The Syracuse Crunch will wrap up their five-game road trip On Friday night back where it started as they head into Rochester to take on the North Division-leading Americans. The road trip which began on such a high note with a 2-1 shootout win against the Amerks has taken a bit of a turn for the worse with back-to-back shutout losses. Still, the Crunch can overtake Rochester for the division lead with a regulation win.
In order to win, the Crunch are going to have to reignite their suddenly stagnant offense. How do they do that? By sticking to what coach Ben Groulx refers to as their “identity.” He’s mentioned it often, especially during the recent 8-game winning streak, about how the Crunch need to go out and establish their identity during games.
So, just what is the Crunch’s identity?
It’s playing fast, playing right, and playing with what Coach Groulx refers to as “heavy sticks.” That means winning battles along the boards, getting sticks in the way of passes, and emerging from 50/50 plays with the puck. When the Crunch do that, they force the other teams to chase them instead of the other way around.
The Crunch are not a “grind it out down low, posses the puck for a long time before scoring” type of team. Yes, they can and will do that, but when they are at their best they are a team that strikes quickly, often off transition. They have to create turnovers. How do they do that? By forechecking with aggression, harassing puck carriers the length of the ice, and stepping up in the neutral zone to challenge entries. All of these things are hallmarks of the “heavy stick” hockey that Coach Groulx likes to see.
It also behooves them to play with the lead. The Crunch have scored the first goal 23 times in 47 games. Their record when they score first - 20-1-1-1. That equates to a .913 winning percentage when they score first. In case you were wondering, yes, that is the best mark in the league by far (San Jose and Bridgeport are tied for second with a measly .821 winning percentage).
The identity that Coach Groulx wants them to play with makes them such a dominant team with the lead. Their style is a pain in the ass to deal with in general. It’s tough for teams to know that they have to fight their way up all 200 feet of ice and if they make a bad pass or the puck bobbles off of a stick they’re going to have to be chasing them down. That gets amplified when you’re down a goal or two and have to force a pass up the ice.
Utica is down 2-0 at this point and looking to get back in the game. They make a nice play to win the puck. Evan McEneny sees that he has a few Crunch players trapped in the zone. If he completes the cross ice pass to Brandon Woods, Woods has a one-on-one entry into the zone. In order to do that, McEneny has to get the pass through to players. If the Comets are tied or leading, he probably doesn’t try it. Down by two in the third period he tries it and it fails.
Alex Barre-Boulet knocks the pass down and the Crunch are immediately on the attack. A couple of quick passes later and the puck is in the back of the net. Heavy stick in the neutral zone, attack with speed, and execute with precision. That is Syracuse Crunch hockey in a 10-second clip.
Now, if they’ve scored first in 23 games, that leaves 24 games where they’ve given up the first goal. Their record in those games is 9-14-1-0. Winning nine games after trailing isn’t bad, but it’s not great. What makes them so good with the lead can also hurt them when they are trailing. Sometimes they are too aggressive and if they don’t win a puck battle it can lead to an odd man advantage for the other side.
Trailing the Providence Bruins 2-0, the Crunch are in the Bruins zone as the puck swings around the boards to the blueline. Nolan Valleau tries to keep it in the zone with his stick, but he’s kind of caught in between. With three teammates still in the Providence zone he has to tie that puck up along the boards. Instead, he kind of swings it into the middle of the ice and falls down, and the puck goes right into the path of an oncoming Bruin. Providence has an easy entry and Ryan Donato whips it into the net.
With the lead, Valleau plays that a little more cautiously. There’s no need to keep the puck in the offensive zone so he doesn’t have to reach for it initially. He plays back and slows the rush down allowing his teammates to regroup on defense.
It’s not an easy identity to play for an entire season. Part of the reason the Crunch have been so streaky this season is because theirs is reliant on such a high tempo and execution. Their mistakes are often magnified. When they are executing properly they are one of the hardest, if not the hardest, team to beat in the league. When they don’t make their plays, and they lose battles along the boards, then they are battling not only the other team, but themselves as well.
Hopefully the prospect of ending the road trip with the division lead will be a big enough motivation for them to start Friday’s game strong and force the Amerks to chase them up and down the ice instead of the other way around.
Alex Volkov - Andy Andreoff - Cory Conacher
Boris Katchouk - Gabriel Dumont - Alex Barre-Boulet
Carter Verhaeghe - Mitchell Stephens - Brady Brassart
Jonne Tammela - Ross Colton - Otto Somppi
Nolan Valleau - Cal Foote
Dominik Masin - Jan Rutta
Hubert Labrie - Ben Thomas
Notes: Jan Rutta should be back in the line-up tonight following his oh-so-brief excursion to Tampa. If Coach Groulx goes with a 12/6 rotation, it wouldn’t be a bad night to give Oleg Sosunov a game off. The big rookie played well in the last two games, but Rutta is the better option.
Tammela returned to line-up and was on the top line for most of the first two periods as well as on the power play unit. Down a few goals, Coach Groulx basically benched him, Somppi and Colton in the third period and rolled with his top offensive players. It will be interesting to see how he uses him tonight.