If there can be anything approximating playoff hockey in the doldrums of February, it’s been the recent three games between the Syracuse Crunch and the Rochester Americans. In just over a week, the teams have met three times. During those games, neither team has led by more than a goal and two of the games took the skills session to decide while the other was a 1-0 regulation win. On Saturday night, the Americans edged the Crunch 3-2 in a shootout following another closely contested game. With the victory, Rochester moves back into first place by a single point.
The Crunch began the night with a bolstered defensive unit. Veteran Cameron Gaunce returned to the line-up following his two game suspension. Eddie Pasquale took to the ice between the pipes for Syracuse while former Crunch netminder Adam Wilcox lined up in the opposite crease. Both goaltenders would have strong nights. Pasquale turned aside 38 of 40 shots while Wilcox was successful in stopping 29 of the 31 pucks that found their way to him.
Despite the game being played on Syracuse ice, it was Rochester that drove the play for most of the night. Their defense bottled up the explosive Crunch offense by limiting their space in the neutral zone and offensive zone. Syracuse relies on quick passes to draw opposing defenses out of position and open up space for quality chances. The Amerks refused to be part of that strategy. They constantly broke up passes and harassed the puck carriers, stifling the Crunch’s offense throughout the game.
Rochester, as they have done in all but one of their previous match-ups, struck first. Gabriel Dumont was whistled for boarding William Borgen behind the Rochester net and it didn’t take long for the Amerks to capitalize. They won the face-off and Kevin Porter’s shot hit off of Pasquale’s glove. The goalie stopped Taylor Leier’s follow up chance, but couldn’t prevent Remi Elie from swatting home a third attempt.
The Crunch had a few chances to tie the game as they had a couple of power plays. Coach Ben Groulx reunited the unit of Andy Andreoff, Carter Verhaeghe, Alex Barre-Boulet, Gaunce and Cory Conacher that had been so dominating early in the year. Unfortunately, they were unable to beat Wilcox despite some decent time in the zone. Following a road trip that saw the power play go 0-for-16, the home crowd saw nothing but continued disappointment as the Crunch would fail in all three of their man advantages on the night.
The period drew to a close with the Amerks leading 1-0 and outshooting the Crunch 14-8. It was not a good 20 minutes for Syracuse as they looked a little sluggish and ragged with the puck. On the few occasions they did find some open ice they fumbled their passes or their shots were blocked.
In the middle frame, the Crunch were able to find the equalizing goal eight minutes in. Gabriel Dumont pounced on a loose puck behind the Rochester net. His initial wraparound was denied, but the puck came back to him. He tried another shot that grazed off of Wilcox’s skate and right to Mitchell Stephens, who was posted up to the goaltender’s right. The Crunch forward banged the puck just inside the near post for his 5th goal of the season.
While the crowd was energized by the goal, it was the Amerks who picked up their play on the ice. Two minutes later, three Crunch players got caught dropping a little too close to their net which opened up a lane for Yannick Veilleux to snap a pass over to Borgen between the circles. The defenseman didn’t hesitate and wristed a shot past Pasquale to reestablish the one goal lead for the visitors.
Looking to change the momentum a bit, Coach Groulx moved Stephens up to a line with Carter Verhaeghe and Dumont, and it almost led to a goal as the captain made a nice pass through the neutral zone that sent Verhaeghe in with speed. The Crunch’s leading scorer zipped a shot that went just wide right, a reoccuring theme for the Crunch’s offense throughout the night. Whenever they had just a little bit of space their shots were just wide or Wilcox was able to make the stop.
The Crunch looked to mount another third period comeback against the Amerks, something they’ve managed to do twice already this season. Less than two minutes into the period, Ross Colton brought them level with a nice shot off of the rush. Brady Brassart gathered the puck in his own zone and took a big hit to clear it into the neutral zone. Cal Foote skated onto it and then made a nifty pass to Colton that had the rookie clear in on net. He picked the top corner over Wilcox’s glove for his shot and hit his target for his ninth goal of the season.
Both teams had power play opportunities in the final 10 minutes of the period that they were unable to cash in on. The Crunch switched their first unit up, dropping Alex Barre-Boulet and replacing him with Jan Rutta. It almost paid off as Conacher ripped a shot on net that Wilcox barely fought off. The rebound was there for Andreoff to bang home but he couldn’t get a clean shot off and the Rochester goaltender made the secondary save. Regulation ended knotted at two.
Just 45 seconds into overtime, the Amerks were a goalpost away from winning as Victor Olofsson’s shot pinged off of the iron on Pasquale’s stick side. After a feeling out process, the ice finally opened up in the bonus session as the teams traded breakaways. First it was Pasquale kicking aside a chance by Danny O’Regan. Wilcox returned the favor almost immediately as he denied Dumont on the other end. Wilcox had to be sharp right up until the final buzzer as Conacher almost slipped a shot past him just as time expired in the extra period.
The goaltenders were strong in the shootout, as well, as they prevented goals from being scored in the first five rounds. In the sixth round, following an attempt by Ross Colton that went just wide of the net, Taylor Leier finally found the back of the net to earn the extra point for the Americans.
Despite not having their best night, the Crunch almost pulled out a victory. If the last few weeks are any indication, the battle for the North Division title is going to be intense.