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Crunch Corner: Syracuse is Creeping Closer to a playoff spot

Another successful week has them just a point off of the playoff race

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch had their points streak snapped on Monday, but overall it was another solid as they picked up five out of a possible eight points in the four games they played. Early in the week it was their defense coming up strong (despite being a tad short staffed) and they battled a tough Rochester team to a shootout loss on Saturday. The 5-2 loss to Belleville on Monday afternoon shows that they still have a little ways to go to contend with the top teams in the league, but any improvement at this point is welcome.

The North is starting to show a bit of a divide in the standings. Belleville is up to 71 points, a 7 point lead on second place Rochester. Utica has been spinning their wheels a bit of late but are still comfortably in third place. The Crunch trail Toronto by only one point, but that’s a bit deceptive as the Marlies have three games in hand.

If the Crunch are going to want to stay in this race, they’re going to need more weeks where they are picking up the majority of the points. The good news is that pretty soon the vast majority of their games are going to be against teams they’re chasing in the standings, giving them ample opportunity to gain ground.

Standings

Coming and Going

The roster was looking a little bare at the beginning of the week with Cameron Gaunce, Mathieu Joseph, and Alex Volkov all in Tampa. The good news is that two of those players are back in Syracuse as Joseph and Volkov were reassigned to the Crunch this weekend. Gaunce remains up with the Lightning for now (apparently as a dual threat since he had some shifts as a forward against Edmonton).

The team also made another transaction that won’t affect the roster. On Sunday they recalled goaltender Zach Fucale and then on Monday they released him from his contract so that he could pursue an opportunity in the German professional league. With everyone healthy in Syracuse and Orlando things were getting a little crowded in net.

Fucale has a chance to play every night in a competitive league (and may make a little more money) while the Solar Bears and Crunch don’t have to worry so much about finding playing time for all of their goalies.

Injuries

After a rather rough go of it lately, there is actually some good news in this regard for the Crunch. Yes, Cory Conacher, Nolan Valleau and Patrick Sieloff remain out, but the captain is back! Luke Witkowski returned to his spot on the blueline after missing two months of action.

With Valleau and Sieloff injured and Gaunce in Tampa, the timing couldn’t have been better for the Crunch. Witkowski solidifies the right side of the defense and allows everyone else to slide back into their natural positions (and Daniel Walcott back to throwing his body around on forechecks instead of in his own zone).

That being said, the Crunch did lose a key player on Saturday when Gemel Smith left the game early following a collision along the boards. He also didn’t make the trip to Belleville as he stayed behind in Syracuse for further examination per Lukas Favale. If he is out for any period of time it would be a big loss for the Crunch offense. The team MVP candidate has 36 points in 40 games (20 goals, 16 assists) and was the team’s de facto number one center with Mitchell Stephens in Tampa.

Games

Wednesday, February 12th at Binghamton: 1-0 Win (Box Score) (Recap)

Friday, February 14th vs Utica: 3-2 Win (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Saturday, February 15th vs Rochester: 4-3 Loss (SO) (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Monday, February 17th at Belleville: 5-2 Loss (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Player of the Week

Ben Thomas: 4 Games, 1 Goal, 2 Assists. If this space is blank it’s because a certain editor invoked executive privilege and deleted it. The last three weeks or so has seen a different, more confident Ben Thomas. In the game against Rochester on Saturday he was flat out commanding the offensive zone in the first period. He showed some of the offensive prowess that makes him an intriguing prospect. He’s also been one of the more steady defensive players during the recent turmoil on the blueline. Hopefully, he can keep it up down the stretch.

Thoughts

The Foote Deal

The Lightning jumped the gun on the trade deadline and dipped into their collection of assets to acquire Blake Coleman. While some think they paid a fairly steep price to acquire a player that most likely will anchor their third third line, they managed to do it without sacrificing a rostered player on either the Lightning or the Crunch.

What that might say about the talent ceiling for the players currently on the Crunch is a discussion best left for another time, but for this season it is quite important. Not only do they not lose any current players, once everyone is healthy the Lightning might try to squeeze another player through waivers down to the Crunch.

The Lightning are currently carrying 13 forwards and have 22 of their 23 roster spots spoken for with Ryan McDonagh and Jan Rutta currently on injured reserve. It is likely that once those two come back, Cameron Gaunce will be on his way back to Syracuse. Once the other one comes back the Lightning may keep eight defensemen on the roster and max out the 23 man roster.

The other possibility, in order to keep that salary cap trimmed, they send down one of the spare defenders (most likely Luke Schenn). That would be a huge boost for the maligned Crunch defense and get them back to having an extremely experienced defensive units in the league.

There is also the chance that they send down one of their bottom six forwards. The only problem with that is that neither Mitchell Stephens (who is eligible to be sent down without going on waivers) or Carter Verhaeghe (who would have to clear waivers) have really done anything to warrant the removal from the NHL roster. It’s more likely that Coach Cooper will just rotate them through as a healthy scratch for a few games.

However, even if the Lightning intend to keep them in Tampa, you may still see a couple of names pop up on the transaction wire. Along with the trade deadline, next Monday is the day players have to appear on the AHL roster in order to be eligible for the AHL playoffs.

Last season the organization elected to not paper transact anyone and it might have cost the Crunch a win in the first round. While no one is expecting the Lightning to get bounced in the first round again this season, it doesn’t really hurt anyone to at least go through the motions with the waiver exempt players still on the roster such as Stephens (and possibly Erik Cernak). Any depth they could provide the Crunch would be appreciated should the unfortunate happen to the Lightning again this season.

Where this trade hurts the Crunch is most likely next season. Nolan Foote was showing the potential to be a top-six NHL prospect, something that the organization has been lacking. If he didn’t make the Lightning out of training camp he most likely would have slotted in on a top line for the Crunch in 2020-21.

With Stephens and Verhaeghe in the NHL and Mathieu Joseph and Alex Volkov as solid possibilities of joining them next season, and Cory Conacher most likely heading back to Europe (according to assorted rumors), the Crunch offense is going to have a lot of holes to fill. Finding replacements internally is going to be tough.

That’s a problem for this summer, though. For now, the Crunch have survived the opening salvo of Trade Deadline Week intact. As they fight for a spot in the playoffs, not losing a key player could be just as important as adding one.

(Although, I am disappointed that the chance to see the Foote Boys together on the same team has been quashed for now.)

Upcoming Games

The Crunch have a few days off before a tough weekend that features three games in three days. The good news is that they face two teams in Cleveland and Lehigh Valley that are scuffling along a bit. If Syracuse continues to play like they have for the majority of the last two weeks they should have a better than fair chance of picking up some points.

Friday, February 21st vs. Cleveland Monsters, 7:00 pm

Saturday, February 22nd vs. Lehigh Valley Phantoms, 7:00 pm

Sunday, February 23rd at Springfield Falcons, 5:05 pm

Bonus Photos

I really thought the Team USA inspired jerseys looked great. So here are a few more photos from Scott Thomas featuring that logo. The Utica alternates are pretty sweet as well. Solid uniform battle on the ice.

Scott Thomas Photography
Scott Thomas Photography
Scott Thomas Photography
Scott Thomas Photography
Scott Thomas Photography