in front where Volkov and Cameron Gaunce were positioned. They had a chance to control the puck, but lost the battle to Adam Brooks and Mueller. The Marlies kept the puck and were able to keep it in the zone.

The only real solution to it all is to win those battles, and I’m sure that will be a big focus during practices this week. Of course, the other solution seems simple as well - stop taking so many penalties.

Upcoming Schedule

The Crunch will come out of their practices with a chance to rebound from their rough week with a game against the struggling Devils. From there, the Crunch faces a couple of tough North Division matchups. Cleveland comes to Syracuse on Friday and then the Crunch heads to Utica on Saturday. If Coach Groulx is ever going to start Martin Ouellette, Wednesday would be the day.

Wednesday, January 9th at Binghamton Devils

Friday, January 11th vs. Cleveland Monsters

Saturday, January 12th at Utica Comets