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What the Syracuse Crunch have to do to win the division

Score more goals than the opponent is the easy answer.

Scott Thomas Photography

It is a pretty simple scenario for the Syracuse Crunch - win and you’re in.

Well, technically they’re already in, so it’s “win and you clinch.” With a victory tonight against the Rochester Americans or tomorrow against the Utica Comets, the Crunch will win their second AHL North division title in three years under head coach Ben Groulx. Lose both of those games (coupled with a win by Rochester) and they finish second.

What’s at stake with winning the division crown (other than bragging rights)? A first round match-up. If the Crunch win the title they take on the fourth seed in the North. Who would that be? We don’t know yet because Cleveland and Belleville are still battling it out as they have been for the last month or so.

If the Crunch wind up in second they face the Toronto Marlies. They are the same team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year, and one that has been playing much better over the last two months. It would behoove the Crunch to get the job done as soon as possible and wrap up the division title.

They also have the chance, with a couple of wins, to set a few franchise records. Two wins would give them 103 points which would best the 2005-06 club by a point for most in team history. It would also give them a total of 48 wins, also besting the 2005-06 club. That would be a nice way to finish their 25th anniversary season. This season also featured a club record in points by Carter Verhaeghe (80 and counting) and points by a rookie (Alex Barre-Boulet with 67 and counting).

To do this, they have to start with a win against Rochester at home. This doesn’t sound like it should be too big of a deal, since the Crunch have a lofty 26-8-1-2 record in the friendly halls of the Onondaga County War Memorial Arena. Unfortunately, it won’t be easy. Of those eight regulation losses, three have come at the hands of the Amerks, as has one of the shootout losses. The last time the Crunch beat them in Syracuse was way back on February 6th, and that took a shootout. Overall on the season, Rochester is 24-8-3-1 on the road. That’s remarkably good.

So, how can Syracuse stop the losing streak against the Amerks at home (and avenge the 5-2 beating the last time they met)? How about more of what they did against Laval:

Good offense comes from great defense

The Crunch, when they are on, are very good at disrupting breakouts. They hunt the puck and use their sticks to create turnovers. When they are off, instead of turnovers they pick up hooking and tripping calls. This should have been an easy clear for the Rocket; however, Volkov read the play after the puck is loose on the boards and swept in behind Daniel Audette. Volkov lifted his stick and spun back to take the shot before anyone on Laval’s side could recover.

Don’t stop believing

This is a busted play. Cameron Gaunce’s pass from his own zone eluded Taylor Raddysh. It wouldn’t be noticeable if Raddysh had pulled up and set up to prevent the Rocket from sending the puck the other way. Instead he chose to keep skating and is in the right spot to pick up the puck once it trickled off the stick of Josh Brook. He then made the quick pass to Andy Andreoff and the veteran wasted no time snapping it past the goaltender.

Not a lot goes as is planned in a hockey game. Plays are drawn up and sometimes they work, but often they don’t. It’s the teams that can still generate offense when Plan A doesn’t work that are successful. That’s a big reason the Lightning (and by default Crunch) scouts look for players with a high hockey I.Q. The ability to adapt on the fly and make the correct decision is an important part of their success.

Get shots on the power play

The Crunch power play has been holding at fifth in the league for the last little while. Against the Rocket they converted on two of five opportunities, which is a good sign. Also a good sign: not waiting for the perfect opportunity to shoot the puck. Even when they are in a funk, the Crunch usually can move the puck around pretty well with the extra skater, they just sometimes forget to take a shot.

Here, after a couple of good passes, Verhaeghe snaps one on net. It’s not from a high danger area, but his shot is good enough that it can beat a goaltender from there. He also had Andreoff alone in front of the goalie for a redirect or rebond opportunity. When they realize that not every goal has to be a slam dunk off of a pass they are so much better.

Attack with speed and reap the rewards

Gabriel Dumont and Verhaeghe busted through the neutral zone with no intentions of slowing down. That led to a scramble on the part of the Laval defense. Dumont pulled up to hit the open trailer, which is an excellent read as the Rocket had sold out to cover Verhaeghe in front of the net.

The Crunch basically had a four-on-two rush and, while they didn’t score on the initial rush, the chaos it caused allowed them to put the puck in the net. Barre-Boulet probably should have shot instead of scuffing the puck over for one more pass, but the Crunch once again don’t stop playing and Verhaeghe wedges himself in front of the goalie and poked the puck home. Speed causes chaos and sometimes the Crunch don’t exploit that asset enough.

Getting solid goaltending helps a lot, as well, and with Eddie Pasquale back on the roster the Crunch can expect that. Although, of the four goalies that have faced the Amerks for the Crunch this season, Pasquale is the only one without a win. Connor Ingram has three, Martin Ouellette has one, and Atte Tolvanen has one. Pasquale is 0-2-2 in his four starts against them.

Maybe Coach Groulx starts Tolvanen...

Staying out of the penalty box will help, as well. The Crunch are averaging 14.2 penalty minutes per game. That’s not great. In fact, that’s very, very bad. Handing the Amerks six or seven chances on the power play will not be conducive to victory, especially with Zach Redmond wandering around shooting from all over the ice.

It’s a big weekend for the Crunch and they got off to a good start with the 5-1 win over the Laval Rocket. Now the pressure is on to finish it out over the next two games. Coach Groulx is well aware of the opportunity that is front of them and he wants to get there by rolling four lines and getting effort out of every player. He’s not going to gas his top players just to win the division or get to 100 points.

Hopefully his team responds with a full sixty minute effort on Saturday night.

Box Score and Highlights from the 5-1 win over Laval.