“We have to play faster.”
That was the mantra coming from the Syracuse Crunch following their Game One loss on home ice to the Cleveland Monsters. In Game Two they wanted to move the puck through the neutral zone faster, make faster decisions in the offensive zone, and get their shots off faster in order to thwart the Monsters’ shot blocking. They did none of those things and lost 5-1. After a record-setting regular season they, like the Lightning before them, are now staring elimination straight in the face.
It was a Groundhog Day-esque performance from the Crunch that constantly saw them have their shots blocked or deflected aside by a cavalcade of Cleveland defenders. Syracuse had little flow to their offense as their passes were often errant and pucks bounced off of their skates or sticks throughout the game.
They now face the Herculean task of winning three straight games, including two in Cleveland, if they want to continue their season.
Following last night’s loss the Crunch really wanted to start fast in Game Two. They didn’t. In fact, the first minute of the game was spent with them hemmed into their own zone as they struggled to clear the puck and the top line of the Monsters kept possession of the puck.
Once the Crunch finally cleared it, things picked up a little as they controlled most of the play through the first ten minutes or so. Dennis Yan, a scratch in Friday’s game, was the most noticeable forward on the ice and he had the team’s first shot. He also had the best opportunity with just under nine minutes to play in the period.
Ben Thomas blocked a shot and batted the puck to center ice where Yan was hanging out all by his lonesome. He corralled the puck and skated in on a breakaway. He pulled up just in front of Brad Thiessen and tried to get the puck elevated off of his backhand. Yan didn’t quite get it up high enough and the goalie was able to smother the shot.
The Crunch also wanted to get their shots off quicker to avoid having the Monsters block as many shots as they did in Game One. They were a little better at that, as they managed to get seven shots on net. Problems persisted, though, as even if an initial shot made it through and the Crunch had a rebound, Cleveland just collapsed around their net and made it almost impossible for the next shot to get through.
Example: with a minute left, Gabriel Dumont raced in on the left side and his shot ricocheted off of Thiessen’s pad right to Cory Conacher. Conacher wasn’t in a position to shoot so he tipped a pass to Cal Foote who was in the slot, but by the time he released the shot four Monsters were within a stride of the crease and the puck was batted away.
Cleveland did end up outshooting the Crunch 10-7 with most of the shots coming in the second half of the period. Still, Syracuse took a page out of their opponent’s book and blocked a high quantity of shots. Eddie Pasquale did have to be sharp shortly after Yan’s breakaway when a block shot trickled to the slot and Liam Foudy uncorked a laser. Pasquale was able to snag it with his glove to keep the rookie off of the scoreboard.
Both teams had an opportunity on the power play and failed to convert. The Crunch’s best chance was a one-timer from Conacher (shocking) that was blocked away from danger. Cleveland had excellent zone time and came close to scoring after a quick passing play led to an open shot for Garret Cockerill. The defenseman’s shot beat Pasquale but was denied by the left post.
Well, the Crunch didn’t spend the entire first minute of the second period in their own zone like they did the first. That’s because Cleveland scored 18 seconds into the period.
Let’s play a game.
Was the goal a result of:
A: A brilliant individual play by a Monsters’ forward?
B: A turnover by a member of the Crunch?
C: A lucky shot from center ice that hit a stanchion and took an awkward bounce past Pasquale?
D: A nice passing play that led to a slam dunk goal?
If you chose “B” you are a winner!
Cameron Gaunce was behind his own net and he tried to fire it out up the middle of the ice. Unfortunately it hit Ryan MacInnis and landed in front of the net, right where Justin Scott was standing. Without a soul around him he fired it past Pasquale.
Following the goal, Hubert Labrie had a prime opportunity to get a shot on net but he held onto the puck too long and by the time he let his slapshot go it was deflected away. That seems to be a running theme in this series so far.
Speaking of themes, another has been the Crunch trailing and then having to kill a penalty. Andy Andreoff slashed Alex Broadhurst as he cut into the crease. It helped slow the shot, but led to another two minutes shorthanded for the Crunch. They killed it off and then slowly started to build a little momentum.
