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Round One Preview: Syracuse Crunch vs. Cleveland Monsters

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The top-seeded Crunch take on a team that didn’t make the playoffs until the last game of the season. Sound familiar?

Scott Thomas Photography

It seems to have taken forever, but the playoffs are finally here!

That’s right, in the time it took the Tampa Bay Lightning to start and finish their first round, the Syracuse Crunch have been sitting around, waiting for the fun stuff to begin. Syracuse finished the season with the top seed in the North Division (and second overall in the Eastern Conference), so they will start their opening round series at home against the fourth-seeded Cleveland Monsters.

It took right up until the last game of the season - and a bit of help from the Rochester Americans - for the Monsters to make it into the playoffs, while the Crunch have been in for about a month, but were fighting for a top seed. Sound familiar? It should, as these two teams just watched their NHL affiliates battle out a similar scenario. Hopefully this ends a little differently for Crunch fans.

The two teams met four times over the regular season with the Crunch winning twice in regulation while losing once in a shootout and once in overtime. That doesn’t mean they should take this team for granted. The Monsters are an experienced team that is only a few years removed from a Calder Cup title. In 2016, the then Lake Erie Monsters swept the Hershey Bears to claim the title. Three players remain from that team (Brad Thiessen, Brett Gallant and Sonny Milano), and they are surrounded by veteran players such as Tommy Cross (437 games), Dillon Simpson (317 games), Mark Letestu (255 games), and Alex Broadhurst (333 games).

They will not be an easy team to knock out, especially since the opening round is only five games long. The Crunch will need to be focused and disciplined, something that hasn’t always been the case for them this season, in order to advance to the second round.

What needs to go right for the Crunch to win

Knock it off with the penalties

The Crunch were short-handed 368 times this season. The next closest team (Bridgeport) had 26 fewer pk opportunities. That means the Crunch gave the opposition almost five power plays a game. That cannot sustain itself over the playoffs. Hopefully, the referees swallowing their whistles in the postseason will help out a bit, but often the Crunch’s penalties are a bit obvious and hard to ignore.

Cleveland clocked in at 17% on the power play over the season and finished the season 3-for-29 (10.4%) over their last 10 games. Still, if they convert at their regular season rate then the Crunch are spotting them almost a goal a game. That could be a huge factor in such a short series.

Syracuse is going to continue to get their fair share of penalties called against them simply because of their style of play. They are aggressive with their sticks, especially in the offensive and neutral zones. That helps them generate a lot of turnovers, but that can also come back to bite them from time to time. Those penalties aren’t that bad; the good that comes out of that style of play outweighs the bad.

What kills the Crunch are the needless penalties. Retaliation penalties, extra slashes away from the play, faceoff violations, too many men on the ice. Those are the type of penalties that they need to avoid so that they don’t end up short-handed 12-14 minutes a game.

Take advantage of the man advantage

Syracuse ended the season ranked fifth in the league 20.9% on the power play. However, that stat is a little misleading. In November, the power play was out of this world. They cashed in on 22-of-57 chances, which was a wildly unsustainable 38.6%. If you take that month out, their power play converted at a mundane 16.9%.

The good news? The talent that led to them scoring four power play goals multiple times in November is still on the team, and there were signs that they were getting back to their dangerous ways towards the end of the season. The habit they have to avoid is very familiar to Lightning fans: the desire to pass the puck into the net.

The first unit is usually composed of four forwards and a defenseman. The most common alignment is Cameron Gaunce and Cory Conacher on the points with Carter Verhaeghe, Andy Andreoff, and Alex Barre-Boulet as the forwards. That is an insanely talented combination of players (as their combined 44 power play goals can attest to).

It is also a group then can get a little pass happy from time to time. They are at their best when they work the puck low to high and get their shots from Gaunce at the left point or Conacher from the right circle. Andreoff is in front for deflections and tip-ins, while Barre-Boulet and Verhaeghe are in position to retrieve deflected pucks or rebounds.

Their struggles come from two areas. The first is not being able to set up in the zone. Their entries have come a long way from last season, but they still occasionally struggled getting the puck in. When they dump it in, they are often beat along the boards and the other team is able to clear the puck with ease.

The second area is when they start overpassing the puck. Instead of working the puck back to the point and around, they try and force passes through the middle of the ice. Teams that sag back a little can clog those passing lanes and easily knock the pucks away. That’s why it’s important that they shoot early if the lane is available. That forces the defense to come out and defend, which then opens up those cross-ice passing lanes.

Roll Four Lines

All season long, Coach Groulx has been preaching depth. The way for the Syracuse Crunch to be successful is to have all four lines contributing. The benefit of having four lines that can score and defend is magnified in the playoffs. A lot of teams will shorten their bench so that their top scorers spend as much time on the ice as possible. That can wear them down in series, especially if games go to overtime. With seven players who scored 15 or more goals, in theory the Crunch can spread their offense out and force teams to choose which lines to shut down.

