The Syracuse Crunch closed out a rough November slate of games with one win last week, a 4-1 victory over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. For the month the Crunch finished 2-6-1-1 as the offense deserted them. In the ten games in November they scored just 23 times with 7 of those goals coming in the first two games of the month. They will enter December with an overall record of 6-8-2-1 tied with the Laval Rocket (one of the teams they beat) in last place in the North Division.
Prior to the game against Lehigh Valley, coach Ben Groulx was asked about the struggles on offense and he answered that there wasn’t just one problem facing the team, rather a combination of a lot of little things are preventing them from converting the chances they are creating. Yes, there is a little bit of puck luck going against them, and the constant roster churn is preventing them from putting together any real chemistry outside of the top line, but they are also failing to execute on the power play.
Still, with 59 games remaining on the schedule it’s still a little early to panic. Crunch teams under Coach Groulx have usually started slow before clicking together in December and January and putting together winning streaks. There are a lot of new faces, he estimated 18 newish players on the roster, and it has taken some time for the coaching staff to understand what roles the players will fall into. It seems that he is starting to get an understanding as to how he will deploy the roster moving forward (barring any more injuries or call-ups).
One of the moves that should add a little structure to the line-up was naming his leadership team prior to Friday’s game. Gabriel Dumont, who has 16 points (9 goals, 7 assists) on the season, was officially named the captain of the Crunch for the second time. He wore the “C” during his previous stint in Syracuse from 2016-2019. Fredrik Claesson and Daniel Walcott were named alternate captains.
With such a young roster, Coach Groulx will lean heavily on Dumont and the veterans to help lead the team on the ice. It’s a role that the 31-year-old center has flourished in in the past and should be well-suited to this season.
Coming and Going
Fredrik Claesson (D) - The veteran defenseman returned from his stint with the Tampa Bay Lightning and will be a key piece on the blueline as the season rolls on.
Odeen Tufto (F) - The 22-year-old made his debut on Saturday after missing the start of the season with a knee injury. Tufto did get into four games last season, but this will be his first extended look at the professional level.
Aaron Luchuk (F) - The Crunch signed the Orlando Solar Bear to a PTO on Monday. Last season’s scoring leader in the ECHL has had a strong start to this year’s campaign with 22 points (9 goals, 13 assists) in 16 games for the Solar Bears.
Gabriel Fortier (F) - With the injury to Mathieu Joseph, the Tampa Bay Lightning recalled Fortier on Monday. The 22-year-old has earned it, having put up 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) in 17 games with the Crunch. Fortier can also fill in on the penalty kill for the Lightning as well.
Sean Day (D) - With Erik Cernak still questionable, Day was recalled prior to the weekend. If Cernak is good to go, Day could hopefully be back with the Crunch on Wednesday.
Alex Dubeau (G), Tristan Langan (F), Evan Wardley (D) - The trio of players were released from their PTO’s over the past couple of weeks as the Crunch have regained some healthy players.
Game 15 Wednesday November 24th
In an effort to mix things up the Crunch rolled out an 11/7 line-up as the newly re-assigned Fredrik Claesson joined the defense. Coach Groulx was looking to get a little more ice time for his top forwards and a little more support for his defense. With the exception of the first period, it seemed to have worked pretty well.
Unfortunately, the offense stayed in its rut as they could only muster two goals against Belleville. Offensively the game was a microcosm of the season so far - plenty of chances, but few goals. Pucks were deflected wide, extra passes were left wanting, and when the pucks did get on net Mads Sogaard made the saves.
At the other end, the Crunch were fairly tight in the defensive zone despite allowing the first three goals of the game. It didn’t help that Amir Miftakhov only lasted seven minutes into the game. The season-long injury bug struck again as Miftakhov was trucked by Egor Sokolov (there was no call). Max Lagace entered in the net in his place as the young Russian was able to skate off under his own power.
It was a rough start for Lagace as there was a scramble in front of his net and Chris Wilkie was able to poke home the puck before the goaltender could cover it up. A few minutes later, Ryan Jones made a nice play by laying out on the ice to deny Phillipe Daoust a shot at goal. The puck actually hopped over the Senator’s stick but it went right to Cedric Pare who put it home.
The Crunch didn’t really sustain much pressure offensively, and the occasional odd-skater rushes they generated were quickly broken up. The second period started better for Syracuse, but a turnover in front of the net cost them. Lagace made a couple of back-to-back saves and it looked like the danger was past, but Gabriel Fortier was a little too casual with the puck and Jake Lucchini literally poked it off his stick into the net.
From that point it was almost all Syracuse for the rest of the game. The net was finally dented when Charles Hudon made a nice move at the Belleville blueline to gain entry. He centered to Fortier who dropped a pass to Gabriel Dumont and the veteran whistled a shot past Sogaard. On the power play no less!
Despite a bevy of chances through the rest of the second period and into the third, they wouldn’t cut the lead to one goal until midway through the final frame. Jimmy Huntington intercepted a loose puck in between the circles of the Belleville zone. His backhand hit Sogaard low on the pads and the puck went right to Fortier who banged it home.
The Crunch had a few more chances throughout the final period, including several flurries with under a minute to go, but they ran out of racetrack as Sogaard denied their looks at the net.
