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Crunch Corner: Syracuse keeps pace in the race

Two wins in two games means the Crunch hold onto the final playoff spot.

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch closed out an impressive month of February with two more victories. As has been the case with most of the wins this month, they didn’t make it easy on their fans as both triumphs featured back and forth scoring and came down to the final period.

With the exception of the 5-2 loss to Belleville a couple of weeks ago, the majority of games the Crunch have played this month have followed the same script. More times than not this month, it’s the Crunch that have emerged with the win. They had an excellent record of 6-2 (both losses coming via the shootout) in one-goal games this month. You know when you see a lot of one-goal games? The playoffs.

Their recent run of play bodes well for the post season. While they’ve mixed in the occasional highlight reel goal (see the Volkov goal below) most of their offense has come from hard-working, puck-controlling type play. You know, the type of play that is wildly successful come playoff time.

Not to put the cart before the horse in a division where half of the teams are competing for one or two playoff spots and are separated by a handful of points, but the Crunch are playing the type of hockey that makes for a sustained run. They are getting solid, if not spectacular, goaltending. They are scoring at even strength and not relying on special teams. They are scoring early and they are scoring late. All positive signs.

That’s not to say they aren’t without their issues. They can still get a little pass happy in the offensive zone and are still, on occasion, bewildering inept with the puck in the defensive zone. The difference between now and earlier in the season is that they are making the second and third efforts to recover from mistakes or to continue play in the offensive zone.

It seems that after three quarters of a season struggling to find the right combination and chemistry, they are starting to come together as a team. Yes, that’s wildly esoteric and has no statistical backing whatsoever, but if you watch the games the team just seems to be on the same page more often than not. Drop passes are actually being made to teammates instead of opponents. A turnover in the defensive zone is backed up by a linemate or a defensive partner being in the right spot. Two-on-ones are leading to shots on net or goals instead of deflected passes.

Now, despite all of the success there isn’t room to celebrate. As you see in the standings below the Crunch are in the fourth spot in the North, but there are three teams within five points of them. Two of those teams have games in hand. So now is not the moment to bask in the glow of a victorious month, rather it’s time to redouble their effort to keep the momentum going.

The Standings

Injuries

The good news - Gemel Smith returned.

The somewhat good news - Cory Conacher returned, briefly.

The not so good news - Conacher is back to being day-to-day.

As for the other injured players, there isn’t much of an update. Patrick Sieloff is probably another week away and there is no set return date for Dennis Yan who is dealing with a concussion per Lukas Favale.

Smith returning is a big help to the Crunch offense. He slots in as the topline center and brings his high-energy style to the forecheck and penalty kill. With two points in two games, it doesn’t appear the 13-day absence affected him too much.

Conacher being out is a bit worrisome as he is a key part of the offense. Hopefully whatever is bothering him meanders away by the time the Crunch take the ice against the Marlies on Friday.

Coming and Going

With both the NHL and AHL trade deadlines behind us it appears that the roster is set for the most part. Mitchell Stephens made a brief touchdown as he was re-assigned prior to the NHL deadline with the intention of sending him down to Syracuse. That lasted all of about a day before the Lightning announced that Steven Stamkos was going to miss the next 6-8 weeks following core surgery. Stephens was promptly recalled before he had a chance to check his mail.

Cameron Gaunce was sent to Syracuse at the same time and did actually make it back, giving them a fairly solid blueline. It looks like Logan Roe and Devante Stephens will rotate in-and-out until Sieloff is healthy, but that isn’t too big of a deal as both have been perfectly fine bottom-pairing defenders.

Roe is roughly halfway through his PTO having appeared in 12 games so far. It’ll be interesting to see what the Crunch do with him once Sieloff is healthy as the 28-year-old has played well enough to stay in the AHL. Of course, based on how the season is going, at least one more blueliner will get hurt between now and then so they may end up signing him to another PTO to finish out the season.

Even with Yan and Conacher a little banged up, the Crunch still have plenty of forwards on the roster so they loaned Alexey Lipanov and Jimmy Huntington back to Orlando. Both forwards showed well in their limited appearances with the Crunch, but will benefit more from playing with the Solar Bears than they will riding the bench in Syracuse.

While it might be strange that they kept Tyler Bird, who is on a PTO, over Lipanov or Huntington, that just speaks to the way the Crunch/Lightning want to develop their prospects. They have no qualms over playing Bird, most likely a non-prospect for the organization, limited minutes in the AHL as they aren’t as concerned about his development.

The organization did make one more transaction on Sunday when Mike Condon was returned from on loan to the Charlotte Checkers. With three goaltenders on the roster prior to the AHL trade deadline there was some speculation on social media that a deal may be in the works. It turned out that no deals were to be made, rather as reported by Lindsay Kramer, Condon had reinjured his hip and was being brought back for further evaluation.

The Games

Friday Feb. 28th vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: 4-3 Win (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Saturday Feb 29th vs. Rochester: 4-2 Win (Box Score) (Recap) (Highlights)

Players of the Week

Alex Barre-Boulet - 2 games, 3 goals, 0 assists, 9 shots: Since we didn’t run a Player of the Week last week, this is kind of a two-week award for Barre-Boulet who was absolutely electric over the final part of the month. In the last two weeks he has six goals and four assists in five games and has vaulted up the AHL scoring leaderboard. He currently sits fifth with 55 points (26 goals, 29 assists). His .96 points per game is slightly higher than the .92 he put up during his fantastic rookie season.

