It was a productive week for the Syracuse Crunch as they picked up four out of six points, named a captain, and saw Cory Conacher rack up enough frequent flyer points to upgrade everyone to first class on their next team flight. The best part of the weekend was getting glimpses of the Crunch offense that we’re a little more used to seeing.
The Crunch seemed a little faster, a little more tenacious on the forecheck, and, for seemingly the first time all season, they were the ones dictating the pace of play instead of reacting. The result: a pair of 5-2 victories (we’ll ignore the loss for the moment). Hopefully, they build off of the success they had this weekend instead of taking a step or two back as has been the case so far this season.
Of course, the Lightning didn’t make it any easier for them by nabbing two players off their roster on Monday. With Tyler Johnson likely to miss a few games, at least one of the two will be staying with the NHL club during the upcoming road trip for the Crunch. While it’s not ideal, Syracuse should have the offensive depth to keep the pressure up (especially with the return of Gemel Smith).
Despite the rather successful week, the Crunch didn’t really gain any ground in the standings. The North is jam-packed with only 11 points separating the Marlies (1st place) and the Monsters (7th place). Really, the only team that is out of it at this moment is Binghamton. The Crunch may be 9 points behind Toronto at this moment, but they are only 3 back of Utica and Laval for the final playoff spot in the division.
With such an uneven start, they should be counting their blessings that no one has really run away with the division yet.
Ben Thomas returned to action Friday night and was playing pretty well on Saturday (2 assists) before leaving the game after an awkward collision with the linesman. Following the game against Bridgeport, Coach Groulx had no comment on the extent of the injury, but a report that came out Monday has Thomas missing “a couple of weeks” due to a twisted ankle.
Thomas’ injury adds to the woes on the blue line as Dominik Masin missed the week with his injury leaving the Crunch a little short on defense. The good news is that Coach Groulx hinted that Masin may be back at practice this week.
Gemel Smith returned to action on Wednesday after missing the previous 10 days with an undisclosed injury. The dynamic forward has had a productive start to his Crunch career with 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) in 16 games.
The big blow to the roster was losing Scott Wedgewood to a lower body injury for the next four-to-six weeks. While we advocated for more starts for Spencer Martin last week in this column, this isn’t the way we wanted to see it happen. Mike Condon was healthy enough to back-up Martin on Saturday so, if there is such a thing as an opportune time for Wedgewood to be hurt, it would be now.
Coming and Going
We’re going to rename this in honor of Conacher. Since we last published, Conacher was returned to Syracuse (12/4), recalled by Tampa (12/5), returned (12/6), and recalled (12/9). At this point, he’s leading the safety demonstrations on the flights from Syracuse to Tampa. Ahh....The life of a veteran AHL player.
At least Conacher had some company on his latest flight as Mitchell Stephens was recalled as well. It’s Stephens’ (M) first call-up to the NHL and a bit of a reward based on his solid play over the last few weeks.
Jimmy Huntington also spent some time on an airplane last week as he was sent to Orlando and then recalled yesterday to fill a spot created by the departures of Stephens (M) and Conacher.
TJ Melancon’s reunion with the Crunch lasted all of one game as he was released from his PTO following the game against Charlotte on Wednesday. However, if the injury to Ben Thomas is serious, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Melancon signed to yet another PTO.
Players of the Week
Cory Conacher - 2 games, 2 goals, 2 assists: Despite starring in the Up in the Air remake last week, Conacher was extremely productive in the two games he appeared in. Hockey players are creatures of habit and for him to perform so well despite having that routine disrupted on almost a daily basis is a testament to his professionalism. If he sticks with the Lightning for awhile, it will leave a big hole in the Crunch line-up, especially on the power play.
Alex Volkov - 3 games, 1 goal, 3 assists: Yes, they all came in one game, and yes it was his first goal of the year, but for a player that has been up and down all season long, it’s a good sign that he had a dominating offensive game. In the past, he’s been a streaky player, and hopefully he’s in the right head space to get a nice long points streak going.
The Josef K. Goal of the Week
This is what the Crunch do best when they’re on their game. Get the puck in deep, forecheck, force a bad pass, and then convert on the opportunity. Volkov forced the issue, but Taylor Raddysh was not only in position for the loose puck, he was there to keep the Bridgeport player from being able to escape Volkov’s pressure.
Also, if Parker Wotherspoon (great name) had tried to bail out and fling the puck up the near boards, Ben Thomas was in position to battle to keep it in. Chris Mueller was in the center of the ice to receive Raddysh’s feed after the turnover, but he was also there to knock down any passes from Wotherspoon up the middle.
That goal is a result of everyone on the ice being exactly where they need to be and working hard to limit their opponent’s options. Volkov’s quickness to get on the puck carrier kept Wotherspoon from having any easy outs. That’s the type of play that has been a hallmark of the Crunch under Coach Groulx.
The Road Trip
The Crunch will be away from the War Memorial Arena for roughly ten days over the next two weeks as they embark on their longest road trip of the first half of the season. It’s coming at a pretty opportune time. While most players tend to be more comfortable at home, long trips do give a team a chance to come together.
For most of the season, the Crunch have gone on short trips away from Syracuse, returning home after one or two nights away. At home, the simple acts of life tend to pull players in opposite directions off the ice. Everyone has their own interests and unless you’re hanging out at the Walcott household (where he’s renting rooms out to Luke Witkowski and Danik Martel), chances are that the players aren’t hanging out with each other that much.
On a lengthy road trip, that changes. The players are together a lot more, whether it’s on buses, or planes, or checking out whatever town they’re in, they are constantly together. If a team gets along, these types of trips tend to bring them even closer together.
It also gives them a chance to get away from the minutiae of day-to-day life. They can get into a set routine and focus exclusively on hockey. It’s not going to be an easy road trip as Providence is one of the best teams in the league and Charlotte always plays the Crunch tough, but if the Crunch return with a majority of the points, it could be a turning point in the season.
Prior to the weekend, it was announced that Luke Witkowski was named captain of the team (yes, it was really tough not to write Captain Crunch there). Apparently, he received the honor after a team vote. While we’ve made our feelings known here at Raw Charge as to who should be wearing the “C”, the fact that he was elected by the team and not named by the coaching staff is a huge positive in his favor.
It’s Witkowski’s second stint as the captain as he wore it during his time with the team in 2016-17, and he fits all of the criteria that AHL coaches like in their captains. He’s experienced, seemingly well-liked by his teammates, and apparently is a voice the other players listen to in the locker room.
The leadership-by-committee approach that the Crunch had going earlier in the season was a good idea on paper, but in practice it’s just too many voices in the room. Any one of the five veteran voices would have made a fine captain, but having a clearly appointed one cuts through all of the chatter and gives the team a little more direction.
I have no doubt that players like Daniel Walcott, Cameron Gaunce, and Chris Mueller will still have an important role on the team. But for better or worse, this is Witkowski’s team now.
It’s not going to be an easy week for the Crunch. The road trip starts in Providence against a division-leading Bruins team that is 16-8-1-2 overall. The small sliver of a silver lining is that 5 of those 8 losses have come on their home ice where they are a more pedestrian 6-5-0-1. Then it’s onto Charlotte for a pair of weekend games against a Checkers team that outscored the Crunch 12-4 in their two games in Syracuse.
Wednesday, December 11th at Providence Bruins, 6:05 p.m.
Friday, December 13th at Charlotte Checkers, 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, December 14th at Charlotte Checkers, 6:00 p.m.