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Crunch Corner: A busy week yields mixed results

The Crunch split their four games and made fractional gains in the standings.

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch had a four game week and basically split it right down the middle. They played two home games and two road games. They won two games and lost two games. They won a game against Utica and lost a game against Utica. They scored 12 goals and surrendered 12 goals.

That’s about as even as you can get.

It also concluded one of their more brutal stretches of the season where they played six games in nine nights. They also split those six games right down the middle, going 3-3, which only allowed them to tread water in the standings. The North Division has gotten off to a competitive start with only eight points separating the first place Marlies from the last place Devils. The Crunch are right in the middle of the pack, five points behind Toronto and three points ahead of Binghamton (with a game in hand).

The Crunch stayed relatively healthy during that stretch, as only Gemel Smith missed time due to injury. With the schedule stabilizing a bit hopefully they can get on a run, as there were some encouraging signs that things might be pointed in the right direction. Boris Katchouk has found his scoring touch, while the team’s special teams continue to be above average (even with a little bit of a rocky stretch for the penalty kill).

Sixteen games into a season is enough time to get a feel for how the remainder of the season is going to go. For the Crunch, much like their affiliate in Tampa, it’s definitely going to be more of a grind than last season. In the end that might not be the worst thing to happen to this team. Blowing through the regular season was fun last year, but the first round exit wasn’t. With a little more adversity to go along with their experience maybe that will get the team a little more mentally prepared for the postseason (assuming they make it, of course).

The Standings

Injuries

Gemel Smith returned to action on Saturday for the first time since he sustained an undisclosed injury last Friday against Belleville. His absence left a bit of a hole in the top six considering Smith had been one of the best forwards throughout the start of the season, although the loss was mitigated a bit by the return of Alex Volkov.

Smith’s injury opened a spot on the power play which gave Boris Katchouk a chance to pick up some playing time with the extra skater...A chance he took advantage of.

(...Then there was that one ice resurfacer...)

Coming and Going

Alex Volkov and Scott Wedgewood were returned to Syracuse from Tampa following the Lightning’s trip to Sweden. Wedgewood didn’t see any action on the trip as the emergency backup goalie, but Volkov did receive regular playing time during his 4-game stint in the NHL. It was interesting to see Coach Groulx call out Volkov a bit after his first game back, noting that he needed to play better and not lose focus following his demotion.

As a corresponding move to Wedgewood’s return, Zach Fucale was loaned back to Orlando after serving as Spencer Martin’s backup for a few games.

The Games

Monday, November 11th at Utica: 3-1 Win (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Wednesday, November 13th at Rochester: 4-3 Loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Friday, November 15th vs. Utica: 5-2 Loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Saturday, November 16th vs. Cleveland: 4-2 Win (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Players of the Week

Boris Katchouk - 4 games, 3 Goals, 7 shots. After a four-game pointless streak, Katchouk rebounded with a really good week of hockey. Not only did he boost his goal total to four, he also picked up the first power play goal of his career. Given a chance on the man advantage after Coach Groulx shuffled up the second unit, Katchouk responded nicely by potting a power play goal in the loss to Utica. The seven shots is notable as it continues a season-long trend by the second year player of getting more shots on net. Last season he averaged just 1.04 shots per game, through 15 games this year it’s up to 1.6 per game. He has the talent to score and hopefully this past week is an indicator that he is growing more comfortable in his offensive game.

Cameron Gaunce - 4 games, 1 Goal, 4 assists. The veteran defenseman’s second productive week in a row is helping him make a solid case to be the Crunch’s player of the month. Since the calendar turned to November he’s put up points in 7 of the 9 games Syracuse has played and recorded 10 of his team-leading 14 points. He’s done this while logging his usual ton of minutes and adjusting to a new defensive partner in Luke Witkowski.

Thoughts

Even Strength Scoring:

One common thread that seems to emerge under recent Crunch teams is that when they struggle to string wins together it’s usually their even strength scoring that has problems. While their power play has minimal ebbs and flows, it is usually hovering around a 20% success rate and with the way they draw penalties that usually translates to at least one goal every other game or so.

It also helps them stay in games that they have no business being in. Case in point - the 5-2 loss to Utica. While the final score is indicative of how the majority of the game played out, the Crunch were still generating chances late into the third period thanks to the five power plays they had in the final frame.

The problem arises when those power play chances dry up. They’ve been relying a little heavy on non-even strength scoring to start the year. Of the 51 goals they’ve scored this year, only 31 have come at even strength. The other 20 have either come on the power play (16), short handed (2), or with an empty net (2). That breaks down to roughly 39% of their goals coming on special teams. Last season that percentage was only around 34%.

It’s still early enough that those numbers can change, but in order for that to happen their best scorers have to start scoring at even strength. Alex Barre-Boulet has 8 goals on the season and 5 of them have come on the power play. Chris Mueller has scored 3 of his 5 goals with the man advantage, while Cory Conacher has one even strength goal in his last 10 games.

If the Crunch are going to start putting some wins together and moving up in the standings, they’re going to have to find their scoring at even strength.

Slow starts

No matter if they’re winning or losing, the Crunch aren’t exactly a team that comes roaring out of the gates to start games. Even last season, when they set a franchise record for wins, they usually took awhile to get going in games.

The difference this year is that they’re not getting the shut down goaltending that they’ve seen in previous years that’s kept the other team off the board until their offense got going. Through 16 games this season, Crunch goaltenders have posted an .868 SV% in the first period (22 goals allowed on 167 shots). That’s not great, especially when the team has a -28 shot differential, and a -6 goal differential in the opening period.

It’s not just a goaltending problem. Many a first period has been marred by errant passing and poor decision making that has led to too many chances for their opponents. It’s also led to the Crunch chasing a lot of games. In 16 games, they’ve scored the first goal in only 6 of them. The good news is that when they score first, they usually win as they have posted a 4-1-1-0 record.

It’s the other 10 games that have been a problem. Their record drops to 4-5-1-0. Which, honestly, isn’t a horrible record when spotting the other team a lead 63% of the time.

There is just so much more added pressure when a team is constantly playing catch up. For one thing, at home, it takes the crowd out of the game. With Syracuse constantly being mentioned as one of the toughest buildings to play in, it sucks away a little of that home ice advantage when the road team is the first to pot a goal.

The silver lining is that the Crunch do tend to play better as the game progresses. Their goal differential over the final two periods is +3, while their shot differential is +41. If they could just find a way to tweak the first periods a bit, things might improve.

Lukas Favale raised the topic with Mitchell Stephens on the most recent episode of Crunch Weekly. Stephens response was, “It’s put on the individual. You have to be mentally committed to coming prepared every day.”

Following the 5-2 loss to Utica, Favale broached the subject with Danick Martel. The forward’s response echoed Stephens’, “I think it’s mental. You’ve got to be ready at the start...make sure on your first shift you’re on the details... Everyone has to be more prepared.”

Hopefully, having seen the lackluster results so far the Crunch are able to clear this mental hurdle and start the next stretch of games stronger before the season starts to slip away from them.

Upcoming Games

There are only two games on the schedule this week for the Crunch as they have passed the brutal part of the month. They will be playing a very good Hartford Wolf Pack. How good? They’ve lost once in regulation in 17 games. It should be a good measuring stick for how the rest of the season is going to go.

Wednesday, November 20th at Hartford Wolf Pack, 11:00 a.m.

Saturday, November 23rd vs. Hartford Wolf Pack, 7:00 p.m.

Bonus Barre-Boulet Photos of the Week:

Scott Thomas Photography

Technically it’s from a couple of weeks ago, but since there was no Crunch Corner last week - well, here ya go.