The week didn’t start off that great as the Syracuse Crunch lost to Lehigh Valley and Springfield. Despite the losses, there was an inkling of solid play, especially during the one to the Phantoms (one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference).
Their improved play finally paid off as they beat Binghamton on Saturday and Utica on Monday. Not only did they snap their three-game losing streak (and six-game road losing streak) in the process, they also won back to back games for the first time in more than a month.
Could this be the turning point we’ve been waiting for all season? Possibly. The offense is still clicking as they scored fifteen goals in the four games. While three of the games showed that their defense is still a work-in-progress, they did shut down Utica - a team that has one of the more potent offenses in the division.
There were two noticeable things from the Utica game. First, the Crunch blocked a ton of shots, especially on the penalty kill. Utica had few clean looks at the net and needed some lucky bounces to score their two goals. Second, the Crunch were skating really well, not only on offense, but also on defense. It was one of their stronger backchecking games as forwards came back on multiple occasions to disrupt scoring chances.
The Crunch have three more games before the All Star Break and are only four points out of a playoff spot. If they build on the last two games they could find themselves closing that gap before the week is over.
Coming and Going
Alex Volkov is back (and made quite the impression). During their break the Lightning assigned three players to the Crunch: Volkov, Mitchell Stephens, and Luke Schenn. The latter two appear to be more of a paper transaction in order to save a few dollars in regards to the salary cap.
Could the Crunch use Stephens and Schenn over the next few games? Of course. Schenn more so than Stephens. Mitchell is playing well enough that he deserves to stay in Tampa and offense hasn’t exactly been the issue over the last few weeks. He’s earned a few days off with his play this year.
Schenn, on the other hand, could help stabilize the defense down the right side and allow Cameron Gaunce and Patrick Seiloff to move to their more comfortable side of the ice. Even though Schenn hadn’t been playing that much prior to being placed on waivers there was some risk to the move so it is a little surprising that the Lightning didn’t actually send him down.
The Crunch had a big name return to the line-up on Monday against Utica. After missing more than a month with an injury, Scott Wedgewood returned to the crease for Syracuse. Prior to the Springfield game Coach Benoit Groulx did mention that Scott Wedgewood is practicing again and had hinted that his return would be soon. Monday was a bit sooner than expected.
As for captain Luke Witkowski, his prognosis seems a little further off. He won’t be back until sometime after the all star break at the end of the month.
Players of the Week
Alex Volkov: 2 games, 3 goals, 3 assists, 6 shots. Normally it’s hard to name someone who only appeared in half of the games as player of the week, but Volkov was dominating in his return to Syracuse. Not only was he finding the back of the net (sadly a scoring change after the Binghamton game took away his hat trick), but he may have been the best forechecker for the Crunch in both games.
The first time he was sent down this season he struggled a bit with his confidence. It appears that he learned his lesson. It’ll be interesting to see what the Lightning do with him after their break. The team is mostly healthy now so if he is recalled, it’s not a guarantee that he will play. Yet it will be hard to keep him down if he takes off on one of his scoring streaks.
Cory Conacher: 4 games, 1 goal, 4 assists, 11 shots. Over the weekend Conacher became the fifth player in franchise history to reach the 200 point mark. Through the ups and downs of the season he’s been the most consistent player for Syracuse. He has 36 points in 38 games and hasn’t gone more than two games without recording a point.
Honorable mentions to Gemel Smith and Mathieu Joseph. Smith is a force every game and it’s just a matter of time till he’s called up. Joseph has nine points in the twelve games since his return to Syracuse, but it’s in the last week where he’s looked like the Mathieu Joseph of old. Fast, hard on the forecheck, causing turnovers in the neutral zone - he’s been all of that over the last week. He has really clicked on a line with Ross Colton and Taylor Raddysh, which gives the Crunch three solid scoring lines now.
Welcome back Scott Wedgewood. In his first game since early December, the Crunch’s number one goalie stifled one of the league’s top offenses. He was sharp, controlled most of his rebounds, and looked quick moving from post to post.
For a team that has spent the last three or four weeks one or two saves short of winning games, his return could be a big boost. Mike Condon and Spencer Martin were fine during Wedgewood’s absence, but there always seemed to be at least one stop they could have made that might have swung the difference in a game.
Case in point - this goal by Greg Carey.
That's ️ ️ for Greg Carey this season! pic.twitter.com/S9AVcSGR4W— LehighValleyPhantoms (@LVPhantoms) January 16, 2020
Twice in this game the Crunch had clawed back to tie it after being down by a goal, only to find themselves down one once again in the third. They were shorthanded and allowed Carey into the offensive zone a little too easy, but he was firing a backhand with no screen at the net. Martin was tracking him all the way and seemed to be expecting the shot, yet somehow it eludes him. This is a save that has to be made.
Too often during this last stretch of games they’ve been let down by their goaltending while the team has been better overall. This team is always going to have turnovers, that’s what happens when you play aggressively. They have to feel that their goaltender can make the save if they turn the puck over. That’s what they had with Eddie Pasquale and Connor Ingram over the last couple of seasons.
Wedgewood is back now. His early season results were a bit mixed, to the point where we were calling for Spencer Martin to see more playing time, but hopefully he can be the rock the Crunch needs in net. He made several key saves in the win against Utica starting with the first shot he faced just twelve seconds into the game.
Perhaps the biggest save came about five minutes into the third. Down by two, the Comets were pressing from the start of the third. Wedgewood stopped two or three shots from in close during a scramble in front of his net. If Utica had scored there, they would have had almost the entire period to tie the game. Instead the Crunch were able to pick up an insurance goal and hold off the late charge Utica eventually made.
If Wedgewood keeps up this level of play then it’s one less problem GM Stacey Roest has to worry about as the trade deadline nears. In the past the organization has made moves to shore up its goaltending down the stretch. It was around this same time two seasons ago that they made the move for Pasquale.
The defense is still a bit of a mess and the coaching staff is still searching for the right pairings as they are constantly swapping defensive pairs throughout the last few games. A solid goaltender will go a long way to helping make the defense look a little better.
The Crunch are heading into the All Star break with a busy week. One game is down, but they play three more times, and it will be a really divisional heavy schedule heading into the second half of the season. Of their remaining thirty-four games, only five are out of the division. Rochester and Utica alone account for almost half (15) of their remaining games.
That’s good news for a Syracuse team that is still outside of the playoffs at this point. Not only do they pick up two points for every game they win, they keep their opponents from picking up two.
Now all they have to do is win those games.
Wednesday, January 22nd at Laval Rocket 7:00 p.m.
Friday, January 24th vs. Binghamton Devils 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, January 25th vs. Rochester Americans 7:00 p.m.