For the majority of the first two games the Crunch’s forecheck has been nonexistent. Cleveland has been able to carry the puck out or pass it out cleanly. That leads to them being able to move through the neutral zone and set up their offense.
Following the penalty, the Crunch started to get back to that part of their game. The Dumont line picked a few pockets and made the Monsters work a little harder to get out of the zone or just dump it out without control. This was the Crunch style of play their fans were used to seeing this season.
Eventually the forecheck caused a penalty. Andreoff went in to lay a hit on Cockerill who saw him coming and rushed his clear. It went up over the glass untouched by another’s stick. That’s a penalty. Thankfully, the one thing that has been working through the first five periods of this series and bringing joy to Crunch fans is the power play. Once again the Crunch scored a goal with the extra skater.
Carter Verhaeghe started it as he carried the puck over the blue line. He zipped a cross-ice pass to Conacher, who didn’t hesitate to send it back across the ice where Ross Colton had beaten Ryan Collins to the front of the net. All Colton had to do was get his stick on the puck and deflect it past Thiessen. The game was tied.
Unlike Friday night, the Crunch didn’t let up after scoring. They kept the pressure on for a few more shifts. The chippiness that had been going on all series continued and it boiled over a little as Nolan Valleau and Kole Sherwood wrestled around with each other at center ice. Both were sent off for a loose definition of fighting.
After that ruckus, Cleveland got back into their rhythm. They kept the puck in the zone and Sonny Milano fired a shot on net. Pasquale made the save but the rebound was right in front of him. Andreoff was a little slow in tying up Dan DeSalvo and the forward poked the puck into the back of the net.
Cleveland was back ahead, 2-1, and a few minutes later they were back on the power play. Brady Brassart engaged in a face-off and pushed it back to his teammates with his hand. The referee didn’t like that so he sent him to the box. Syracuse did kill off the first 14 seconds of the penalty, but it carried over into the third.
The Crunch killed off the rest of the penalty and even had a shorthanded chance. Dumont and Boris Katchouk had a two-on-one rush and Katchouk’s shot was nicked by Thiessen and the post and stayed out.
That may have been the highlight of the period for the Crunch.
Trailing by one goal and twenty minutes away from a 2-0 deficit in a 5 game series, the Crunch may have played their worst period so far. With four minutes left in the period they had three shots. That’s it. Three. They ended up with six total thanks to some garbage time shots that made it through.
Bad bounces, bad ice, bad luck, bad passes. The Crunch had it all going in the third period as they failed to gain any momentum. Eleven minutes into the period, Mark Letestu sealed it when he converted a pass from Sonny Milano into a goal. How did Milano get the puck in the Crunch’s offensive zone? A turnover by Dennis Yan. In a situation that was similar to the one that Gaunce had in the first period, Yan tried to clear the puck out and had it knocked down by Milano. That allowed him to pass it over to Letestu, who beat Pasquale cleanly.
Sure, there were nine minutes left in the game, but the Crunch weren’t going to tie it up. And they didn’t. Even after pulling the extra skater with over four minutes to go, the Crunch couldn’t keep possession of the puck and the Monsters added two empty net goals for the 5-1 victory.
The two teams head to Cleveland with the Monsters having two shots at closing out the series on home ice. Expect a host of line changes for the Crunch as Coach Groulx searches for the correct combination to spark his offense.
3. The Crunch power play. They went 1-for-4 tonight, but two of those chances were abbreviated. Syracuse has scored four goals in this series - three on the power play and one with a sixth skater.
2. Cleveland’s ability to block shots. Just like in Game One, they allowed few shots in on their netminder. The second part of them blocking shots is their ability to get to the loose puck after the block. That snuffs out the second and third chances that Syracuse needs in order to score against them.
1. Cleveland’s forecheck. It directly led to two of the three goals. Syracuse has looked completely baffled at times against the forecheck - winging passes blindly out of the zone or just holding onto the puck until they turn it over. Unable to get the puck out cleanly, they can’t build any speed in the neutral zone and that hampers their offense.