Does Cleveland focus on shutting down Carter Verhaeghe (34 goals), Mitchell Stephens (11 goals) and Taylor Raddysh (18 goals)? Great, that leaves Alex Volkov (23 goals), Gabriel Dumont (15 goals) and Alex Barre-Boulet (34 goals) as a line going against their middle and bottom pairs. Oh, and Andreoff (26 goals) and Ross Colton (14 goals) are still floating around as well.

Coach Groulx also has the luxury of shuffling all of those players around. If he doesn’t like the way a line is going he can mix and move the parts around. He’s done it all year and the players should be used to it. It’s even tougher to defend this team if you don’t know who is coming over the boards at any given moment.

Best players have to be the best players

This seems obvious, but it may be the key. Verhaeghe, Barre-Boulet, Conacher, and Dumont have to lead the offense. Eddie Pasquale has to be best goaltender. The Lightning proved that it’s a struggle to win in the postseason if the top players on a team are shut down. While the Crunch have depth, if Brady Brassart is leading the team in goals, chances are things aren’t going well.

Signs that the Crunch are in trouble

The are losing after the first period.

Throughout most of the season, the first period has been a solid indicator of how the game will go for the Crunch. If they get the lead they win. If they are behind, they don’t. When leading after the first period they are 31-2-1-2 on the season. If they are trailing they are 6-15-0-1.

Their style of play dictates their success. The Crunch are a very tough team to come back against, partly because of their staunch defense and partly because of their opportunistic sense of offense. A team trying to even the score is going to take chances and Syracuse thrives on turning those chances into turnovers. Their speed at forward allows for swift counterstrikes when a puck is turned over in the neutral zone. They can also outrace most defenders who pinch forward and get caught out of position.

If they get behind early they do sometimes get away from what makes them successful. They press a little too much and try to force the puck into the offense. Their defense gets too active in the offensive zone and it leads to rushes the other way.

They are slow in the neutral zone

The Crunch are at their best when they play an uptempo game. On occasion they try to be too patient and slow their attack a bit too much, coasting through the neutral zone and kind of gliding into the offensive zone. That allows the other teams to reset and get into their defensive schemes.

It also shows itself defensively. They stop moving their feet and instead of getting the turnovers in the neutral zone they start getting the hooking and tripping calls that get them in trouble.

They are scrambly in the defensive zone

One of the biggest turnarounds from last season to this season is how composed they’ve been in their own zone for most of the season. That allows them to be in the right spot to break up passes and, most importantly, limit second chance opportunities. Lost in some of the press about their offense is the fact that they only allowed 2.46 goals per game this season. That’s a phenomenal number considering the amount of penalties they take. A lot of that is because teams get only one chance at beating Pasquale.

When the Crunch struggle they are often chasing the puck in their own zone. They overpersue the puck and get caught on one side of the ice. When they are out of position they are unable to get to loose pucks or disrupt rebound opportunities. If you see them sliding and diving a lot and it’s not the end of the game, you’ll know they are struggling to maintain their discipline in the zone.

Sometimes they’re also in too big of a hurry to transition to offense. The forwards bolt out of the defensive zone at the first hint of control of the puck by their defense and the gap control gets a little out of hand. The defenders are now isolated against a forecheck and are forced into turning the puck over or flinging it to an open space.

It’s going to be a fun series and hopefully the Crunch can avenge their NHL brethren with a victory.

Interview!

For a look at the enemy’s side of the story, Elaine Shircliff of The Canon, the Columbus Blue Jackets SB Nation site, was kind enough to answer some questions we had about the Monsters. Follow her on Twitter @imaraindancer for their perspective.

Raw Charge: It was a bit of an up and down finish for Cleveland (they finished 3-3-1 in April) and the Monsters didn’t clinch a spot in the playoffs until the very last game of the season. Do you see them having any type of hangover going into the series with the Crunch?

Elaine Shircliff: Honestly, I think the players are amped up and ready to make a statement against the Syracuse Crunch. By the time Friday’s game rolls around, they will have practiced for almost a whole week. Typically when they have 5-7 days between games there is a break from practice somewhere in the middle of the week. This week was different. They traveled back to Cleveland after the game on Sunday, rested Monday, and hit the ice Tuesday. The Monsters have every intention of being playoff game ready come Friday night. This is the most mentally ready I have seen the Monsters since the beginning of the season.

