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Crunch Corner: On the road to success

The Crunch put together three solid games in a row.

Scott Thomas Photography

Maybe, just maybe it’s not time to write the Syracuse Crunch off just yet. Just days after bottoming out in last place, the Crunch showed signs of life and picked up five out of possible six points. The rally vaulted them up two spots in the standings to sixth place and just two points behind Toronto and Laval for fourth place in the North.

Not bad for a team we were getting ready to write off just a week ago. So goes life in the AHL. A warm streak (it’s too soon to officially call it a hot streak) and the Crunch are right back in the mix of things. Their offense is warming back up and, for the most part, they’ve had solid goaltending.

It’s a bit of a shame that they couldn’t hold the leads against Utica and lost in the shootout on Saturday (they are a solid 0-4 in the skills competition), but points in three straight games is a good building block for a team that has struggled with consistency this year.

The most refreshing part of the week was that shades of the old Crunch team that we’re used to seeing have emerged for multiple games in a row. The team seems to be playing with a little more commitment in all three areas of the ice. Once again they are a pain in the ass to play and are harassing teams up and down the entire 200 feet of ice.

They are getting turnovers in the neutral zone and quickly turning that into offense. They are also being a little more direct (especially five on five) with their game in the offensive zone. It seems there is a little less forcing of passes through the crease and more players are taking the option of shooting first, especially early in the game.

In the defensive zone, they are pressuring a bit more at the blueline and not allowing easy access into the zone for the other teams. That’s a sign that they are a little more comfortable with each other on the ice, because if the defense is going to press, they have to trust that the forwards are busting down the ice to help cover any dump-ins their opponents throw at them.

It’s too early to say the team has turned the corner, but they are definitely showing signs that things may finally be pointing in the right direction.

Standings

Injuries

Oh boy, I hope you’re sitting down for this section. The injury bug has struck the Syracuse Crunch and bit down hard. It didn’t help that the Lightning were also getting dinged up, which led to a couple of recalls.

For the Crunch they are currently without forward Cory Conacher, who missed all three games last week. His injury is unknown and his recovery is day-to-day The absence of the veteran hurts Syracuse in all three facets of the game as he is one of their top penalty killers (2 shorthanded goals) and power play forwards (five power play goals). It speaks to the depth of the offense that they were still able to average four goals a game without him, but the quicker he returns, the better.

The loss of Conacher pales in comparison to the blue line. Luke Witkowski is still out, although he was reportedly skating in a regular jersey at practice so his return could be imminent. Joining him on the sidelines is Nolan Valleau and Patrick Sieloff.

Valleau had just returned from being a healthy scratch before suffering his injury. Sieloff has played decently since being acquired but now faces several weeks off the ice following his injury.

If Witkowski isn’t ready to return to action this week, it is possible that Syracuse may sign another defenseman to a PTO. The status of Oleg Sosunov (who was recalled from Orlando) is uncertain as well. He had been injured recently and while he missed Friday’s game due to transit issues (according to Lukas Favale), he didn’t play on Saturday either.

Coming and Going

The injuries to Ryan McDonagh and Jan Rutta paved the way for a recall for Cameron Gaunce. While there was some speculation that the Lightning might give Cal Foote a brief look, it was the veteran Gaunce who received the call. Most likely he is just there as insurance while Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn get the actual playing time, but if either falter, Gaunce will be right there to step in.

On Monday, Mathieu Joseph joined him as the speedy forward was recalled to fill in for Steven Stamkos, who missed the game against Columbus. If Stamkos is only out for the one game, Joseph might head right back down to Syracuse in time for Wednesday’s game against Binghamton.

As mentioned, Sosunov was recalled from Orlando, as was Peter Abbadonato. The rookie forward made an impact by scoring two goals and adding an assist in his three games during the week. With the forward ranks thinning out a bit, he might see a little more playing time down the stretch.

The other big addition from Orlando the Florida Everblades was Logan Roe. The Fort Myers native was signed to a PTO to fill one of the spots on the blueline and has performed solidly in the three games he’s appeared in. On Friday he picked up his first career AHL point on an assist against Rochester, and he has shown to be able to handle the speed of the league just fine. He may turn into this year’s version of Nolan Valleau - a temporary call-up that plays too well to be sent back down.

The Crunch did clear up their goalie logjam a bit as they loaned Mike Condon to Orlando. Hopefully, that’s a good sign that Scott Wedgewood is completely healthy and ready to handle a heavy load of games down the stretch.

