The Syracuse Crunch have tended to start slowly after long breaks this season. They often look a little sluggish and struggle to get their game going after having multiple days off. That was not the case on Friday night when they outskated the Utica Comets on their way to a 4-0 victory in front of a sellout crowd in Syracuse. Connor Ingram made 21 saves to pick up his fifth shutout of the year and Carter Verhaeghe, in his 100th game as a member of the Crunch, had three points.
While Ingram and Verhaeghe will be singled out for their accomplishments, the Crunch won via a total team effort from start to finish. Coach Ben Groulx, who has been looking for a 60-minute effort all season from his squad, was pleased with the result calling it a “pretty a good job.” High praise, indeed.
The effort level from players who didn’t show up on the score occurred all game. In particular, the defense as a unit played extremely well. Hubert Labrie may have had his best game in a Crunch uniform as he was a shot blocking machine during the first period when Syracuse was shorthanded four times. He also broke up several rushes and calmly cleared the puck out of the zone on some of the few times Utica put some pressure on the Crunch.
Once again, a rash of calls threatened to derail the Crunch early on. They took three consecutive penalties starting at the 5:43 mark of the first period and leading to the Comets having almost six consecutive minutes of power play time. That being said, some of the calls were unfortunate. Labrie was whistled first for landing an extra shot in a post-shot scrum. It was the type of facewash that happens dozens of times throughout a game, but this time, it just happened to be called.
Then it was Taylor Raddysh getting his stick stuck in the skates of Cole Lind and upending the young forward. It was definitely a penalty but also a bit of bad luck as well. The third call was interesting. Look at this (blurry) screenshot and guess the call:
If you had charging on Andy Andreoff, then you, too, can be an AHL referee. There was a loose puck behind the Utica net that Ivan Kulbakov came out to play. Andreoff skated in and braced for a hit, making a little contact with the goaltender, but ending up pinned to the boards by Kulbakov. Yet, he still got called.
Despite being shorthanded for such a lengthy time, the Crunch managed to kill off all three penalties without too many threats. Connor Ingram did stop a couple of close shots from Jonathan Dahlan, but the penalty killers in front of him, most notably Labrie, did an excellent job of blocking shots. The Crunch also won the majority of faceoffs in their zone, allowing for quick clears. They weren’t pinned in their zone for long stretches of time, something that has hampered them recently.
Following the third penalty, the Crunch regained control of the action and struck first. Nolan Valleau scored his second goal of the year and put Syracuse in front. The goal wasn’t very complicated:
Carter Verhaeghe won a battle against the wall and nudged the puck to an open area. Taylor Raddysh swooped in and passed it back to Valleau, who backed into an open lane and fired it on net. The puck hit defenseman Jalen Chatfield and changed direction. Kulbakov, who had a mask full of Andy Andreoff in front of him, never saw the puck until he was digging it out of the back of the net. It was an excellent response following the extended time shorthanded.
The Crunch added a second goal with less than two minutes to go in the opening frame. Dennis Yan, who didn’t have much ice time due to all of the penalties, became the seventh member of the Crunch to score ten goals as he ripped a wrist shot past Kulbakov.
It was an excellent shot from Yan, and a terrific set up by Valleau, but the play was started before the clip began. The puck was dumped into the zone and Alex Volkov hustled behind the net and forced a turnover by Evan McEneny, allowing the Crunch to keep the puck in the zone.
Nothing really happened in the second period. No, seriously, nothing of real note took place. Well, the Crunch had a power play, but the only thing that came of it was Cory Conacher unloading a one-timer that former teammate Dylan Blujus stopped with his ribs. It was an unwise decision as Blujus left the game and didn’t return. The two teams combined for just 11 shots.
At one point the Crunch iced the puck three straight times, but Otto Somppi bailed them out by winning all three face-offs in the zone. Those face-off wins weren’t a huge thing in the grand scheme of things, but they prevented the Comets from putting any pressure on a tired line. Little moments, tiny victories like that were so important to the win for Syracuse.
The third period also had a sluggish start to it, but the Crunch provided a little bit of beauty among a field of sloppy play. The top scorers, on a line together, all touched the puck to add an important insurance goal for Syracuse.
Alex Barre-Boulet picked off a lazy pass through the neutral zone and slung the puck to Verhaeghe, who was streaking into the zone to his right. Verhaeghe slammed on the brakes and threw an area pass across the ice to Kulbakov’s right. Barre-Boulet received it cleanly, held it just long enough for the goaltender to commit, and then smoothly passed it to Andreoff, who flipped it over the goaltender and into the net. Nice precision passing and rather slow backchecking by Lukas Jasek and Wacey Hamilton led to Andreoff’s 17th goal of the season.
The Crunch continued to frustrate the Comets’ offense, knocking down plays in the neutral zone, winning battles along the boards, and forcing shots from distance. Utica, needing to change something up, pulled their goalie with over eight minutes to go. It led to two good chances, but following a nice post-to-post save by Ingram, Verhaeghe bounced a puck into the open net from center ice to seal the win. It was his 99th point in 100 games for the Crunch.
3 Dennis Yan - 1 goal, 2 shots. Yan was flying on the ice all game long and his effort earned him some time on the top line with Andreoff and Barre-Boulet in the second period. It’s been a stop-and-go season for the Russian, but he’s up to 16 points (10 goals, 6 assists) in limited time.
2 Connor Ingram - 21 saves, 1 shut out. It wasn’t an exciting game for Ingram, but he looked really good in the win. There weren’t a lot of rebounds and he was very controlled on the few shots he faced.
1 Carter Verhaeghe - 1 goal, 2 assists. Not much more we can say about the play of Verhaeghe who has 51 points on the season.
The Syracuse Crunch (25-13-2-1) look to cap off a perfect five-game homestand as they host the Cleveland Monsters (21-18-4-1) on Saturday night. The Crunch bring a five-game winning streak into the contest as they wrap up their season series with the Monsters.
The series has been closely contested. Cleveland won the first game 4-3 in overtime. The Crunch responded with a 5-3 win (an empty net goal with 30 seconds left extended the lead) the next night. In their last contest, Cleveland won in a shootout after tying the game with less than 30 seconds to go in the third period. So, it should be fun!
Veteran Nathan Gerbe leads the Monsters with 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) while Jean-Francois Berube should be between the pipes. The Monsters are coming off of a 7-2 thrashing by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Friday night.
Carter Verhaeghe - Andy Andreoff - Alex Barre-Boulet
Alex Volkov - Gabriel Dumont - Cory Conacher
Boris Katchouk - Ross Colton - Taylor Raddysh
Dennis Yan - Brady Brassart - Otto Somppi
Cameron Gaunce - Ben Thomas
Nolan Valleau - Cal Foote
Hubert Labrie - Jan Rutta
Notes: Coming out of the All-Star break, Coach Groulx really shook things up a bit. He broke up the Andreoff/Conacher combination that had been together almost all year and put three of his best scorers (Andreoff, Barre-Boulet, and Verhaeghe) all on one line. It paid off as they combined for two goals.
Ben Thomas had one of his best games of the season paired with Gaunce. Thomas was active with the puck, and he almost had his first goal but Kulbakov barely got a piece of his glove on it to knock it aside. He also made several nice plays in his own zone, winning battles along the boards and blocking passes.
Gabriel Dumont returns following his one-game suspension. It will be interesting to see how he responds following a coupe of games where he was a little over aggressive with his hits. Part of what makes him such a force is the edge that he plays with, but there’s a way to balance that force. If he’s too passive it hurts his effectiveness, but if he’s too aggressive, he’s spending too much time in the penalty box.