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Crunch Corner: Not bad, not great, just o.k.

The Crunch split a pair of overtime games over the weekend.

Scott Thomas Photography

It was another week where the Syracuse Crunch only played two games. They took three out of a possible four points yet it feels somewhat...unsatisfactory. In both games they had two goal leads in the third period, which last season would have been a stone cold lock, yet they ended up going to overtime in both of them. On Saturday a last minute goal denied them a full two points, while on Sunday Gemel Smith played the hero with a nifty one-on-one goal.

Some of the poor play carried over from the previous week as the Crunch struggled with defensive zone coverages and, despite playing fairly well, couldn’t keep the puck out of the net against Rochester. Things improved drastically on Sunday as they outplayed one of the top teams in the league for the majority of the game. Toronto, being Toronto, found a way to take the game to overtime, but couldn’t stop Smith, and the Crunch were able to finish up the week on a positive note.

There was a lot of positive play, even in the Rochester game. Most importantly, the players seem to be gelling as a unit. Prior to the game against the Amerks, Coach Ben Groulx bemoaned the fact that you can only do so much in practice, something the Crunch have had plenty of early in the season. It wasn’t a lack of talent or poor schemes that were leading to less than desirable outcomes, it was just a lack of steady competition.

Even with the somewhat inconsistent start, the Crunch matched their best record in October (points-wise) in the Ben Groulx era. The 8 points (3-2-2-0) match the start they had in 2016-17, Groulx’s first season as head coach (4-3-0-0). Last season they only mustered 4 points in 7 games (2-5-0-0) while the year before that they had 7, but it took 9 games (3-5-1-0).

So, they’re well ahead of last year’s pace and that season worked out fairly well. The hot starts by Utica (7-0-0-0) and Toronto (6-0-2-0) have placed a little space in the standings between the top teams and the Crunch, but Syracuse is capable of ripping off similar streaks themselves. In short, there is plenty of time left in the season and things are trending towards the better for the Crunch. Relax.

The Standings

Injuries

Danick Martel missed both games over the weekend. While not much has been said by the team, it’s safe to assume he’s dealing with some lingering issues from hitting his head on the ice after his fight last weekend.

His spot on the roster was filled by Daniel Walcott. The well-liked forward returned to the lineup after missing the last couple of weeks while he finished up his rehab from a second shoulder surgery. The frisky winger jumped right into action and became a penalty machine - in a good way. He drew multiple penalties in each game over the weekend as he managed to get under the skin of both the Amerks and Marlies with his aggressively irritating style of play.

There weren’t many chances to hit or run into an opposing player that he passed up, but he also used his skill to draw a couple of penalties as well, most notably against the Marlies when Pierre Engvall had to hook him down to keep him from tapping in a pass on a two-on-one with Otto Somppi.

Coming and Going

The first plane tickets to Orlando were purchased during the week as Oleg Sosunov and Jimmy Huntington were sent to the Solar Bears, with Matthew Spencer passing them on the north bound flight. The moves weren’t much of a surprise given the surplus of bodies in Syracuse, especially among the forwards.

Huntington had been ok in his appearances with the Crunch as he centered the fourth line. Peter Abbadonato’s success on the power play (2 goals) probably made the decision a little easier for the Crunch’s management team. As for Sosunov, this wasn’t unexpected. He’ll get a chance to play a little more in the ECHL and will most likely be swapped for Spencer some time in the near future.

The Games

Saturday, October 26th vs. Rochester: 7-6 (OT) Loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Sunday, October 27th vs. Toronto: 4-3 (OT) Win (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Thoughts

Whose lack of goals should I be most worried about?

Before Sunday’s game this list would have been a lot longer. Fortunately Cal Foote, Taylor Raddysh, and Ross Colton all scored their first of the season. That leaves Alex Volkov, Mitchell Stephens, and Daniel Walcott as the only forwards on the roster without a goal. Volkov and Walcott get a pass because they missed the first few weeks with injuries and have only played five games between them.

That leaves Stephens. The third year forward has one point in seven games and is a -6 (until we get more data from the AHL we still have to keep an eye on this). It hasn’t been a great start to the season for him. He has been playing much more wing than center and it’s taken him a little time to adjust to that.

The good news is that, like a lot of other forwards, Sunday was one of his best games of the year. He was on the team’s best line all game against the Marlies as he teamed up with Ross Colton and Boris Katchouk to provide several solid scoring chances for the Crunch throughout the game.

There was a lot of talk this offseason about his chances to make the Lightning out of training camp. Being sent down rather early in the process may have been tough for him to get over, and that’s led to a bit of a funk to start the season. If that’s the case, the only way he can do something about it is to play better. The organization isn’t going to reward a sulking player with anything but a ticket out of town.

It’s early enough in the season that a good, multipoint weekend makes this all a moot point, but it is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Goaltending

I’m usually among the last to blame goaltenders for goals being allowed (and that has nothing to do with my brief run as deck hockey goalie during college). Most goals allowed are due to a total team breakdown, not just a netminder forgetting what his number one job is - stopping pucks. That being said, a combined 4.19 Goals Against Average with a .858 Save Percentage isn’t going to get the job done.

Louis Domingue (4 starts) and Scott Wedgewood (3 starts) have split the games right now the middle so far for Syracuse and they’ve both had some good moments. However, both have had some goals go in that they most likely would like to have back.

Over the past couple of seasons there have been stretches where the Crunch have relied way too much on their goaltenders as a defense of last resort. Breakaways, odd-man rushes, and general lack of back-checking interest have led to Eddie Pasquale, Connor Ingram, and others sprawling around making highlight saves to keep their opponents off the scoreboard.

With the exception of the game against Utica last week, the Crunch have actually been fairly good at limiting those types of do-or-die situations for the goalies. Compared to years past there haven’t been many breakaways. So...that’s good.

The problem is, there does seem to be more goals going in from the top of the circle or on clean shots that it appears the goalies are seeing clearly. They’re just not making the saves. This could very well be a product of the inconsistent schedule the Crunch have played to begin the season. It’s hard enough for skaters to get into a rhythm playing twice a week; it’s even harder for a goalie to do it once a week.

Perhaps with the increase in games, Coach Groulx will decide on a consistent starter and things will improve.

Players of the Week

Gemel Smith: 2 games, 3 Goals, 2 Assists - If you score a game-winning goal in overtime to break a three game losing streak, chances are you’ll end up on this list. Add another two goals and two assists and you’ll definitely end up here. He’s been everything a Ben Groulx-coached team needs: quick on his skates, a tough forechecker, the ability to put the puck in the net, and the occasional turnover. Should the Lightning need a bottom six forward, Smith is rapidly moving his name to the top of the list of call-ups.

Luke Schenn: 2 games, 0 Goals, 3 Assists - Granted, the assist he picked up on Smith’s goal was pretty much tapping the puck to Alex Volkov in the defensive zone, but still, Schenn, who has never really been known for his offense, is up to a team-leading six assists in six games for the Crunch. He’s had an uncanny knack for getting shots on net from the blue line. He isn’t bombing slappers from back there, but wristing shots on net that are inherently redirectable by his forwards. In between helpers, he’s doing what he was brought in to do, provide unspectacular, but steady defense.

Upcoming Games

It’s the recappers trifecta! The Crunch begin November with three games in three nights as Coach Groulx gets his wish for more games.

Friday, November 1st vs. Bridgeport Sound Tigers, 7:00 p.m.

Saturday, November 2nd vs. Binghamton Devils, 7:00 p.m.

Sunday, November 3rd at. Hershey Bears, 5:00 p.m.