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Crunch Corner: Syracuse has become a one-line team

One trio is scoring as the Crunch struggle to find consistency.

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch salvaged two points this weekend as Alex Barre-Boulet’s whiffed shot bounced off a goaltender, a stick, and a defenseman’s legs before crossing the blueline in overtime against the Binghamton Devils. Despite not playing all that bad, those two points against the Devils were the only two they picked up last week.

The Friday night loss to Laval was especially frustrating as Syracuse thoroughly outplayed the Rocket for most of the night. Unfortunately Charlie Lindgren was especially good in net for Laval and denied many, many prime scoring chances for the Crunch.

With the ho-hum week, Syracuse continues to tread water in the North Division. As the calendar turns to December they are still well out of a playoff spot and the same problems (mostly turnovers) continue to haunt them.

While December 2nd is a little early to write a team off, there has to be a significant change in the consistency of their play if they expect to make it to the playoffs for a fourth straight season under Coach Ben Groulx.

There were some bright spots this week. The Crunch have found at least one line that is scoring on a consistent basis (more on them later) and one of their top scorers, Cory Conacher, was reunited with the team after a brief stay with the Lightning.

Standings

Injuries

Gemel Smith and Mike Condon missed another week of play and still have an undefined time table for return. Joining them on the sidelines this week was Ben Thomas. The enigmatic defenseman appeared to collide near the boards with Laval’s Nikita Jervpalovs and landed awkwardly. He was visibly shaken up as he headed to bench and didn’t return to that game. He also missed the game against Binghamton.

At this time there is no update on the severity of the injury (Coach Groulx has said he was being reevaluated on Saturday). His injury did lead to the Syracuse debut of Devante Stephens, recently acquired in a trade for Matthew Spencer. Stephens (D) was fine in his first action with the Crunch. He started the game paired with Luke Witkowski and didn’t have too many noticeable plays (which is a good thing for a third-pair defender).

If Thomas is out for an extended period of time they do lose one of their puck-moving, right-side defenders. There are times when puck handling and decision making can be a bit of an adventure for Thomas, but he is one of the better skaters with the puck that the Crunch have on their blueline.

In his absence Cameron Gaunce flipped back to the right side, with Nolan Valleau as his partner. The Crunch are a little light on right-side defenders right now with only Gaunce, Witkowski, and Cal Foote on the roster. If Thomas is out long term it wouldn’t be surprising to see them reach down and sign someone from Orlando to a PTO.

Update! Just minutes after posting, the Syracuse Crunch announced that they had signed old friend T.J. Melancon to a PTO. As part of his tour of the AHL in 2017-18 (he played for three teams) he sported the Crunch uniform for six games without recording a point. He spent last season with Norfolk in the ECHL. This season he has skated in 20 games with the Brampton Beast.

Coming and Going

Conacher returned to Syracuse after a couple of games with the Tampa Bay Lightning. With Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov back in action, there were a few too many forwards in Tampa Bay.

He had a bit of a rough game against Laval as he was on the ice for all four goals the Rocket scored, but bounced back with one of his better games against the Devils on the very next night. Conacher had 10 shots on net (and a few more that whistled just wide or were blocked) and scored a nifty goal by roofing a backhander past Gilles Senn after chasing down a loose puck:

The Games

Wednesday, November 27th at Utica Comets: 4-1 loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Friday, November 29th vs. Laval Rocket: 4-2 loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Saturday, November 30th at Binghamton Devils: 4-3 (OT) Win (Recap) (Box Score)

Players of the Week

The line of Danik Martel, Mitchell Stephens, and Alex Barre-Boulet (6 goals, 5 assists)

The Syracuse Crunch scored seven goals last week. This line accounted for six of them. Five of the six that they scored came at even strength so it wasn’t as if they were off scoring with different players on the power play. As impressive as their week was, it could have been better as they completely dominated the Binghamton Devils every time they stepped on the ice.

What makes them so impactful of a line? First off - speed. Stephens and Martel are two of the fastest skaters on the team and Barre-Boulet isn’t that far behind. All three have the ability to skate past defenders or, as in the case of Martel’s goal on Saturday, to open pucks:

If he didn’t accelerate quickly from his zone, this puck was either an icing or played by Gilles Senn. Instead Martel was able to get to it so quickly that he settled down the bouncing puck and basically coasted in on Senn without having to worry about a backchecker.

Secondly, they can all shoot the puck. Martel is currently shooting 20.4% (mostly because he goals come from about six inches in front of the net), Barre-Boulet is 19.6% and Stephens at 14.7%. They are also unafraid to let the puck go as they’ve combined for 134 shots on the season. They also record a lot of ice time as all three kill penalties and Barre-Boulet and Stephens see regular shifts on the power play.

