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Syracuse Crunch move into first place with 5-3 win over the Utica Comets

The Comets dictated play most of the night, but the Crunch made the most of their opportunities to pick up the win.

Scott Thomas Photography

For the first time all season, the Syracuse Crunch are sole possessors of first place in the North Division as their 5-3 win over the Utica Comets propelled them past the idle Rochester Americans by two points. Carter Verhaeghe scored twice and Eddie Pasquale stopped 30 of 33 shots as the Crunch picked up their 36th win of the season.

It was not their prettiest win.

Does a team deserve to win a game where they were outshot 33-20, were on the wrong end of a 7-1 power play differential, and spent what seemed like 95% of the game in their own zone? Well, to quote the great Will Munny, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” The Crunch made hay with the opportunities gifted to them in the first period and then hung on to emerge with the victory. While it might not make the highlight reel at the end of the season, it’s a big win for a young team.

The Crunch came into the game with a line-up that was slightly different from the last time they took to the ice. Affable netminder Connor Ingram was in Orlando having been loaned to the Solar Bears prior to the game. Cameron Gaunce was out due to an upper body injury sustained in Sunday’s game by a hit that earned Amerks forward Remi Elie a one-game suspension. Alex Barre-Boulet was also not at the game due to what were deemed “personal reasons”. Those aren’t role players for Syracuse. Gaunce is their best defenseman, Ingram is leading the league in shutouts, and Barre-Boulet is one of the top scoring rookies in the game.

A young team with questionable leadership might falter with those factors against them. The Crunch are not one of those teams. They have a strong veteran core and those players took the lead in the game against the Comets. Captain Gabriel Dumont kicked off the scoring with a short-handed goal. Verhaeghe scored the third and fourth goals of the game. Pasquale held the fort in a first period that saw the Crunch defense under siege. While it’s not a sustainable way to play for the rest of the season, Syracuse was able to hold it together for one game at least, and that’s why they are standing in first place at the end of the night.

It seems like every game this season has presented Coach Ben Groulx with a new challenge to lead the team past, and this game was no different. Tonight’s in-game task was the fact that they were simply outplayed by the Comets for most of the night. Granted, the Crunch didn’t help themselves as they took seven penalties in the first two periods (an eighth penalty was wiped when Utica scored on a delayed call).

The penalties weren’t the only problem. In fact, they might have been a symptom of the problem that ran throughout the whole game - the Crunch just weren’t able to skate for some reason. They never really established their transition game and their forays into the offensive zone were brief and mostly unproductive.

Yet, they still managed to post five goals, so just how lopsided was the play? The Crunch had 17 offensive zone face-offs the entire game. They had twice that number of draws, 35, in their own zone. When they’re playing that much defensive hockey, they’re bound to draw penalties, and the vast majority of the infractions they took were in their own zone. It’s a good thing their penalty kill unit has been pretty hot of late.

Dumont scored the first goal of the game while on the penalty kill on the Crunch’s first shot of the game. The play started with Cal Foote behind his own net. He fired a long pass off of the boards that just eluded the stick of Utica winger Lukas Jasek. Dumont fielded the puck at center ice and sent it over to Andy Andreoff, who was cutting into the Comets’ zone. Dumont didn’t stop to admire his pass, rather he jumped in on the rush and was in position to cash in the return feed. Andreoff froze goaltender Michael Leighton before swinging the puck to his captain. Dumont basically had an empty net to score into and he didn’t miss.

Six minutes (and many Utica shots) later, Ross Colton capitalized on the first of two mistakes by Comets players. Jalen Chatfield had the puck at his own blueline, but he was facing his own net. Colton drifted in from center ice and read beautifully Chatfield’s intention to swing the pass to his left. Colton picked off the pass, skated in on Leighton, and fired it past the former Crunch netminder for his 11th goal of the season.

Utica must have been stunned to be down two goals despite a lopsided edge in shots, because on the next shift they turned the puck over again. This time it was Colton Saucerman, he of the mighty beard, who tried to slide a cute pass from his own goal line to a teammate in front of the net past Verhaeghe. It didn’t work out as Verhaeghe knocked the pass down. His first shot on net was thwarted by Leighton, but he didn’t stop, and poked the rebound by the sprawled out goaltender.

Three goals on five shots and about 30 seconds of zone time for the Crunch forced Utica to burn their timeout midway through the first period. It worked in the sense that the Crunch didn’t score any more goals that period, but neither did Utica as Pasquale turned aside all 15 shots that were directed on net. The players in front of him did help him out by blocking a ton of shots. Utica’s game plan early on was to shoot as often as possible, and they fired pucks at Pasquale like they were getting paid by the shot. He did well with limiting rebounds, so most of the opportunities that did come on net were of the low-danger variety, but he still had to be nifty with the glove to prevent a goal from Zack MacEwen on a point-blank shot in front of the net.

Following the first 10 minutes of the first period, the game was a bit rugged. The two teams combined for a total of 11 shots on goal in the second period despite Utica having another couple of power plays. The Crunch did get a little better at five-on-five play once they stopped treating the offensive zone like it was hot lava and they weren’t allowed in it. Mitchell Stephens had a quick shot off a feed from behind the net but Leighton stopped it. Syracuse almost drew even in shots (16-14) before a Cal Foote slashing penalty tilted the ice back in Utica’s favor.

Pasquale held the fort until the fourth minute of the third period when the Crunch failed to clear a puck out of their zone. The rubber disk made its way around to Reid Boucher and the winger beat Pasquale with a wrist shot to make it 3-1.

It looked like the Crunch would hold off on another third period collapse as Verhaeghe notched his second goal of the night. He put home a rebound off a shot from Nolan Valleau that Taylor Raddysh deflected in front of Leighton.

The crowd in Utica seemed to think it was a good time to head for the exits as a large number left following Verhaeghe’s goal. Sadly, they missed out on the most exciting part of the game as Utica mounted a comeback with eight minutes to go. First it was MacEwen scoring on the aforementioned delayed penalty. Seconds prior to the goal, Pasquale had deflected a shot aside, but the refs deemed it wasn’t enough for possession and allowed the play to continue. The puck deflected off of a Crunch skate and to Brendan Gaunce. He was able to feed it to MacEwen with Syracuse’s defense a bit out of sorts and the forward jammed the puck home.

Three minutes later Brandon Anselmini scored his first goal in a Comets uniform by simply blasting a water bottle-popping slapshot past Pasquale from the left circle. Sometimes a goalie just gets beat by a good shot, and that was one of those times. With less than five minutes to go the Crunch’s lead was down to one goal.

They managed to keep Utica from scoring that game-tying goal by tightening up their defense and not allowing any solid chances the rest of the way. With Leighton on the bench for the extra attacker and time winding down, Jan Rutta started a give-and-go with Cory Conacher from his own zone and was able to put the puck into the empty net to seal the victory.

There were probably a lot of things that the Crunch’s coaching staff didn’t like about the game, and they will most likely be focusing on that in Thursday’s practice, but Syracuse emerged with a win. That’s the most important part. They won a game where they weren’t the best team on the ice by taking advantage of their opportunities. Hopefully they find a way to fix the things they did wrong because it’s not likely that will happen again when the two teams face each other on Friday in Syracuse.

Three Stars of the Game

3 Carter Verhaeghe - two goals including the big third period goal that re-established the three-goal lead

2 Jan Rutta - he was the Crunch’s best defender of the night and made several key plays throughout the game

1 Eddie Pasquale - without his spectacular play in the first period the Crunch simply don’t win the game

Box Score