It was a battle of streaks heading into Game One between the Syracuse Crunch and the Cleveland Monsters. The Monsters had won nine straight playoff games dating back to their Calder Cup victory in 2016. The Crunch had won six straight opening round games. In the end, it was Cleveland continuing their streak as they scored two third-period goals fifty-two seconds apart and defeated the Syracuse Crunch 5-3 on Friday night.
The Monsters wrestled home ice away from the North Division champs by thwarting the Crunch offense with a steady diet of blocked passes and interrupted shots. While the Syracuse power play was in early-season form, converting both opportunities they had, Syracuse couldn’t generate enough clean shots at even strength to counter Cleveland's offense. Add in a couple of careless penalties in the third period, and the Crunch ended up on the losing side.
It was definitely a feeling out period for both teams as they combined for just 15 shots through the opening twenty minutes. Coach Groulx quickly got his lines rolling as all four combinations saw the ice at some point in the first two minutes.
Brady Brassart had the first solid look at the net as he came in on a two-on-one about three minutes into the game. Unfortunately, he held the puck a little too long and Doyle Somerby was able to break up the pass. Syracuse was spending a decent amount of time in the offensive zone, but they couldn’t get a clean look at the net. The Monsters did a good job of keeping them out of the high danger areas and blocked the few shots that Syracuse managed to get off.
On the other end, Cleveland built an early shot advantage through the first half of the period. The good news is that the Crunch did a good job of limiting the second chances as Eddie Pasquale either covered up the puck or his defensemen cleared it away.
There were two minor moments of panic for Crunch fans in the first period. The first came with nine minutes to go when Somerby launched a shot from just inside the blue line. The puck never made it to the net because Alex Barre-Boulet got in the way. Well, he got his left hand/arm in the way and was in obvious discomfort as he immediately skated to the bench. The league’s leading rookie scorer iced it down and didn’t miss a shift. In fact, he had a pretty good opportunity in close as he jammed the puck just wide right on a feed from behind Brad Thiessen’s net.
The second scary moment came after Cameron Gaunce had the puck knocked off his stick by Mark Letestu. The puck trickled back into the slot in front of Pasquale. It was just far enough out of his reach that he had to hold his ground as Letestu skated in and recovered it. The veteran tried to beat the Crunch’s netminder on the forehand, but Pasquale got just enough of his glove on the puck to send it into the corner.
Towards the end of the period, the Crunch were finally able to to make Thiessen work as their shots started to worm their way through the mass of bodies in front of the goaltender. Cal Foote had a shot from the point that the Cleveland goaltender kicked away with his right pad. Alex Volkov recovered the loose puck and fired from the left boards, but “Brick Wall Brad” was able to make the stop.
There was some fun four-on-four action after Brassart and Kole Sherwood cross-checked each other following a stoppage in play. With open space, both teams exchanged some chances, but the netminders denied any goals. The period finished with Cleveland leading 9 to 6 on the shot counter.
After skating to the first scoreless first period between the two teams this season, the teams finally found the back of the net a few times in the second period. Syracuse had the first really good chance on yet another two-on-one break just over two minutes in. Dumont somehow managed to squeeze a pass past the Cleveland defender, but Barre-Boulet’s shot at a yawning net went over the crossbar and off the glass behind the net.
Both teams were living dangerous with Cleveland giving up multiple odd-man rushes, while the Crunch were just straight up giving up breakaways. Pasquale had to go paddle down on Kole Sherwood as the Cleveland forward took advantage of a puck that bounced off of Taylor Raddysh. The puck sat at the Cleveland blueline and Sherwood was the only one that was facing in the correct direction. He blew by Andy Andreoff and was in all alone on Pasquale. He tried to beat the goalie five-hole but Pasquale got the stick low on the ice and blocked it. The puck then bounced off of Sherwood’s skate and the Crunch netminder had to stop that as well.
Cleveland had the first power play opportunity after Carter Verhaeghe was sent to the box for hooking. Immediately off of the face-off, Dalpe ripped a shot just wide right of Pasquale. That was really their best chance with the extra skater.
While they didn’t convert on the power play, they did open the scoring a few minutes later on a nice play through the neutral zone. Sonny Milano skated into the Crunch zone and pulled up at the right circle. His pass found Letestu and the veteran didn’t hesitate as he ripped a shot on net. It appeared that Pasquale had a clean look, but the puck eluded his glove and ended up in the back of the net.
Two minutes later, the Monsters doubled their lead after a bit of a bad bounce. Cameron Gaunce carried the puck into the Cleveland zone and tried to dump it into the corner but it hit Justin Scott’s skate and ricocheted out to Ryan MacInnis who had a clean breakaway and beat Pasquale over the glove.
Whoomp! There it is pic.twitter.com/bpMQk3BjY1— x-Cleveland Monsters (@monstershockey) April 20, 2019
Down 2-0 with ten minutes to go in the period, it was key that the Crunch score next. They played their best hockey over the final half of the period and almost got their first goal when Cal Foote rang a shot off the post.
