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Crunch Corner: Welcome to the Gemel Smith Show

The free agent signing scored five times in three games.

The good news is that the Syracuse Crunch won two out of three games last week. The bad news is that the loss on Friday was one of the worst efforts of the season.

“Disturbing effort.”

“No fight in us.”

“Manhandled.”

Those were the words Coach Benoit Groulx used following a loss to the Charlotte Checkers that saw the Crunch concede a two goal, first period lead. After a solid effort in the first period, the Crunch were dominated for the rest of the game by the Checkers who scored three consecutive goals to snatch the game away.

It was the forward crew that Coach Groulx seemed most upset about, and with good reason. Not only did they continue their season-long trend of turning the puck over, there was little willingness to battle for the puck in the few occasions they did make it into the Charlotte zone. While the Crunch head coach doesn’t care for turnovers, he absolutely can’t stand a team that doesn’t fight for the puck.

There did seem to be a bit of a bounce back on Saturday night as the Crunch came back from two goals down to beat the Checkers. With completely reshuffled line combinations, Syracuse was a lot tougher on the puck throughout the game and made Charlotte work harder for the entire night. Yes, there were still mistakes and turnovers, but the Crunch didn’t stop skating when they gave up the puck, they kept fighting and made things happen on second and third efforts.

One bad game shouldn’t erase the effort they played with on Saturday and earlier in the week against Providence, but it looks like Coach Groulx is done with inconsistent effort. If it continues to happen expect some rather popular names to be watching games from the press box.

Standings

While it looks like the Crunch are still languishing near the bottom, they are actually in a playoff position if you go by points percentage. Their .593 leapfrogs them over Laval and Utica into fourth place. Hopefully, they keep winning these games that they have in hand over some of their fellow North Division opponents.

Injuries

It’s been a rough couple of visits to Charlotte the last two seasons. Last year, Syracuse lost Martin Ouellette after he broke a leg in a collision in his net. This season the Crunch lost two players during the weekend there. First it was Luke Witkowski who was bent back awkwardly on his right leg in Friday night’s game. Per Lukas Favale on Saturday night, the Crunch captain could be out for a “couple of weeks”.

Then it was Danick Martel who left Saturday’s game early in the third period after he was tangled up with Janne Kuokkanen in front of the Crunch net. Martel fell to the ice and then had Morgan Geekie fall on top of him. Martel limped off after the play and didn’t return for the rest of the game.

The loss of Witkowski is huge with Ben Thomas already on the sidelines. As of right now the Crunch only have one right-hand shot on the roster: Cal Foote. With Devante Stephens filling in for Thomas, that meant Oleg Sosunov drew into the line-up on Saturday. A combined nine power plays by both teams led to Sosunov spending a lot of the game on the bench. However, at even strength he still didn’t get many shifts as Coach Groulx choose to double shift a couple of his other defenders throughout the game.

On Saturday both Cameron Gaunce and Nolan Valleay spent some time on their off side as Coach Groulx tried to find the best pairings to keep the Crunch in the game. Hopefully, Thomas, who skated in the pre-game on Friday, is ready to play this week.

Coming and Going

There was only one flight for Cory Conacher as he was returned to Syracuse at the beginning of the week and appeared in all three games for the Crunch. They did have to do without the services of Mitchell Stephens who wasn’t returned until after the Lightning game on Saturday.

It will be interesting to see if the Lightning also try and send down Luke Schenn this week. With Brayden Coburn getting closer to return and the Crunch only having one healthy right-hand shooting defenseman, this would be the ideal time to reinforce the blueline with a veteran presence.

The Games

Wednesday, December 11th at Providence: 4-1 Win (Recap) (Box Score)

Friday, December 14th at Charlotte: 3-2 Loss (Recap) (Box Score)

Saturday, December 15th at Charlotte: 5-4 win (Recap) (Box Score)

The Becky Thatcher Memorial Goal of the Week

Despite Gemel Smith’s scoring binge this week, the goal of the week goes to Chris Mueller. Just a fantastic rush into the offensive zone. He also got a bit of a help with a pick by Alex Barre-Boulet, but there isn’t much room for him to cut in front of the net and move the puck to his forehand for the goal.

It’s been a streaky season for Mueller so far. After going nine games with just two goals (both in the same game) he has now scored three times in his last four. That’s the consistency the Crunch were hoping for when they signed him in the off-season.

