On a night when there was something on the line for the Syracuse Crunch, their top players came through for them. Eddie Pasquale stopped 23 of 26 shots, including a couple of breakways, and Carter Verhaeghe scored late in the third period to break a 2-2 tie as the Crunch held on to defeat the Rochester Americans 4-3. With the win, the Syracuse clinches the North Division title for the second time in three seasons and guarantees themselves home ice through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
While it was Pasquale and Verhaeghe getting the headlines, the Crunch won because of a total team effort. Going into the game, Coach Ben Groulx stated that he wanted to see a complete effort out of his whole team and he intended to roll all four lines. The Crunch’s strength lies in it’s depth and that was on full display all night long.
Taylor Raddysh, the rookie who has had his ups and downs this season, scored one of the biggest goals of his young professional career as he tied the game less than a minute after Rochester had taken the lead. Mitchell Stephens, the second year center in the midst of a season hampered by injuries, opened a brief lead in the third period for the Crunch with his 11th goal of the season. The veteran captain, Gabriel Dumont, sealed the win with an empty net goal with under two minutes to play by outhustling his opponent to a loose puck and threading in a shot from an awkward angle.
There was also the defense playing as a unit against a tough Rochester team that features a lot of offensive talent. With the game tied at one C.J. Smith had a step on the Crunch defense, but Ben Thomas recovered just enough to upend Smith and disrupt the shot. Cal Foote led the defense with three shots as he was constantly up in the offensive zone looking to score, but at the same time he didn’t put his team in harm’s way by sacrificing his position defensively.
Role players like Brady Brassart contributed by throwing his body around all game long, looking to cause a turnover or two. Dennis Yan danced his way through the offensive zone, displaying the skill he occasionally displays, before ripping off a shot that nearly eluded goaltender Scott Wedgewood. It truly was a complete effort, and one that was so rewarding since it was only a week ago that the Amerks completely outclassed the Crunch on that same sheet of ice.
Overall, it was a highly entertaining game. Both teams played like it was the post season and the result was a fast-paced, hard-hitting exchange of chances. In a game where the two sides are fairly evenly matched and talented, there are going to be ebbs and flows throughout. It’s how a team capitalizes when things are flowing in their direction and how they minimize the damage when the momentum is going in the other direction that determines the outcomes.
Most of the first period was controlled by the Crunch as they outshot the Amerks 13-6, but Rochester took advantage of a penalty by Cal Foote to open the scoring. They built their momentum (and the lead) by keeping the puck in the zone for a lengthy amount of time. With a tired set of penalty killers on the ice, a clearing attempt by Alex Barre-Boulet failed to exit the zone. That led to the Crunch desperately-but unsuccessfully-trying to catch up to the puck. Victor Olofsson took a feed in the right circle and blasted it by Pasquale to open the scoring.
Syracuse didn’t let it affect them. They responded with their best shift of the game, and Taylor Raddysh stuffed home a rebound to tie the game 57 seconds after Olofsson’s goal.
That would be it for the scoring for the next forty minutes or so of hockey, but both teams exchanged several chances. Unfortunately for the forwards, the goaltenders had come to play. Both teams were able to find space to skate and it led to a back and forth game. It wasn’t all skill, both teams made sure to finish their checks and the hitting was solid and legal.
It wouldn’t be until the third period that the puck would find the back of the net again. This time it was the Crunch taking the lead thanks to good positioning and a fortuitous bounce. Stephens posted up to the left of Wedgewood and was able to secure the puck after Rasmus Asplund whiffed on clearing the puck out of danger. Stephens got his stick on the puck, and, with what appears to be the help of Asplund as the defender made another attempt to swat the puck, pushed the puck off of Zach Redmond’s skate and between the wickets of Wedgewood.
The joy was not celebrated for long. Seventeen seconds after the goal Olofsson found himself open again and rifled a shot by Pasquale. It was as if these teams didn’t want to play with the lead. They were having too much fun with the game tied. It stayed that way for another 14 minutes.
Barre-Boulet, atoning for earlier inability to clear the puck, read a clearing attempt by Lawrence Pilut perfectly. The rookie was stationed just inside the Americans’ blue line and knocked the puck down. He then did what every player should do that wears the Crunch uniform - he got the puck to Verhaeghe. The pass kind of handcuffed the team’s leading scorer a bit, but he was able to move it into a suitable position before snapping a wrister from between the circles that found the back of the net.
It was his 34th goal of the season on Barre-Boulet’s 34th assist (synergy!). With under four minutes to play, it looked like it would be the dagger for Crunch. It looked doubly so a few minutes later when Dumont recorded the empty net goal.
However, this is the Crunch and the Amerks. Nothing comes easy. With just 16 seconds to go, Dalton Smith beat Pasquale with a rather innocent shot and the Amerks, who had made the third period comeback a bit of their calling card, looked poised to pull off another late rally. Thankfully, 16 seconds wasn’t enough time to complete the comeback, and the Crunch held on to victory.
The win opened up a four point gap between the two teams with only one game left on the schedule. That meant the Americans couldn’t catch the Crunch and Syracuse had clinched their second North Division title under Coach Groulx.
It will be interesting to see how many players get rested on Sunday’s game against Utica since the Crunch don’t have anything to play for other than the franchise records for points and wins. While those would be nice to have, blowing out your starters might not be the wisest decisions. This is why players like Nick Bligh and Jack Stander are signed to PTOs at the end of the season.
Expect Atte Tolvanen to start in net and a couple of the regulars to rest. Alex Volkov missed Saturday night’s game due to an illness and Dominik Masin left early with an undisclosed injury. Don’t expect to see them in the line-up on Sunday.