If the Syracuse Crunch struggle in the playoffs they should arrange a scrimmage against the Utica Comets on an off day to get their confidence back. After dropping three straight games this week, the Crunch rediscovered their effort levels and outplayed the Comets on their way to a 6-2 victory. On a night where Syracuse honored their inaugural 1994-95 team with throwback jerseys and members of the original squad, the win was extra notable as it was the 900th victory in franchise history.
Somewhat lost in all of the goalscoring, Atte Tolvanen made his home debut in net and stopped 23 of 25 shots and picked up his first professional victory. Carter Verhaeghe had four points and moved into the lead in the AHL points race with 75. With the victory, the Crunch also clinched the Galaxy Cup (a title bestowed upon the team that has the most points in the season series between Utica and Syracuse). Oh, and it was also Head Coach Ben Groulx’s 200th AHL win as well.
The Crunch and the Comets managed to fit a game's worth of action in the first 20 minutes. There was a little bit of everything: two fights in the first 90 seconds, three power play goals, four goals total, throwback uniforms, a borderline illegal hit, and a penalty shot. Oh, and there were 29 face-offs.
It took a little while to get all of this done.
After Friday night’s loss, Coach Ben Groulx lamented the lack of skating on display by his team. “When we don’t skate we’re not an effective team,” he said following the game. The Crunch appeared to get the message as they came out fired up in their throwback uniforms. Maybe a bit too fired up, as Hubert Labrie hit Tanner Kero up high along the boards. A hit that Colton Saucerman didn’t care for and he engaged in fistacuffs with the Crunch defender.
Labrie was whistled for the hit and on the ensuing power play it didn’t take long for Utica to capitalize. They won the face-off and worked the puck down to Tom Pyatt. The veteran slid a pass just past Dominik Masin’s stick and Seamus Malone didn’t miss. He one-timed it into the net before Atte Tolvanen could slide over to stop it.
Following the goal, the Crunch did put a little pressure on in the Comets’ zone. An Utica player slashed Cory Conacher, and Andy Andreoff took exception to that and he squared off against Brendan Woods. Following a couple of successful right hands that dropped Woods to the ice, both players skated to the penalty box to join their teammates.
All of this happened in the first 90 seconds of the game. Things calmed down a bit after that. Kind of.
The Crunch, for the first time since last Saturday, were skating. Following a penalty kill, Cal Foote saw that the Comets were a little slow changing their lines. He banked a pass off the boards to Verhaeghe, who received the puck behind the Utica defense. Jesse Graham wasn’t going to catch him and Verhaeghe snapped a shot past Marek Mazanec to tie the game.
Just after the goal, Stefan LeBlanc elbowed a dude. The Crunch were on the power play and they didn’t take long to make it count. Gabriel Dumont was kicked out of the face-off. When the puck was finally dropped, there was a bit of a tie-up. Dumont fought through some traffic to get to the puck and then, as his legs were taken out from under him, he snapped a backhander over Mazanec’s glove to give the Crunch the lead.
Some more determination led to the Crunch’s third goal. Nolan Valleau pinched to keep the puck in the offensive zone. He made a head fake that led to Reid Gardiner tripping him. If Valleau sat back, nothing would have happened.
On the power play, there was a chance for the Comets to clear the puck but Verhaeghe stole it. He passed it down to Dennis Yan who forwarded it over to Alex Volkov. The Russian skated to the center of the ice, shimmied, and then fired it past Mazanec.
Syracuse had a chance to extend the lead when Boris Katchouk stole the puck and was penalized as he was shooting. The rookie tried to beat Mazanec on his backhand but the goaltender was able to kick out his left pad and keep the puck out of the zone.
It was the best period of the week for the Crunch as they outplayed, outhit, and outscored the Comets for the majority of the period. The 3-1 score and 18-6 shot advantage showed the domination displayed by the home time in the opening frame.
The action in the second wasn’t going to live up to the first, but it still worked out rather well for the Crunch. They started out rather strong as the Andreoff, Conacher, Dennis Yan line generated a couple of back-to-back chances. After that, Utica found their footing a bit. They slowly started to take control of the period and ended up firing 13 shots at young Atte Tolvanen.
The young netminder wasn’t phased as he kept them all out of the net. With the period winding down, Conacher drew a penalty. As the power play mucked along with no real momentum, Utica coach Trent Cull was reading the riot act to the officials after one of his players was clipped with a high stick without a call. During his tirade, he might have missed Volkov skate into the zone and snap a wrist shot past Mazanec and just inside the far post for the third power play goal of the game.
Forty five seconds later Ross Colton was in front of the net and made a nice move to get the puck in a shooting position before poking it past Mazanec for the fifth Crunch goal of the game. Verhaeghe made a nice backhand pass to get the puck to Colton to pick up an assist, his fourth point of the night.
