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Crunch Corner: A busy weekend produces mixed results

The Crunch had a good, bad and ugly weekend, yet still picked up some ground.

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch began last week nine points out of the top spot in the North Division and six points out of a playoff spot. After playing three games in three nights and only picking up three points, they still managed to gain ground. With a loss, a win, and a shootout loss the Crunch are now eight points behind first place Utica and five points behind fourth place Toronto. What a league.

The Crunch found their offense over the weekend as they scored five goals in each of the three games. That continues a trend that started in the new year as the Crunch are averaging five goals a game in the month of January. That’s bumped their season average up to 3.42 goals per game, good enough for fifth in the AHL.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that they gave up 17 goals in three games this weekend and are now 29th in the league in goals against at 3.55 per game. That’s really, really bad. Coach Ben Groulx has acknowledged that his goaltenders need to be better, and a quick glance at Spencer Martin and Mike Condon’s numbers would attest to that. It’s not just them though. The entire team has been bad defensively all season long whether it’s been poor coverage in their own zone or turnovers in all three zones.

There have been spurts of solid defensive games (Portland and Toronto) but not enough consistency to make anyone think that they are going to figure this out anytime soon. Perhaps in the meantime they can outscore their problems and keep creeping back into the playoff race.

Standings

Injuries

Nothing new in the injury department. Nolan Valleau was held out of Saturday and Sunday’s games, but according to the broadcast on Saturday he was a healthy scratch.

Scott Wedgewood is getting closer to return (in Coach Groulx’s words prior to the game against Rochester). When he does return it sounds like he’ll be expected to carry the load as the number one starter for the rest of the season.

Coming and Going

Jimmy Huntington had a busy couple of days of travel last week. He was reassigned, along with Peter Abbadonato, to Orlando. Huntington joined the Solar Bears in Norfolk only to turn right back around and head up to New York.

The reason? Well, the Crunch needed another forward after the Lightning had recalled Alex Volkov to fill in for some of their banged up forwards. Huntington made it in time for the game against Laval on Friday, but was held out as a healthy scratch as the Crunch went with an 11/7 line-up. The rookie did make it into the next two games on a line with Otto Somppi and Dennis Yan.

The Crunch did have an extra forward available on Friday but didn’t put him in the line-up. On the day they sent down Huntington and Abbadonato they also recalled Alexey Lipanov. In 22 games with the Solar Bears this season the Russian forward had 14 points (7 goals, 7 assists). It’ll be interesting to see if he gets any game action with the Crunch (he hasn’t seen an AHL game since 2017-18) or if this just a chance to give him some instructional time with the coaching staff.

Volkov’s departure does open up a spot for one of the young players to make a mark. Coach Groulx mixed things up a bit with this weekend, moving Daniel Walcott to a top line with Gemel Smith and Cory Conacher while also shifting Boris Katchouk to center.

The Games

Friday January 10th vs. Laval: 7-5 Loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Saturday January 11th vs. Rochester: 5-4 Win (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Sunday January 12th at Binghamton: 6-5 Loss (Recap) (Box Score)

Players of the Week

Taylor Raddysh: 3 games, 2 goals, 3 assists. The second year forward had one of his best weeks as a member of the Crunch. After recording a total of 3 points (2 goals, 1 assist) in December, all in the same game, he’s put up points in four of five games in January. If he finds his scoring touch in the second half of the season, it would be huge asset for a Syracuse team that desperately needs someone other than Alex Barre-Boulet to put the puck in the net consistently.

Ross Colton: 3 games, 2 goals, 3 assists. Colton is another player that has sparked the Crunch’s offensive outburst so far this month. The three assists he picked up this week brings his season total to 17, which was his total in 66 games last season. The Colton/Raddysh/Joseph line was the best one of the weekend and if they can keep it going, it gives the Crunch another combination that teams will have to keep an eye on.

Thoughts

Struggles in the North

Part of the reason the Crunch are struggling to keep pace in the North Division is that they are only 12-10-2-2 against their fellow divisional teams. Two teams that they racked up points against last year were Belleville (4-1-0-1), Binghamton (9-1), and Laval (4-1). This season it’s a different story. Against the Senators they are 1-2, the Devils 3-1-0-2 and 1-3 against the Rocket.

The three losses against Laval have all been really strange. In those three losses the Crunch outshot the Rocket 94 to 59, but Laval has shot an absurd 24% (14 goals on 59 shots). Seven of those goals came on Friday in a game where both teams decided defense was optional, but in the previous two losses the Crunch controlled play for almost the entirety of the games but couldn’t keep the puck out of the net on the few occasions Laval ventured into their zone.

Binghamton has been a slightly different story. After starting the season series right where they left off last season with two wins in their first three meetings, the Devils have evened the play in the last three meetings. No doubt the addition of a high-end offensive talent like Nick Merkly has helped, but Binghamton’s goaltending has also improved drastically. Belleville has also dramatically improved their roster compared to last season.

There really are no more easy games in the North this season and the Crunch aren’t going to be able to take any nights off if they want to make it back into a playoff spot. They have nine more games against this trio (along with a host of games against Utica and Rochester) and need to find a way to win those games.

The Sophomore Slump...is ending?

In previous postings we’ve mentioned the offensive struggles and lack of growth from some of the second year players on the Crunch, but over the last month or so that might be changing. Both players of the week (Raddysh and Colton) are in their second season with Syracuse and with the turning of the calendar have seen their offensive numbers bump up a little.

They aren’t the only ones. Of the 25 goals the Crunch have scored in 2020, 12 of them have come from second year players. Alex Barre-Boulet, Boris Katchouk, Raddysh, and Colton have all scored three goals each while fellow sophomore Cal Foote has five assists. That’s not a bad run for any group of players and it’s coming at an opportune time with Mitchell Stephens and Alex Volkov currently in the NHL.

There aren’t many easy goals in the AHL and the burst of offense we’ve seen recently from these players may indicate that they are starting to adjust to the physical nature of playing professional hockey. It may also be a clue that they’re finally getting comfortable playing in the system. Outside of Barre-Boulet who has been scoring consistently since he put on the Crunch uniform, the other players have been extremely streaky when it comes to offensive production over their first 80-90 games with Syracuse.

Katchouk and Raddysh both had stretches last year and early this year where they would disappear offensively for long periods of time. Part of the reason is that they played a lot of the games on the perimeter. This year, and especially in the month of January, they’ve been in front of the net a lot more and are starting to get better opportunities at deflections and rebounds.

They are also shooting a lot more. Katchouk has gone from 1.04 shots per game to 1.77 this season while Raddysh has gone from 1.25 to 1.42. Ross Colton (who has already matched last season’s total for assists) is collecting 2.18 shots per game compared to just 1.67 last year. Those are relatively huge leaps in production from year to year and as they haven’t had that big of a drop in their shooting percentage (except for Raddysh who went from 20.5% to a more reasonable 14.8%).

Hopefully this isn’t just a short term blip and they continue to pick up their point production as the season goes on. On the whole the offense is looking much more confident of late and the second-year players have been a big part of that resurgence.

Upcoming Games

Syracuse kicks off the week with their only two non-division games of the month. Springfield will present an interesting match as they are currently leading the AHL with 653 penalty minutes. Yet, they have actually been shorthanded only 163 times, one less than the Crunch. That would indicate that they are a big, rough team prone to some shenanigans. Syracuse could be in for a tough, hard-hitting night on Friday.

Wednesday January 15th at LeHigh Valley Phantoms, 7:05 p.m.

Friday January 17th vs. Springfield Falcons, 7:00 p.m.

Saturday January 18th at Binghamton Devils, 7:05 p.m.