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Crunch Corner: A pretty good week

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It was a busy one, but a good one as the Crunch pick up six points.

Old friends on opposite sides
Scott Thomas Photography

It was a busy and successful week for the Syracuse Crunch, and it left them pretty much in the same place where they started. They picked up six of a possible eight points, including four of six over a three-games-in-three-days weekend. Their biggest win came on Sunday when Martin Ouellette stopped 35 of 36 shots in a 4-1 win over the Rochester Americans. The victory moved the Crunch back into a tie for first place with the Amerks (the Crunch have yet to have an outright lead in the division) and padded their lead over the two teams chasing them (Toronto six points back, Utica eight points back).

Standings

Injuries

Other than a brief dalliance with the flu for Eddie Pasquale, the Crunch had another healthy week. While no one came back from injury, they didn’t lose anyone. With the way this season is going, they can count that as a win. Per Coach Ben Groulx, Dennis Yan is healthy enough to play, he just hasn’t been able to work him into the line-up yet. The same goes for Jonne Tammela.

Coming and Going

The surprise of the week was the recall of Martin Ouellette and the fact that he was dressed for all three games. Despite repeated assurances that both goalies were healthy, Connor Ingram was scratched for all three games. Eddie Pasquale started Friday and Saturday, while Ouellette started on Sunday. By scratching Ingram the weekend before the AHL trade deadline, the Crunch opened themselves up to plenty of speculation as Ingram is one of the league’s leading goaltenders. The move could have backfired if Ouellette had struggled against the Amerks, but in the end it worked out pretty well for Coach Groulx.

With Yan’s return to a healthy status and a heavy rotation of 11-forward line-ups, Troy Bourke was loaned to Orlando. Bourke has played alright as a bottom-six forward, but both Yan and Tammela add an extra offensive element when they are in the game.

The Games

Tuesday, February 26th at Binghamton: 4-0 win (Recap) (Box Score)

Friday, March 1st vs LeHigh Valley: 4-0 win (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Saturday, March 2nd vs Rochester: 5-3 loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Sunday, March 3rd at Rochester: 4-1 win (Recap) (Box Score)

Thoughts

Much ado about nothing

So....The goaltending thing this week. That was weird, huh? Calling up Martin Ouellette as a third goaltender prior to a weekend that featured back-to-back-back games isn’t strange in and of itself. The perplexing part was when Connor Ingram, currently ranked second in the league in Goals Against Average and first in shutouts, didn’t suit up at all for the three games. Two of those games were important matches against Rochester, the team Syracuse is chasing for the top spot in the division.

That move, coupled with the fact that the AHL trade deadline was Monday, led to some speculation that a goaltender might be on the move. Was Pasquale being showcased for teams? Was Ingram being held out as a protected asset? What about Ouellette? Perhaps his call-up and subsequent start against the Amerks was also a chance to show a potential trade asset to other teams.

In the end, despite General Manager Julien BriseBois acknowledging that he did engage in some trade talk, none of the potential deals made the team better in his view, so everyone stayed put. Ouellette was quietly returned to Orlando just prior to the 3:00pm Monday deadline and no trades were made. It’s very likely that some teams called about one of the netminders, but it would have taken quite a deal to make it work.

Moving Ingram, currently the best, if not only, goaltending prospect in the organization did not make long-term sense. He should be the de facto starting goaltender next season and after that he should be in Tampa as a back-up as a 23-year-old. Not too bad. If he’s moved out, there is a vast hole in the depth chart following next season.

Trading Pasquale, if the package was right, could have made a little more sense. He is a veteran and unlikely to fill more than a temporary role at the NHL level for the Lightning. He’s also a free agent at the end of this season. After a second strong season with the Crunch he could be in-line for a larger contract and increased playing time for a different organization. Trading him would have at least netted the organization an asset in return.