RC:The Blue Jackets run to the playoffs has had a bit of an effect on the Monsters roster, first with uber-prospect Vitaly Abramov heading to Ottawa in the Matt Duchene deal and now leading scorer Zac Dalpe and defenseman Adam Clendening getting recalled to Columbus. Who steps up in their absence? [Note: This question was asked before the Blue Jackets easily dispensed with the Lightning which allowed Dalpe to be sent back down for the opening of the series]

ES: Losing Abramov wasn’t too big of a hit to the Monsters. He just wasn’t producing positive results as quickly and consistently as they needed him to do. In reference to Dalpe, the Monsters got lucky with the Columbus Blue Jackets schedule. Between the sweep (sorry guys) and the offsetting schedules, Dalpe was able to be sent down to the Monsters for Friday and Saturday’s game. That’s huge for the Monsters.

Plus, they are gaining Liam Foudy who just finished a phenomenal season with the London Knights (OHL). He average over a point per game scoring 68 points in 62 regular season games and 12 points in 11 playoff games. Not only is he a prolific scorer, Foudy has the right amount of grit which will prove beneficial in a professional hockey playoff game. Also, Derek Barach has been nothing short of amazing since joining the team in March. I had no clue who this kid was when he joined the team from Mercyhurst. I have to say, I’m impressed.

One of the best things the Monsters could do is dress Miles Koules for the first two games. My mind is blown by the fact he hasn’t played in over 10 games. As far as I know, Koules isn’t injured. Considering his skill level and speed, there is no reason Koules should be sitting. Having a guy like that on the ice against a swift and steady Crunch team would be highly beneficial to the Monsters.

On the defense end of things, Clendening not being around forces Ryan Collins to up his game. He played very well during the second and third period of Sunday’s game. For the sake of the Monsters and my heart, I hope he continues to play a good game of hockey.

RC: Brad Thiessen has started the last 11 games for the Monsters, is he getting any help for this series or will he be starting all of the games?

ES: Matiss Kivlenieks is a very capable netminder. However, if i was a betting woman, I would bet Brad Thiessen starts for the whole series. He’s currently on fire proving why his nickname is “Brick Wall Brad”. There have been many times in those 11 games that Thiessen has carried the team on his back. He deserves all the minutes he plays.

RC: The two teams basically split the season series, Syracuse won twice in regulation and Cleveland won in OT and a shootout, but the teams haven’t met since the beginning of February. What has changed the most for the Monsters since then?

ES: Mindset.The Monsters have been incredibly confident and tuned in the past 11 games. My favorite part of this team right now is the fact they haven’t let bad calls and opponent’s goals rattle them. They’ve stopped playing frantic hockey. Quite frankly, it’s a beautiful thing to watch take place. It’s like watching your weird, awkward child grow into a strong, fierce, confident Tyra Banks.

RC: In the four games the Crunch killed off 18 of 19 power plays. They take a lot of penalties, do the Monsters have a chance of reversing the regular season numbers and taking advantage of that issue?

The Monsters can easily take advantage of the Crunch’s penalty issues if they continue to roll the power play lines. Too many times they’ll throw the same line or two onto the ice causing them to quickly become tired when facing a team who constantly takes penalties.

RC: Who is the x-factor for the Monsters? Flip side - who on the Crunch are you most worried about?

ES: Right now the x-factor is more than one person. Barach, Millano, Dalpe, Thiessen, Cockerill, and Somerby have been doing a lot of neat things on the ice. It’ll be interesting to see what they bring to the playoff series.

Everyone. I am afraid of everyone on the team. The Crunch are stacked from top to bottom. Plus, your coach knows the Monsters are a threat and isn’t taking them lightly. A coach like that helps keep a team in line and focused no matter what way the game is going.

RC: Finally, what’s your prediction for the series?

ES: I want to say this series will be pushed to five games with the Monsters squeaking by with a berth to the second round. However, I don’t know if the Blue Jackets organization could be lucky enough to take down the whole Tampa Bay Lightning organization. My fear is the flip side of things will happen to the Monsters and they will get swept. Regardless of the ending, I know things will not be easy for the Crunch. The Monsters are ready to prove to everyone they have what it takes to be two-time Calder Cup Champions.

While we agree that this will be a difficult series, I have the Crunch winning in four games.

Playoff Schedule:

Game 1: Friday, April 18th, 2019 at Syracuse Crunch, 7:00 p.m.

Game 2: Saturday, April 19th, 2019 at Syracuse Crunch, 7:00 p.m.

Game 3: Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019 at Cleveland Monsters, 7:30pm

Game 4 (if necessary): Thursday, April 25th, 2019 at Cleveland Monsters, 7:00pm

Game 5 (if necessary): Saturday, April 27th at Syracuse Crunch, 7:00pm

All games will be on AHL TV. Daily Access is $7.99 per day while access to all playoff games is just $24.99.