It’s not just racing down the ice on breakaways for them, though. They also use their speed and quickness to cause turnovers and keep possession of the puck in the offensive zone. This goal against Laval came off of a rebound:

It seems simple. Martel shot the puck and Stephens patiently waited for an opening to pop the rebound past the goaltender, but prior to the goal the Crunch had kept the puck in the zone for 61 seconds, which is an eternity. This line (and the Chris Mueller line) chased down loose pucks, blocked exit passes and hounded the Rocket players into turnovers.

That’s the example Coach Groulx has exhorted the rest of his forwards to follow and why he has referred to the Stephens line as the best the team has.

Thoughts

Time for Spencer Martin

Following the loss to Laval on Friday night, Coach Groulx went to great lengths to not blame the loss on Scott Wedgewood. He acknowledged that the entire team needed to work harder in the defensive zone. Still, the coach didn’t exactly exonerate his starting goalie, either. The fact that he pulled him from the game after the second period also shows that he wasn’t completely happy with Wedgewood’s performance.

Spencer Martin got the start against Binghamton and picked up the overtime win by stopping 26 of 29 shots. Martin has had six starts this season and, aside from a shaky outing against Utica where he gave up four goals on twenty-one shots, has been fairly solid. Oddly enough his best game came four days before that against the very same Utica team when he stopped twenty-two of twenty-three shots in a 3-1 Crunch win.

While both goalies have similar numbers on the season, it seems Martin has been a little better at coming up with the key saves. For instance, against Laval, the Crunch played a fairly decent game, and it could be argued that they were the better team for most of the night. The only problem was that they were down early when a shot from Jake Evans slid under Wedgewood’s pads and into the back of the net:

That’s a shot that Wedgewood needs to stop, especially thirty seconds into the game. The Crunch were chasing the score the rest of the night.

By contrast, against Binghamton, Martin’s biggest stop of the night also came on the first shot he faced. Nathan Bastian was staring at a wide open net when Martin dove across to knock it away. Then, in overtime, he made four more saves, keeping the game going until Alex Barre-Boulet pinballed in the winning goal.

The Crunch need more timely saves as they look to start climbing back up the standings, and perhaps it’s time that Spencer Martin got the opportunity to start making them.

The Rookies

Syracuse has had three rookies (Oleg Sosunov, Jimmy Huntington, and Peter Abbadonato) suit up in games this season. Their combined stats are: 23 games played, 2 goals, 0 assists, 8 penalty minutes, and 22 shots. That’s a far cry from the production they’ve had from first year players over the past couple of seasons.

The good news is that at least one of the rookies, Huntington, is slowly working his way into a more consistent role with the team. He’s played in the last four games and is appearing to be more comfortable with the speed of the AHL game. While he’s yet to find the scoresheet, he has been starting to generate more chances of late. Most of his play has come as a bottom six forward, but against the Rocket he did see some time on a line with Conacher and Chris Mueller, a sign that his play is impressing the coaching staff a bit.

Saturday’s game marked only the sixth time all season that both Huntington and fellow rookie Abbadonato have appeared in the same game. Due to the healthy scratch of veteran Mueller, Abbadonato appeared in his first Crunch game in two weeks and saw a little action on the power play. It’s been a bit harder for him to crack the line-up despite the two goals he scored early in the season.

One of the struggles that both rookies face is that they do tend to find themselves stapled to the bench depending on game circumstances. For instance, in Wednesday’s game against Utica, the second period was scattered with penalties throughout (the teams combined for 11 infractions). From about four minutes into the middle frame, the Crunch were either on the power play or killing a penalty, and that trend continued for almost the entire remaining sixteen minutes. Huntington barely saw any ice time since he isn’t part of either unit.

Moving forward it will be interesting to see if they both see a little more playing time. Coach Groulx has never been shy about benching someone whose effort isn’t up to his standards. If Huntington and Abbadonato are working hard in practice, they may see their playing time in games increase at the expense of a veteran who isn’t producing at a level consistent with what the coaching staff is looking for.

Upcoming Games

After finishing a busy November with an 8-6-0-0 record the Crunch kick off December with a three-game homestand. December has them playing 12 games, at a slightly less frantic pace than they had in November. The first half of the month has them playing out of the division quite a bit as they take on Atlantic teams such as Charlotte, Providence, and Bridgeport. That could make it a little tough to move up in the standings in their own division.

Granted, at this point in the season, the Crunch just need to pick up two points in as many games as possible, lest that 9 point deficit to Toronto grow even greater. Still, it’s always nice when the points they get come at the expense of a team they are trailing in the standings.

Syracuse should have a decent chance of picking up some wins as Charlotte and Laval are struggling a little of late. Bridgeport has righted the ship after a bit of a slow start, but is still leaning towards the bottom of the standings in the Atlantic Division.

Wednesday, December 4th vs. Charlotte Checkers, 7:00 pm

Friday, December 6th vs. Laval Rocket, 7:00 pm

Saturday, December 7th vs. Bridgeport Tigers, 7:00 pm