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Crunch Corner: Syracuse fights to stay in the race

A tough win in Toronto keeps the Crunch within striking distance

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch only dropped two points last week, yet it was enough to drop them out of a playoff spot. Such is life in the North Division. With only two games, the Crunch didn’t have much margin for error, and one bad period Friday night cost them to have a four-point weekend.

They did redeem themselves with a hard fought victory on Saturday against the Marlies that helped them keep within striking distance of the red-hot Binghamton Devils (winners of six straight).

Yet, even if they had won both games against the Marlies, Binghamton would have still leap-frogged them in the standings, so things aren’t entirely in their hands right now. As it sits right now they are three points back of the fourth spot in the playoffs and only one point ahead of sixth place Laval. So, things aren’t going to get any easier.

Also not making things easier is the fact that everyone in the playoff race keeps winning. Six of the eight teams in the division have winning records over their past ten games with only Toronto and Cleveland failing to keep at a .500 or better pace in the last couple of weeks. The good news is that things should change in the next couple of weeks as the teams start to face off against each other over the final month of the season.

Now it’s just up to the Crunch to be able to win the games on their schedule and start leapfrogging over their opponents.

The Standings

Injuries

With no new injuries to report it was a good week for the Crunch. They also had Dennis Yan return to the line-up which helps their depth on forward. The fourth year forward picked up an assist on Friday which was his first game since the 21st of February. He had been sidelined with a reported concussion.

Cory Conacher missed both games in Toronto but it doesn’t sound like he’ll miss much more time. They could use his help on the power play. Despite missing 17 games this season he’s still third on the team in power play points with 15 (5 goals, 9 assists), trailing only Alex Barre-Boulet and Ross Colton.

Coming and Going

It’s an interesting time of year in the AHL. While the trade deadline has passed teams still have a chance to add players. As college teams see their seasons come to an end there will be a bevy of free agents signing both professional contracts and amatuer try out contracts.

The Crunch dipped into that second pool of players as they signed Sami Tavernier from Merrimack College. The 22-year-old forward was the Warriors captain last year and spent four seasons in Andover collecting 76 points (26 goals, 50 assists). At 6’1, 190 lbs he brings a little size to Syracuse and has decent to above average playmaking skills.

While he did get the start on Friday, he will probably be in and out of the line-up down the stretch. Even if he doesn’t get much playing time over the next two months it’s good experience for him and may set him up for a professional contract this summer.

For the Crunch they get a healthy body in camp and a chance to evaluate a young player up close.

The Games

Friday March 6th at Toronto: 5-2 loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Saturday March 7th at Toronto: 2-1 loss (Recap) (Box Score) (Highlights)

Players of the Week

Spencer Martin - 1 game, 1 win, 31 saves, .969 SV%. The Crunch played well over the weekend, but it was Martin who was most responsible for the two points they picked up. He was stellar on Saturday night, especially in the second period when he stopped all sixteen shots he faced.

Since Scott Wedgewood returned as the number one starter, Martin has been fantastic as the back-up. He has a personal six game point streak (4 wins, 2 OT losses) and stopped over 91% of the shots he’s faced in seven of his last eight appearances.

Taylor Raddysh - 2 games, 2 goals, 1 assist. The second year player set a career-high in goals with 19 this weekend. He also picked up his sixth power play goal, which is second on the team. Raddysh is never going to wow anyone with his stickhandling skills or skating skills, but he is showing why the Lightning thought highly enough of him to draft him in the second round. He just knows how to score goals.

Thoughts

The Line-up

For one of the few times this season, Coach Ben Groulx went with an 11/7 line-up on Saturday night against the Toronto Marlies. Prior to the game he said that he wanted to give his best players more opportunities. With Conacher out injured, it makes sense that he’d rather replace that missing ice time with players like Taylor Raddysh or Boris Katchouk instead of Sami Tavernier or Tyler Bird (who were both scratched).

It didn’t lead to much more offense, but part of that was the result of eight penalties they took (six of them in the second period). Yes, their best players were on the ice more often, but unfortunately they spent a lot of that time shorthanded.

Will this be something that he keeps up down the stretch? Probably not. It seems like part of it was due to circumstances (Conacher injured) and part of it as a shake-up. Coach Groulx wasn’t happy with their performance the night before. He was disappointed in their skating and their offensive choices, lamenting that when they aren’t playing too hard they become a “sexy team”.

Sadly, that wasn’t a compliment. Rather, instead of getting the puck on a net or making simple plays they overpass and try to make a pretty play. There was definitely nothing overly sexy about their win on Saturday. It was obvious from the drop of the puck that they were determined to get the puck at the net as much as possible as they racked up 14 shots in the opening 20 minutes. The only problem was that Joseph Wall was in net and kept all the pucks out.

Things digressed a bit in the second period as the Crunch took over physically. It seemed like every whistle ended with a scrum and there were some extra hits coming from Syracuse, some of them not the best representation of gentlemanly play (including a nice little spear by Luke Witkowski on Matt Read). Even Spencer Martin got in on the action when he picked up a roughing penalty for burying Joseph Duzek into the boards following an offsides.

Toronto did seem frustrated by the Crunch’s tactics, but failed to take advantage as they went 0-for-7 on the power play, including a brief 5-on-3. While the Crunch do rack up a lot of penalties, they normally aren’t of a physical variety. That’s what made their actions on Saturday night seem so out of place for them.

Being physical did pay off for them though. The tying goal was set up on a tough forecheck by Taylor Raddysh as he checked Teemu Kivihalme from behind to separate him from the puck (or you could call it boarding I suppose).

It’s not likely to be a style change. Mainly because the Crunch aren’t built to fight their way through the North Division. Chances are they were just a touch frustrated over the way things had played out over the weekend and took it out on the Marlies. It is nice to know that they can win those types of games, though.

Upcoming Schedule

The Crunch are back to three games this week and, like pretty much every game remaining, they’re pretty important. All three games are against North Division opponents that the Crunch are chasing in the standings. At the very best Syracuse can catch Utica for the third spot in the playoffs (if Syracuse wins all three games and Utica doesn’t gain a point). While that would be all well and good, they should just focus on picking up as many points as possible.

Wednesday March 11th at Utica Comets, 7:00 p.m.

Friday March 13th at Rochester Americans, 7:05 p.m.

Saturday March 14th vs. Belleville Senators, 7:00 p.m.