It could also explain why the Crunch wanted to see Ouellette in action. While he is also a free agent next season, Syracuse could offer him stability and playing time should Pasquale choose to ply his trade elsewhere. At 27-years-old, Ouellette is only a year younger than Pasquale, so his status as a NHL-prospect is also dimming a bit, but based on the small sample size this season it seems he could be a compliment to Ingram moving forward.

Along with the trade speculation, there were some unfounded theories online that Ingram was sick (why wouldn’t they say it?) or that he was injured (Groulx and BriseBois were adamant that no one was injured). There is also the chance that this was a teaching moment for Ingram. Perhaps-and this again is pure speculation-he ran afoul of a team rule and the situation was dealt with quietly.

In the end, only BriseBois and Groulx really know what all this was about. And that’s okay. There doesn’t have to be 100% transparency in everything that happens, especially in the moment. If they were listening to offers on the goaltenders, there is no reason to confirm it to the public. There is no benefit to the team or to the players if that information is out in the open.

As for the trade deadline on whole, much like the Lightning last week, not making a move isn’t really a bad thing. The Crunch are pretty set throughout the line-up. Based on the fact that there were only two deals made on Monday (Belleville traded forward Austin Fyten to Providence for defenseman Stuart Percey, and Laval traded defenseman Adam Plant to Milwaukee for future considerations) there wasn’t much out there to pick from. Better to go with what you have than overpay for an unknown quantity.

Is the power play back?

Against Rochester, a top-10 penalty kill team, the Crunch converted five of 15 power play opportunities. That snapped a four-game drought where they went zero for 11 with the extra skater. So what did they change to find success?

Well, not much, really.

The number one unit has stayed intact for most of the season. It’s consisted of four forwards (Andy Andreoff, Carter Verhaeghe, Alex Barre-Boulet, and Cory Conacher) and one defenseman (usually Cameron Gaunce). Except for injury or suspension, that’s been the combination. The second unit has had a more traditional set up with three forwards and two defensemen. The composition has changed a bit more, but Alex Volkov, Taylor Raddysh and Cal Foote have pretty much remained the three main players.

The addition of Mitchell Stephens has helped the second unit find a little more success. He moves into the role that had been Ross Colton’s. While the rookie has had a good season, he doesn’t have quite the offensive potential that Stephens possesses. In 22 games Stephens has 5 power play points (3 goals, 2 assists). Colton has six (1 goal, 5 assists), but he’s appeared in 30 more games.

For the most part, the Crunch haven’t changed too much as far as their schemes go. The only difference now is that the puck is going in the net. Even when they struggled on the power play, they were still getting chances. It just seemed that either goalies were making tremendous saves or their shots were hitting posts or just missing the net. Those things happen in the course of the season. There will be ebbs and flows even with a team as talented as the Crunch.

The more concerning part recently is that the Crunch weren’t getting very many power play opportunities. For a team that is as fast and as shifty as they are, they should be getting more than one or two chances a game. Drawing 15 penalties in 2 games over the weekend is a sign that they are moving their feet and fighting though checks. There will be a lot of interference and hooking calls for the other team when Syracuse is skating aggressively .

Players of the Week

Mitchell Stephens - 4 games, 4 goals, 2 assists. With a move back to his natural position, Stephens heated up this week as he recorded at least one point in all four games. With Conacher to his right and Andy Andreoff to his left, they give coach Ben Groulx a second top line that can score and play a little defense as well. Two of Stephens goals came on the power play as he adds yet another scorer to the second unit.

Andy Andreoff - 4 games, 4 goals, 1 assist. After a stretch of having only one goal in eleven games, Andreoff scored in three of the four games this week. As usual, he’s scored in a variety of ways - his breakaway goal out of the penalty box against LeHigh Valley was a thing of beauty. He’s up to 22 goals for the year which is good for third on the team.

Upcoming Games

Wednesday, March 6th at Utica Comets, 7:00pm

Friday, March 8th vs. Utica Comets, 7:00pm

Saturday, March 9th at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, 7:05pm