The Crunch needed their best players to step up to get back into the race and Barre-Boulet has answered the call.

Ross Colton - 2 games, 1 goal, 3 assists, 6 shots: Riding shotgun with Barre-Boulet is Ross Colton, the team leader in assists. The second-year center has dramatically improved his stock in the organization with his production this season.

He snuck into our Top 25 Under 25 rankings this year and should rocket up those rankings this offseason following a strong prospects camp and solid season. The former fourth round pick could be the next in line of mid-round draft picks that turn into a viable depth piece for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Coach Groulx’s trust in him is readily apparent as Colton has sported an “A” on his sweater over the last few games.

Thoughts

February was a pretty good month

If you had told me that in the month of February that Mitchell Stephens and Cory Conacher would play a combined two games I’d have said that the Crunch would be in a spot of trouble when the calendar rolled over to March. Instead they picked up points in twelve of fourteen games. Reeling off a record of 8-2-1-2 they went from last place in the division into the fourth and final playoff spot.

Quick detour - the Crunch went 0-3 in games that went past regulation. That has run their post-regulation loss streak to seven games (0-2-5). They haven’t won a shootout all season and are 1 for 18 in the skills competition (Alex Barre-Boulet has the lone goal). Good thing there are no shootouts in the playoffs. They do have a couple of overtime wins, but none since November.

Now back to a successful February for the Crunch. So, without two of their top players in the line-up, how did the Crunch manage to creep up the standings? Mainly by finally answering Coach Ben Groulx’s plea for their best players to be their best players. If we look at the players that have filled the top two lines for most of the month we’ll see that one player has stood out (Barre-Boulet), but all six have contributed.

Alex Barre-Boulet - 15 points (8 goals, 7 assists)

Ross Colton - 13 points (2 goals, 11 assists)

Boris Katchouk - 11 points (3 goals, 8 assists)

Mathieu Joseph - 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists)

Taylor Raddysh - 8 points (6 goals, 2 assists)

Alex Volkov - 8 points (4 goals, 4 assists)

Gemel Smith 6 points (4 goals, 2 assists) not bad for only nine games

That’s pretty even scoring from their top players. If they can keep that going and Conacher does come back, the Crunch once again become one of the more lethal offensives in the league. Conacher’s return may also help one of the few parts of the game that’s struggled a bit during this stretch - the power play.

On the season the Crunch are still a top 10 power play in the league at 20.2% (good for seventh overall). Unfortunately over the month of February they were a rather pedestrian 15.1% (8 for 53). That most likely speaks to some of the personnel they were without for most of the month - primarily Conacher and Cameron Gaunce.

Conacher is the triggerman on the top unit. All of their opponents know that if he’s on the ice, Syracuse is going to work on getting the puck to him in the right circle so he can unleash his one-timer. There is no one else on the team that can replicate that shot and with him out, they’ve missed that.

With Gaunce in Tampa for awhile, Cal Foote was promoted to the first unit and did alright at the point. He does have a similar skillset as Gaunce on the power play, his shot may not be as heavy, but he can move the puck fairly well. It’s the second unit that kind of suffered during that stretch of play, to the point where Coach Groulx was rolling five forwards at times.

Now that Gaunce is back, Foote can move back onto the second unit and it balances things out a bit. Things have been back to normal a bit lately as the Crunch have scored a power play goal in each of their last three games. It looks like Volkov has settled into the Conacher spot. He just has to make sure he shoots the puck when he’s in position - kind of like he did against Rochester:

That was such a pretty goal.

Their offense overall is about the same as it has been all year as they averaged 3.15 goals per game compared to their season average of 3.31. Where they have improved drastically is their goals against. In February they’ve given up an average of 2.92 goals per game. On the season they are at 3.44.

Even with a beat-up defense they’ve managed to slow their opponents down over the last thirteen games. A big part is the return of Scott Wedgewood. His numbers haven’t been mind-blowing over the last month (3.08 GA, .903 SV%) but he’s making the saves when he needs to.

For instance, on Saturday he gave up a rather pedestrian goal in the first period:

However, from there on he made several key saves during the rest of the period and into the second which allowed the Crunch to get back into the game. Wedgewood ended up making 43 out of 45 saves in that game, bailing out a Syracuse team that was badly outplayed for most of the night.

He was up and down over the month, mixing in games like Saturday with games like his last start against Bellville where he gave up five goals on twenty-six shots. There have been more bad than good lately and that’s an encouraging sign for the Crunch.

Hopefully the positive play from February carries over to March and the Crunch can solidify their spot in the standings

Upcoming Schedule

What an interesting week for the Crunch as they only have two games, but they are both against the Toronto Marlies who may be anywhere from six to two points behind the Crunch when they meet on the ice on Friday. Toronto is played on Monday and have another game on Wednesday as they pick up a couple of the games that they have in hand against Syracuse.

Meanwhile Syracuse has a few days off before continuing their North-heavy month of March. Of the twelve games they play this month, eleven of them are against teams in their own division. With the exception of the two games against Belleville all of their North opponents are within six points of the Crunch as the month begins. With each match-up basically worth four points, Syracuse has a great chance to move up in the standings. On the flipside, they can also find themselves caneering out of the playoff race if they struggle.

It should be a fun final quarter of the season.

Friday March 6th at Toronto Marlies 7:00 p.m.

Saturday March 7th at Toronto Marlies 7:00 p.m.