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Crunch Corner: The Crunch Clinch a Playoff Spot

They also lose a goalie and gain a prospect. It was a busy week.

Scott Thomas Photography

It was an interesting week for the Syracuse Crunch. They won twice and lost twice. They lost ground on the Checkers for the overall top spot, but did clinch a spot in the playoffs. They also kept their lead in the North Division over the Rochester Americans. So, there was a lot of good things that happened.

Oh yeah, they also had a bit of a goalie issue. While the solution might not be ideal, it is at least a solution that allows the team to move forward this season. They can work out a more permanent solution in the off-season.

There were some new faces in the line-up, and an old friend returned to the ice. For a team with only nine games left in the regular season, there are still a lot of moving parts. Hopefully things settle down a little over the last three weeks of the season.

Standings

Injuries

The big injury of the week was to Martin Ouellette. Less than two minutes into Wednesday’s game against Charlotte, he was crashed into by two players and suffered a fractured tibia and fibula. It’s a tough loss for the Crunch and for Ouellette, who was making a case to be the back-up (or heck, even the starter) in Syracuse next year with his strong play since being called up from Orlando.

Mitchell Stephens was banged up in the first game against the Checkers last week. He subsequently missed the next three outings. It continues a rough second year for Stephens, who has only appeared in 29 games this season.

The Crunch did have some good news as they welcomed Daniel Walcott back to the line-up for the first time this season. A shoulder injury suffered in a Tampa Bay Lightning pre-season game kept the high-energy forward off the ice until Saturday. His inclusion in games down the stretch should give Coach Ben Groulx a few more options and a chance to rest some of the younger players as they head into the playoffs.

Coming and Going

Connor Ingram was called up to replace Martin Ouellette. Then he met with Julien BriseBois. After, he was sent back to Orlando. Needless to say, it probably wasn’t a great meeting. Whatever the ongoing issue is, it wasn’t rectified with a couple of weeks in the Florida sunshine. All indications point to Ingram spending the rest of the season with the Solar Bears. After that, it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens with the Lightning’s top goaltending prospect.

Since the Crunch still needed a goalie, they went the somewhat surprising route and signed a college free agent. Atte Tolvanen, the WCHA Goalie of the Year from Northern Michigan University, signed a contract for the remainder of this season and started Sunday’s game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, where he made 26 saves on 29 shots.

With Ingram’s status with the Lightning organization up in the air, they will need some organizational depth. Tolvanen has a chance to get a leg up if he performs well over the next month or so. Who knows, maybe he ends up being a diamond-in-the-rough signing for Julien BriseBois and the scouting staff.

Speaking of college players, the Crunch added another one as they signed Ryan Lohin to an Amatuer Try Out contract. The University of Massachusetts-Lowell product was drafted by the Lightning in 2016 and wrapped up his third season with River Hawks. On Friday, Tampa Bay signed him to a two-year deal and and he signed an ATO contract with Syracuse (thus allowing his contract to slide to next year).

How much playing time he gets with the Crunch is up in the air. As the Crunch make the push for home-ice in the playoffs, Coach Groulx is likely to lean on his more experienced forwards, and Syracuse has plenty of centers on the roster already. Still, even if he doesn’t get into many of the remaining games, getting into the flow of how to be a professional will be important for Lohin. It will also give him an idea of what to expect for next season when he will be shooting for a spot on the Crunch’s roster.

Cameron Gaunce spent the week in Tampa due to the injuries to Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi. That left a rather big hole in the defense (and on the power play). How much longer he stays up there is dependent on the health of the Lightning’s defense. With Stralman skating again, hopefully Gaunce will back soon.

The Games

Tuesday, March 19th at Charlotte: 2-1 OT Victory (Recap) (Box Score)

Wednesday, March 20th at Charlotte: 4-2 Loss(Recap) (Box Score)

Saturday, March 23rd vs. Utica: 6-2 Victory (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Sunday, March 24th at Bridgeport: 4-1 Loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Thoughts

Despite all of the off-ice drama, the most important thing that happened was that the Crunch clinched a spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs. With their win against Utica, they became the second team (following Charlotte) to punch their ticket to the postseason. Now they can focus on securing home ice, which with the way their offense has gone this season, will be most important.

It’s still too early to try and figure out who they might be facing in the first round, but they’ve had decent success against both teams fighting for the fourth spot. They are 2-0-1-1 against Cleveland and 3-1-0-0 against Belleville. Dropping to the second seed would most likely match them up against Toronto, a team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year and a team they are 2-3-1-0 against this season.

The next three weeks will most likely see Coach Groulx experiment to see what lines are working together and what defensive pairings work best. Hopefully Gaunce will be back soon to help strengthen the defense. Unlike last year, there is little doubt who the starting goalie will be in the postseason. It’s Eddie Pasquale’s show for the rest of the year.

Players of the Week

Alex Barre-Boulet - 4 games, 3 goals, 1 assist - Not only did Barre-Boulet remain at the top of the team’s goal list, he set a record for the most goals by a Crunch rookie in a season with 32. It’s been an unbelievable season for the first year player who has continued to score throughout the season. He’s now split his goals evenly between the power play and regular strength with 16 a piece.

Alex Volkov - 4 games, 2 goals, 2 assists - After a bit of a slow start with the offense, Volkov’s scoring is starting to come around. He’s on track to score 20 goals for the second season in a row and is five points away from matching his season total from his rookie year. Not bad for a forward who was focusing on improving his defensive game earlier in the season.

Upcoming Games

It’s back to a normal week for the Crunch as they head on the road for a game and then are back home for two. Belleville will present a bit of an interesting match-up as they are currently tied in points with the Cleveland Monsters for the fourth spot in the North Division. They’ve been on a big run over the last few months in order to get back into the playoff hunt.

Providence is also jockeying for position in the Atlantic as they are tied with Hershey for third place. Utica has fallen out of the race, but always plays hard against the Crunch. While they only have three games, they will be three tough ones.

Wednesday, March 27th at Belleville Senators, 7:00 p.m.

Friday, March 29th vs. Providence Bruins, 7:00 p.m.

Saturday, March 30th vs. Utica Comets, 7:00 p.m.