Game 16, Friday November 26th
Oh my goodness, it was an offensive explosion! The Crunch put up four goals and played one of their best games of the year as they snapped their losing streak with a solid victory against the Phantoms. Gabriel Dumont celebrated the new “C” on his chest with three points (one goal, two assists) while Otto Somppi scored his first goal of the year. Remi Elie and Daniel Walcott added goals and Max Legace stopped 23 of 24 to pick up his first win as a member of the Crunch.
The story of the game through, was the play of the Crunch’s top line of Dumont, Walcott, and Gabriel Fortier. They dominated play all night long despite recording just three shots on net (and scoring on two of those). If we’re going to dole out line nicknames, this has to be The Example Line, as in the prime example of how Benoit Groulx would like his team to play. They were hard on the forecheck all night, it was Walcott who caused a turnover that led to Dumont’s goal in the third period that extended the Crunch’s lead to two.
The rest of the team really did follow their lead as they made life tough for the Phantoms all night long. Despite the solid play, though, it looked like the Crunch would be in for another struggle as they did surrender the first goal. It was a bit unlucky as Lehigh Valley was able to enter the zone easily after Antoine Morand blew a tire and fell down while trying to retrieve the puck. A misplay with the puck between Ryan Jones and Alex Green allowed Max Willman to come free and fire the puck past Legace.
From then on it was mostly the Crunch driving play. They locked things down defensively, not allowing a shot on net from the 11:45 mark of the first period until the 4:54 point of the second. On Lehigh Valley’s two power play opportunities, Syracuse killed them off without allowing a shot on goal.
Early on it the season-long quest to turn chances into goals continued. Even when they did finally score, it took a moment for everyone to realize it. Dumont made a nice play behind the Phantoms’ net to send the puck to Elie in the left circle. A quick shot by the winger barely snuck between goaltender Felix Sandstrom on the near post.
With the game tied in the third period, the Crunch kept grinding away and it eventually paid off with two goals in less than a minute. First it was Otto Somppi deflecting a weak shot from the point by Andrej Sustr then Dumont added to the total with his nice redirect of a Fortier pass.
Walcott sealed the game with an empty-net goal, followed by a pretty bad slash by Max Willman. As Walcott was staring him down, the popular Crunch forward was absolutely crushed by a blindside hit into the boards by Adam Clendening which touched off a brawl. Willman was sent off and Syracuse ended the game on the power play.
Game 17, Saturday November 27th
The Crunch’s final game of the week was all about the power play. Rochester was able to convert three times against the best penalty kill in the league, and while Syracuse scored two of their own, not converting on a late-four minute power play kept them from tying up the game. Despite being shorthanded on defense, the Crunch put up a valiant effort, but too many penalties and an inability to finish off their chances at even strength doomed them to another defeat.
The good news was that Amir Miftakhov was back in net and had a solid game, stopping 25 of 29 shots and not allowing a goal at even strength. He looked to have shook off any after effects of the hit he took on Wednesday and Syracuse should have a strong goaltending combination as the season ramps up.
The defense in front of him was a bit sparse as they only suited up five defenders after Dmitry Semykin was a late scratch. With Darren Raddysh also on the sidelines and Sean Day in Tampa, Andrej Sustr and Alex Green had busy nights as they were mixing and matching on both sides of the ice all game long. Jesse Lees, Ryan Jones, and Fredrik Claesson rounded out the unit.
Up front, forward Odeen Tufto made his season debut as it appears he has recovered from the knee injury that delayed the start to his year. The young center started on a line with fellow rookies Shawn Element and Max Cajkovic.
Rochester’s power play, which had scored four goals the previous night, was really the difference in the game. Not only did they convert three times (including one by Michael Mersch who tapped in a centering pass after he knocked Miftakhov to the ice) they also spent long stretches in the Crunch zone, wearing out the players even on the two occasions where they didn’t record a goal.
Despite the struggles shorthanded, the Crunch did fight back with two power play goals of their own. The first coming from captain Gabriel Dumont. He was positioned in front of netminder Michael Houser and when Cole Koepke’s hard shot from the left circle hit the goaltender and dropped behind him just short of the goalline, Dumont was first to spot it and knocked it in for his ninth goal of the season.
Simon Ryfors continued his strong play of late and rifled in a power play goal of his own early in the third period to cut the lead to 3-2. Again, it was a shot from the left circle that beat Houser cleanly over the glove hand. Ryfors struggled a bit to start the season, but has been much more comfortable on the ice as of late and the tally snapped a 13-game goalless drought he had been in.
Syracuse had a few chances in the third to tie things up, but Hauser was sharp. So was the Amerks penalty kill after Sean Malone took a double high-sticking penalty late in the period. The Crunch had a lot of zone time early in the man-advantage with Koepke getting the best opportunity on a one-timer that Hauser denied. After that they struggled to set up in the zone and Rochester killed it off pretty easily. With Miftakhov on the bench, Dumont had one last look at the net denied before Mark Jankowski slid home the empty-netter to seal the game.
Wednesday December 1st at Rochester Americans, 7:05 PM
Friday December 3rd vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, 7:00 PM
Saturday December 4th vs. Rochester Americans, 7:00 PM