Players of the Week

Gemel Smith - 3 games, 5 goals, 1 hat trick. This one was a no-brainer. Also, it would be a rather bad look if the AHL Player of the Week didn’t also win the honors here at Raw Charge. Smith was efficient with this week as he scored his five goals on just six shots. He was paired with Alex Barre-Boulet on Friday and Saturday and the two have found complementary skills. Barre-Boulet, the playmaker, can let Smith get to the front of the net and set him up. Expect those two to stay together for awhile. Smith is now up to 16 points (9 goals, 7 assists) in 19 games with the Crunch. He may be playing his way into being the next call-up for the Lightning.

Spencer Martin - 2 games, 1 win, .928 SV%, 2.03 GAA. With Scott Wedgewood on the sideline, Martin has stepped in as the number one goalie in Syracuse and performed very well. Even though he gave up three goals on Friday night he played a really solid game (except for the third goal). His outings were reminiscent of Eddie Pasquale the last couple of years. Nothing spectacular, just make the saves at key moments and let the Crunch offense do it’s thing.

Thoughts

Cal Foote

I’m going to expand on some discussion about the Lightning first round pick that started last week on Raw Charge. Is he ready for the NHL? Not quite in my opinion. Set aside the fact that he just turned 21. The former first round pick is still a little raw as a professional player. He does a lot of things - A LOT of things - really well, but he is still learning this game.

That’s not to say he’s struggling this year. In fact, he’s been just as solid this year as he was at the end of last season. The reason he hasn’t popped up in the player of the week section this season is simply because the nature of that “honor” tends to lean towards offense more than defense. He’s had a lot of good games, but like the rest of the team he’s also been a little inconsistent.

Foote also plays a really smart game of hockey. That leads to him making the right play a lot of the time instead of the exciting play. You won’t see him try and take on multiple opponents on a rush through the neutral zone too often. Instead he is more likely to dump the puck in or wait for support from his teammates.

His biggest strength isn’t his size or his shot, it’s his mental approach. Foote rarely gets caught out of position, he sees the ice about as well as any defenseman in the game. His ability to stay calm and not overreact when things are going bad is also a major strength. If he makes a mistake he doesn’t compound it by overplaying in an effort to correct it.

I don’t want to give the impression that he is without offensive skill. This rush against Providence is proof that he knows how to set up goals.

There are three things I love about this rush:

  1. The subtle turn in his own zone to protect the puck from the forechecker.
  2. The change of speed in the neutral zone. He holds up just enough to give the impression he may drop the puck off or pass it to a forward and then takes off.
  3. The subtle shoulder fake at the blue line that opens up the middle of the ice and gives him a lane to skate into and drop the puck back to Gemel Smith.

The major knock he had against him following the draft was his skating. While he may not ever be the fastest player on the ice, he has definitely improved it and is fairly smooth. As you can see in that clip, his acceleration caught a couple of the Providence players off guard.

There is plenty of time in his career for Foote to make an impact in the NHL, it’s just not this season. He needs to be playing 20 minutes a night against tough competition in the AHL, not ten minutes a night in the NHL. A quick call-up later in the season to cover an illness or something temporary may be warranted, but for now his spot is in Syracuse.

I fully expect him to compete for a spot on the Lightning blueline in training camp next season.

The Rookies Take Two

A couple of weeks ago we discussed the lack of impact the Crunch rookies have had on the line-up this season. Since then either Peter Abbadonato or Jimmy Huntington have appeared in every game and have started to contribute. Abbadonato has played in four games and picked up three points (1 goal, 2 assists) while Huntington has appeared in two without adding a point (although a case could be made that he should have had an assist on Gemel Smith’s goal on Saturday).

While Huntington hasn’t found the scoresheet he impressed the coaching staff enough to earn a spot on a line with Smith and Alex Barre-Boulet, arguably the top pairing in Syracuse right now. He also took regular shifts on the second power play unit. Not only did he earn that spot, he fit right in on Saturday. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him right back there against Bridgeport.

Abbadonato is starting to show some of the scoring instinct that made him such an intriguing signing last summer.Both players appear to be growing comfortable in the Crunch’s system. With Coach Groulx seeming at his wits end with the effort level of some of the veterans there could be a chance for them to stay in the line-up even with Mitchell Stephens back in Syracuse.

Upcoming Games

The Crunch have a chance to end their road trip with a winning record as they take on Bridgeport on Wednesday before heading back home for some North Division action. The Saturday match-up will be interesting as Binghamton, currently in last place in the North, added some talent in the Taylor Hall trade on Tuesday.

Wednesday, December 18th at Bridgeport Sound Tigers, 7:00 pm

Friday, December 20th vs. Belleville Senators, 7:00 pm

Saturday, December 21st vs. Binghamton Devils, 7:00 pm