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Crunch Corner: Alex Barre-Boulet is an All-Star

The team dropped two important games, but is starting to show some signs of life.

Scott Thomas Photography

We should probably be a little more upset at the week the Syracuse Crunch had. After all, they lost to Binghamton (a last place team) and Laval (the team ahead of them in the standings). During their most important stretch of the season, 10 games against division rivals, they are 2-5 so far. Still, for some reason things to don’t seem quite as dire as they did a week ago.

Maybe it’s the flipping of the calendar to the new year. Maybe it’s the roster shuffling over the last week or so. Or, and this is what I’m counting as the most important, it was the 8-2 thumping of the Toronto Marlies on Friday. There is always something cathartic about thrashing a hockey team from Toronto.

The Crunch, aided by some lucky bounces, showed exactly what they are capable when they are firing on all cylinders. Did they get some breaks in regard to puck luck? Sure. However, you have to be in position to capitalize on those fortunate moments, and Syracuse did just that (while firing 56 shots on net).

The bounces didn’t quite go their way the next day in Laval and their two third-period goals weren’t quite enough. They did manage another 35 shots on net. So far in their two games played in the calendar year 2020 they have a 71% shot share. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but it’s a positive one and the Crunch can build on it moving forward.

If they keep playing like they did over the last two games, then they have a pretty good chance of getting revenge on Laval and then taking it to first-place Rochester. Winning the next two games would finish up the ten-game stretch at 5-5. It’s not great, but with the rest of the North kind of stalling, it’d be enough to keep them in the race.

Standings

Injuries

Nothing new to report this week as the Crunch made it through their week relatively healthy. Nor has there been any update on their two long-term injured players (Luke Witkowski and Scott Wedgewood). That’s about as good as a team can hopeful heading into the second half of the season.

Coming and Going

With Patrick Sieloff in town and suiting up for game action the Crunch assigned Oleg Sosunov back to Orlando so that he could see some game action. The big defender was with the Crunch for exactly a month during his latest recall but only saw action in two games despite the team going through some roster churn at the blueline lever.

The addition of Sieloff and Devante Stephens pretty much made this a no-brainer. Both are left-hand shots (although Sieloff played on the right side this weekend) as is Sosunov. Syracuse isn’t in a position standings-wise where they can risk putting an unfinished product like Sosunov on the ice on a consistent basis. It’s better for him to spend the next month or so in Orlando playing regularly than riding the bench in Syracuse.

Following a strong performance at the Spengler Cup in Switzerland (the other international tournament that runs between Christmas and New Years), Zach Fucale was called up from Orlando this weekend. He got the start against Laval and played okay (12 saves on 15 shots). Chances are that he’s back in Orlando this week, but with three games in three days, and a shaky start to Mike Condon’s Syracuse career, you never know.

The Games

Tuesday, December 31st at Binghamton: 5-2 Loss (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Friday, January 3rd vs. Toronto: 8-2 Win (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Saturday, January 4th at Laval: 3-2 Loss (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Stars of the Week

Alex Barre-Boulet: 2 games, 2 goals, 2 assists, 12 shots. It was an interesting week for Barre-Boulet. He missed Tuesday’s game against Binghamton due to a “coach’s decision”, was named to his first All-Star team, then turned in a pretty dominating performance over the weekend. He’s slowly moving his way up the stats board (14th in points, 16th in goals) and is becoming the de facto offensive weapon for the Crunch.

Cal Foote: 3 games, 0 goals, 5 assists. There is something about the holidays that brings out Foote’s offense. Last season he put up six points over three games during Christmas week. This year he’s extended that to New Years. He’s on a four-game point streak (1 goal, 6 assists). Much like last season he seems to be warming up as the season continues. With the fluctuation on the blue line it’s good to see him increasing his contributions offensively and defensively.

Thoughts

Ben Thomas

Exhibit A of why Ben Thomas is an interesting prospect:

Thomas is now in his fourth full season as a professional hockey player and we’re still not sure what he is going to become. At 23-years-old he’s still young enough to be considered a prospect (especially for a defenseman), but he hasn’t exactly progressed as the years have gone on.

His point totals per season for the Crunch are 21, 22, 16, and 8. His second goal of the season (the one above) matches his season total from last year and is half of his career high from 2017-18. Moves like the one from Friday indicate that he should be more of an offensive force for the Crunch, but for some reason it just hasn’t translated.

There are times when he makes questionable decisions with the puck, pinching in at a risky moment, or trying to thread a pass through the center of the ice when there are multiple opponents in the way. Granted, the same could be said for his teammates this season, but these are the things that he should be improving on after 247 games in the AHL.

While he does have some size he’s never going to be a shutdown defender in the mold of Eric Cernak, that just isn’t the nature of his game. He can skate well and he is one of the better passers on the blueline. When he gets into trouble it’s usually by trying to do too much and force a play that isn’t there. If he can make better decisions with the puck it should lead to more production for him.

One thing that hurts him a bit is that he doesn’t get very much power play time, something that would play well to his skills. Unfortunately with the Crunch’s love of four forwards on the man advantage it doesn’t leave much time for defenders other than Cameron Gaunce and Cal Foote.

It’s a big season for Thomas and his role in the organization. With some of the injuries and roster moves the Crunch have had to endure on defense, there is an opportunity for him to see a little more playing time. He is one of only two natural right-handed shots on the roster right now (Cal Foote is the other). It seems his playing time has ticked up a little over the last few weeks with Luke Witkowski out of the line-up.

If he can pick up his production over the rest of the season he may finally crack the Top 25 under 25 this summer. Which, of course, is the biggest honor a NHL prospect can receive.

Upcoming Games

The Crunch get a little break by not having a midweek game, but the punishment for their rest is a three-in-three weekend. Six very important points will be up for grabs this weekend as Syracuse ends its ten-game run through the North Division.

After the Toronto win, Coach Groulx mentioned that the team really hadn’t had a lot of practice time in the prior weeks due to the schedule. Getting a full practice in prior to their win against the Marlies really allowed the team to refocus on some of their fundamentals and get back to their style of game.

The good news for Coach Groulx and his staff is that they will have plenty of time to practice with five full days off before hitting the ice against the Rocket on Friday. If they get a couple of good workouts in, expect them to come out with a little bit of jump in the first period against Laval.

Friday, January 10th vs. Laval Rocket, 7:00 p.m.

Saturday, January 11th vs. Rochester Americans, 7:00 p.m.

Sunday, January 12th at. Binghamton Devils, 3:05 p.m.