Thanks to some extracurricular activity by Milano (he slapped Cory Conacher upside the head, touching off a minor scrum that ended up with both of them in the box, but Milano with an extra penalty), the Crunch went on a power play with two and a half minutes to go in the period.
It didn’t take long for them to convert. Gaunce started the play with a pass to Carter Verhaeghe. The league’s leading scorer slid a pass across to the ice to Volkov, who was subbing in for Conacher on the top line. The Russian did his best Conacher impersonation by snapping a one-timer past Thiessen from the right circle for the goal.
The Crunch kept the pressure on through the rest of the period, but couldn’t find the equalizer.
Down by one with twenty minutes to go, the Crunch needed to carry over the momentum from the end of the second period into the third. They didn’t. Cleveland pushed the play for the first four minutes of the final stanza and almost increased their lead when Letestu fired a point blank shot at Pasquale. The goalie made the save and a couple of scrambling follow up ones.
The Crunch continued to get opportunities with odd-man rushes, but couldn’t make them count. Midway through the period, Andy Andreoff came into the Cleveland zone and had a little space. He drifted to the right circle and waited for a trailer. This time it was Dominik Masin from between the circle who saw a glorious opportunity deflected away from harm.
However, the Monsters gave the Crunch a breath of life when Gabriel Carlsson committed a holding penalty well away from the play. Syracuse was back on the power play and once again it didn’t take long for them to find the back of the net. This time it was Conacher from his office ripping home a one-timer off of a perfect feed from Gaunce. Thiessen really didn’t have a chance to stop it and the game was tied at two goals a piece.
The Crunch had some momentum. Unfortunately, it only lasted about thirty seconds. Volkov drove to the Monsters’ net and had his shot turned aside. With the puck being batted about along the left-side boards, Volkov came steaming into the scrum and leveled Justin Scott. A minor melee ensued but only Volkov skated into the penalty box.
Cleveland’s power play wasn’t going all that well as Boris Katchouk kept clearing puck after puck, but with less than 20 seconds to go, Sherwood spotted an open lane. From the left point he fired a pass down to the bottom of the right circle just to Pasquale’s left. Kevin Stenlund was there to deflect the puck past Pasquale and give the Monsters the lead once again.
The goal deflated the Crunch a bit and Cleveland was immediately back into the offensive zone. Nolan Valleau had a chance to get the puck behind the Crunch net and away from danger, but he lost the puck battle to MacInnis. The big forward backhanded a pass to the front of the net, a spot where none of his teammate were actually located. Unfortunately for the Crunch, the puck hit Conacher’s skate and skittered to an open area where Zac Dalpe pounced on it. He quickly roofed a shot over Pasquale’s glove and just under the crossbar to double the lead.
Down 4-2 with six minutes to go, the Crunch had to kill off yet another penalty as Conacher was sent to the box for roughing after the goal. There were no serious threats, as Cleveland was happy to just kill off two minutes of playing time
Pasquale did have to make one last stop on a breakaway after Ben Thomas coughed up the puck in the Cleveland zone. The goaltender got just enough of Dalpe’s shot to deflect it into the netting. After that, the Crunch pulled him for the extra skater and, with just under two minutes to go, scored.
It was Verhaeghe who finished off a cross-ice pass from Barre-Boulet. The Crunch were back within one and had plenty of time for another goal. The goal was Verhaeghe’s third point of the game. Alas, it was also his last and the team’s last.T hey couldn’t duplicate the result and an empty-net goal from Dillon Simpson from just in front of his crease sealed the 5-3 win for the Monsters.
Game Two on Saturday night just became extremely important for the Crunch. Going down two games to none in a five game series is an almost impossible obstacle to overcome.
3. The Mark Letestu/Sonny Milano combination. They were the Monsters’ top offensive threat at even strength.
2. The Crunch power play. Syracuse made it look easy with the man advantage with Volkov and Conacher scoring on almost identical plays. Now if they can only get Cleveland to take about six penalties a game
1. The active stick work by the Monsters. The Crunch only had 19 shots on net, but they actually had a ton of chances it seemed. They just couldn’t get a clean shot on net because Cleveland sticks were either knocking away passes or deflecting shots out of harm’s way. The Crunch have to be just a touch quicker in Game Two in order to actually complete those chances.
Crunch Line Combinations (at the start of the game)
Carter Verhaeghe - Gabriel Dumont - Alex Barre-Boulet
Alex Volkov - Mitchell Stephens - Cory Conacher
Andy Andreoff - Ross Coleton - Taylor Raddysh
Boris Katchouk - Brady Brassart - Gabriel Fortier
Dominik Masin - Cameron Gaunce
Nolan Valleau - Cal Foote
Hubert Labrie -Ben Thomas