The Games

Wednesday, February 5th at Bridgeport: 3-2 Win (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Friday, February 7th at Rochester: 5-2 Win (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Saturday, February 8th at Utica: 5-4 Loss (SO) (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Players of the Week

Danick Martel: 3 Games, 2 goals, 1 assist, 16 shots. Martel went through a mini-funk with only one point in seven games before reeling off a four-game point streak. This week he was flying around on the ice in all three games. He’s found a nice groove on the left wing of Boris Katchouk’s line opposite of Taylor Raddysh. Both of his goals this week showcased his breakaway speed, especially the one against Rochester where he outskated three Amerks:

Yes, the celebration could use a little work, but his skating has been tremendous. With the call-ups and injuries that the Crunch are dealing with he’s going to be a key piece that the offense needs to rely on down the stretch.

Daniel Walcott: 3 Games, 1 assist, +5. The counting numbers aren’t in line with what a player of the week normally has, but what Walcott did over the last two games of the week was tremendously beneficial to the team. Stepping back to play defense for the first time in over two years saved the Crunch the necessity of scrambling to find a player at the last minute or putting someone on the ice who wasn’t healthy enough to play.

Not only did he take the position, he played fairly well. He was on the ice quite a bit as a defender, something that he might not have been accustomed to a fourth line forward getting maybe ten minutes of ice time a game. Not only that, he also stayed out of the penalty box, which isn’t always easy for an agitator.

Thoughts

The Future of Ben Groulx

On her podcast last week, Alex broached the subject on if it is time for the organization to inform Ben Groulx that his services are no longer needed as head coach of the Syracuse Crunch. She put forth some solid reasoning that perhaps his hot seat is just a tad bit warmer than Jon Cooper’s in Tampa. Give it a listen, it’s a really good episode.

As far as my thoughts, well I’m not quite ready to swing the guillotine on his career just yet. There are some disturbing signs that perhaps his message isn’t getting through any longer. When a team continues to make the same mistakes night in and night out and there are no apparent changes to either the roster or the style of play, it’s a good indication that the players aren’t responding to the coaching.

I don’t feel like he’s going to be let go before the end of the year. The organization just doesn’t seem to run that way. He will most likely be given a chance to rescue the remainder of the season before any final judgement is to be made.

One factor that may play well in his favor is the continued growth of the prospects under his care. Things are a little different in the AHL. While wins and playoff appearances are still important, so is the ability of a coach to teach and promote young talent. The fact that several players have graduated and fit in in the NHL during his time in Syracuse is a strong argument in his favor.

Even in the somewhat up-and-down season the Crunch have been going through, there have been some improvement to the second year players. The most notable may be Otto Somppi. A season ago, Somppi was in and out of the line-up, down in Orlando, and barely noticeable when he was on the ice in Syracuse. This season he’s improved tremendously and has been a key bottom six forward (and maybe the second best passer on the team behind Alex Barre-Boulet).

Katchouk is another player who has taken a step forward in my opinion. After a bit of a slow start, he seems to have found his stride while adjusting to a new position on the team. Raddysh has been one of the most consistent forwards since January and a key piece of the offense.

The success of Mitchell Stephens and Carter Verhaeghe this season, coupled with the play of Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph last year shows that whatever Groulx is doing in Syracuse carries over to the NHL.

Aside from a couple of slow starts, his teams in Syracuse haven’t faced that much regular season adversity either. This could be a chance for him to show the executive staff (and other organizations in the league) that he can pull the best out of a team that might be scuffling along a bit or having some locker room issues.

Personally I think he survives this season and the summer as well, unless another team offers him a NHL position. The Lightning as an organization tends to big-picture these types of situations and doesn’t react prematurely or harshly.

That being said, should this recent run of solid play be merely a mirage and stories emerge of a broken and bitter clubhouse, things could change in a heartbeat. As much as the Lightning would reward proper and continued development of the prospects, they would act swiftly if there was anything undermining their growth.

Of course, he’d probably sleep a little better at night if his goaltending caught on fire. Not too many coaches in the history of hockey have been fired with a hot goalie in the net.

Upcoming Games

Wednesday, February 12th at Binghamton Devils, 7:05 p.m.

Friday, February 14th vs. Utica Comets, 7:00 p.m.

Saturday, February 15th vs. Rochester Americans, 7:00 p.m.

Monday, February 17th at Belleville Senators, 2:00 p.m.