If the Comets were upset at getting beaten from end-to-end in the first period, they had to be equally frustrated to have given up two goals late in a period that they pretty much controlled.
It’s hard to keep the momentum going with a four goal lead and the Crunch struggled with some old, bad habits in the third period. They turned the puck over a couple of times and took some bad penalties. Still, they pretty much had control of the period, outshooting the Comets 10-6 in the final frame.
Utica was able to spend some time in the Crunch zone, but as they were pressing a bit, the Crunch countered with rushes. Conacher and Andreoff both had chances denied off the rush, and Mr. Penalty Kill, Boris Katchouk, was denied on a breakaway shorthanded. He tried to stuff the puck in on his forehand instead of his backhand on this particular rush, but Mazanec denied him with the right pad.
With the game firmly in hand, Syracuse did give one goal back. On a play similar to the second Volkov goal, Reid Gardiner snapped a wrist shot past Tolvanen on the rush from the right circle. It’s the one shot the rookie netminder probably wants back.
The Crunch continued to take penalties (four total in the period), but killed them off and even had some decent chances. Ben Thomas rang a shot off the crossbar after a nice feed from Colton with six minutes left in the game.
As the final seconds were ticking off the clock, the Crunch did tack on one more goal. Brady Brassart skated into the Utica zone, delayed a moment to free up Taylor Raddysh in the slot and fed it over to the rookie. Raddysh snapped it home for the sixth goal of the game.
- Alex Barre-Boulet was a healthy scratch. Coach Ben Groulx just wanted to give the rookie a rest at the end of the season. It’s not a bad idea with the depth that the Crunch have on forward. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him cycle through forwards over the next two weeks to make sure everyone is rested up for the playoffs.
- Ryan Lohin made his home debut and had a pretty good game. His ice time was limited due to the penalties and nature of the game, but he looked a little more involved in the play than he did in his debut earlier this week.
- Carter Verhaeghe’s four points gives him 75 on the season and moves him into first place in the AHL. Pretty impressive year for the forward.
- The Crunch had a much more aggressive approach to the game than in the past two or three. Not only with the fights and the hits early on, but with the way they attacked through the neutral zone. They often get stuck kind of gliding in and waiting for teammates to catch up to them. On Saturday, they went in full throttle and pushed the defense back.
- Oleg Sosunov had a quietly solid game. He used his size to shield off player from the puck, had a couple of nice breakout passes, and outraced an Utica forward to draw an icing. He didn’t log huge minutes, but when he was out there he was an asset.
- Utica was down three forwards by the end of the game. Tanner Kero never returned after the first period hit from Labrie, Seamus Malone left at some point in the second, and Zack MacEwen left in the third. It’s been a rough couple of months for the Comets who are all but eliminated from the playoffs at this point.
Atte Tolvanen - 23 saves on 25 shots - The goalie can get overlooked in a 6-2 game, but the rookie netminder was sharp in the second period making several key stops when the game was still 3-1. If Utica is able to get one back at that point, it’s an entirely different game.
Marek Mazanec - 30 saves on 36 shots - It was a tough night for right-hand catching goaltender. His defense hung him out to dry, allowing way too many clean looks from the Crunch shooters. Still, he didn’t have his best night either and would probably like a couple of those goals back.
Crunch Power Play: 3 for 6. They snap a three game drought when it comes to the man advantage. It wasn’t their normal crisp, clean passing that resulted in the goals on Saturday night. It was more the result of outworking Utica and causing a couple of turnovers that led to the goals. The units were a little mixed up (partially due to Alex Barre-Boulet’s absence), but Verhaeghe was dropped to the second unit as well. The mix-and-match worked.
Crunch Penalty Kill: 7 for 8. It was a tough first ten seconds for the penalty kill as they gave up the quick goal on Utica’s first opportunity, but from then on it was almost perfect. Boris Katchouk might be the best penalty killer in the league right now. He broke up several chances in the neutral zone and almost had a couple of short handed goals. This unit is playing really, really well now...perhaps it’s all the practice they get in games.
3. Atte Tolvanen - Sharp in the second and third period, his play allowed the Crunch offense to build on the lead and put the game away.
2. Alex Volkov - 2 goals, 4 shots - He hit the 20 goal mark for the second straight year while improving on his defense. He was all over the ice tonight and had one of his best games of the season offensively and defensively.
1. Carter Verhaeghe - 1 goal, 3 assists - Verhaeghe closes the month of March with a four-point game, his 22nd multi-point effort of the season. The pass he made on Colton’s goal was fantastic - a backhanded touch pass with a player draped all over him.