The Jekyll and Hyde season of the Syracuse Crunch continued last week as they split a home-and-home series against the Rochester Americans and dealt a huge blow to Belleville’s playoff hopes.
All of the good feelings that came from the 6-1 thrashing of the Amerks on Friday were erased by a disaster of a game on Saturday as the Crunch fell 5-2 on home ice to Rochester. With a chance to basically wrap up the North Division, the Crunch played one of their worst games of the season and let the Americans climb back to within three points of the lead (a gap that narrowed on Monday as Rochester defeated Cleveland).
The loss left head coach Ben Groulx fuming as he told Syracuse.com following the game, “When I look at this, I don’t think we’re getting set for the playoffs. I don’t think we’re getting set for a long run.”
So what is the “this” that he is looking at? It’s not the one game against the Amerks. It’s the inconsistency that has been a marker for this team all season long. One night they are flying around the ice, connecting on passes and looking like the best team in the league. The next night they can barely get the puck out of their zone and are committing lazy or needless penalties.
This type of back and forth could be explained away in October and November as part of the growing process of a young team. It could be tolerated in December and January as the team struggled with injuries, but now it’s getting to the point where you have to wonder if this is just who they are - a tremendously talented team that can’t sustain a consistent effort from game to game.
Coach Groulx and his staff have to accept that some of the blame could lie with them. After all, this isn’t something that has just crept up in the last month or so. A team doesn’t rack up 354 shorthanded opportunities by having just a bad week or two. This is a season long trend and the staff has to find a way to correct it.
It’s also on the veterans on the team. Coach Groulx isn’t shy about the fact that he relies a lot on players like Gabriel Dumont and Cory Conacher to set an example to the rest of the team, especially the first or second year players. At times, it’s those leaders, not the rookies, taking the boneheaded penalties. That has to stop. The Crunch, despite their 85% penalty kill, can’t win in the playoffs if they’re shorthanded six or seven times a game.
Hopefully, some of the players who were around last year remember what it was like against the Toronto Marlies in the second round where the eventual Calder Cup champions had their way with the Crunch. They should remember how it seemed like every careless play with the puck ended up in the back of the net. Or how every penalty seemed costly. Those memories should be the spark that lights the fire that burns the rest of the AHL down.
Because the Crunch have the talent to go all the way. They have 30-goal scorers. They have offensive depth on four lines and the stingiest defense in the league. Their goaltender, Eddie Pasquale, has led a team to the Calder Cup finals before and is in the middle of the best season of his career. They have the best rookie forward in the league.
The only thing holding them back is themselves.
The big blow to the Crunch came with the announcement that Daniel Walcott had re-injured his left shoulder and would require season-ending surgery. It was a different injury from the one he sustained in the pre-season, although to the same shoulder, and means that he won’t be able to go until next season.
While statistically Walcott might not contribute much in the way of goals or assists (he had 0 points in the 5 games he appeared in), he may be the heart and soul of the Crunch. He is one of their most popular players and one of the most positive. During long playoff stretches, it helps having a player like that in the locker room. He is kind of like the Crunch’s version of Ryan Callahan, a depth forward who is a pain for other teams to play against.
There were a handful of updates on the other injured players. Mitchell Stephens is still considered day-to-day with whatever mystery ailment has kept him out of the line-up for the last few games. Kevin Lynch remains out but may be available for the playoffs while Michael Bournival is skating, but wouldn’t be available until the later rounds.
Coming and Going
Another young prospect joined the team as Tampa’s 2018 second round draft pick Gabriel Fortier made his professional debut on Saturday. It could be a similar situation as Alexei Lipanov had last season. A little taste of the pros before heading back for a final year in junior hockey.
The best news came on Monday when the Lightning announced that Eddie Pasquale was being returned to Syracuse. That gives him a chance to get a full week of practice heading into the final weekend of the regular season. Hopefully, the netminders down in Tampa can stay healthy for the next few months so the Crunch can roll through the postseason with at least one goaltender who has been there before.
Players of the Week
Atte Tolvanen - 3 games, 2 wins, 1 Shutout, .939 Sv%, 2.01 GAA. It was a heck of a week for the young netminder. Just think of what those numbers would look like if his team hadn’t hung him out to dry on Friday night. If he’s auditioning for a contract for next year, he’s put in a pretty good showing. With Eddie Pasquale back in Syracuse Tolvanen will return to his role as a back up, probably netting one start this weekend.
Alex Barre-Boulet - 3 games, 1 goal, 3 assists. Another strong week for the rookie. He’s up to 64 points on the season (second on the team) and a team-leading 216 shots. He’s leading all rookies in goals (33), points (64), shots (216), power play goals (16), and game winning goals (6). That’s a pretty solid case for rookie of the year.
It’s a three-in-three ending to the regular season for the Crunch as they have back-to-back home games before finishing up across the way in Utica. The Saturday night contest against Rochester could have a tremendous effect on the final playoff seeding .The Amerks won their game-in-hand on Monday to move within one point of the Crunch.
They also close with a three-in-three weekend and depending on the outcome of Friday’s games, the Crunch could be either up by one point, down by one point, tied or up by three points (that’s a lot of possibilities). That means, no matter what happens, the division lead will still be up for grabs on Saturday night. Should make for a fun night in the old arena.
The good news is that the Crunch’s first playoff game isn’t until next Friday so there shouldn’t be too much of a hangover from the busy finish to their season.
Friday April 12th, 7:00 p.m. vs Laval Rocket
Saturday April 13th, 7:00 p.m. vs Rochester Americans
Sunday April 14th, 5:00 p.m. at Utica Comets