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Crunch Wrap: Amir Miftakhov posts first AHL shutout of his career

The young netminder may have moved himself to the top of the goaltending depth chart in Syracuse

Scott Thomas Photography

Much like Dante Hicks, Amir Miftakhov isn’t even supposed to be here today. If things had gone according to plan, Miftakhov would be enjoying some nice Fall weather in Orlando, getting his feet wet at the professional level in North America. Instead, he’s posted a 3-0 record in 3 starts for the Syracuse Crunch and has likely moved his way up the number one spot in net. Not bad for a 21-year-old.

With his shutout on Saturday, Miftakhov has likely moved past Hugo Alnefelt on Crunch’s depth chart heading into this week. Alnefelt might also be nursing an injury as well after getting knocked around a bit on Friday against Utica. If the Crunch sign someone over the next few days, we’ll know how bad Alnefelt is hurt. Hopefully, it’s not too bad.

Miftakhov has stopped 82 of the 86 shots he’s faced in his three starts and hasn’t allowed more than two goals in any of those starts. The last goal he allowed came in the second period of the game against Lehigh Valley last Saturday (Morgan Frost). While he’s been steady in net, there haven’t been that many 10-bell saves on his part. Miftakhov has been successful by being technically sound and not allowing a lot of second chances. That is sustainable success.

We’ll see how he handles an increased workload moving forward.

Transactions:

It was a busy week for the travel coordinators for the Crunch and the Lightning.

Additions:

Gabriel Dumont (F) - After a couple of practices in Tampa, Dumont was back in time for the weekend games.

Evan Wardley (D) - The big defenseman was added on a PTO for the weekend games with Fredrik Claesson back in Tampa.

Andrej Sustr (D) - Due to Cal Foote returning to play and Zach Bogosian scheduled to return to action soon, the Lightning had a glut of right-side defensemen. Hence, Sustr’s return to Syracuse for the near future.

Dan Jones (G) - With Hugo Alnefelt having a rough go of it in Friday’s game, the Crunch signed local coach Daniel Jones to an ATO for Saturday’s game to serve ast the eBUG. He was released on Sunday.

Subtractions:

Fredrik Claesson (D) - His return to Syracuse was brief as the Lightning recalled him in the wake of Mikhail Sergachev’s two-game suspension.

Tyler Bird (F) - With the return of Daniel Walcott to the line-up the Crunch have quite a few forwards they are trying to work in. They reduced the numbers by one on Sunday by releasing Bird from his PTO. He showed well in his second stint with Syracuse, posting an assist in the four games he played.

Jaydon Dureau (F) - Another player released from a try-out contract, Dureau was returned to his junior team, the Portland Winterhawks, after picking up one goal in three games with the Crunch.

Game Eight

Comets 6, Crunch 3

Gage Goncalves - Gabriel Dumont - Cole Koepke

Gabriel Dumont - Jimmy Huntington - Antoine Morand

Shawn Element - Simon Ryfors - Max Cajkovic

Sean Day - Alex Green

Ryan Jones - Jesse Lees

Dmitry Semykin - Evan Wardly

Hugo Alnefelt

It isn’t often that a team lets in six goals and your first thought is, well, they actually played pretty well. That was the case on Friday when the Crunch’s defense went haywire for a four minute stretch in the second period and it cost them the game.

The two teams came in with the top penalty kills in the league. Utica had yet to concede a power play goal (granted it was only through four games) while Syracuse’s lone goal against game on a five-on-three way back on opening night. By the end of the night, the shine was a bit off for both of the special teams units. Syracuse scored twice on seven opportunities while the Comets were successful on two of their three.

The man of the match was undoubtedly Utica’s Tyce Thompson as the second year played netted a hat trick, including goals a minute apart in the second period that put the game realistically out of reach for the Crunch. Still, the Crunch kept laying on the offense and had closed it to 5-3 early in the third on a Gabriel Dumont power play goal before Chase De Leo took advantage of a sloppy breakout pass between Alex Green and Gabriel Fortier to rifle a shot past Hugo Alnefelt.

The misplay by Green and Fortier wasn’t a lone instance of bad play by the Crunch, especially in the four-goal against second period. A bad Cole Koepke clearance led to a three-on-one down low that Jesper Boqvist converted for the Comets’ second goal. Less than a minute later Dmitry Semykin tried an ill-advised between-the-legs pass in the offensive zone that led to an oddman rush goal the other way. Two mistakes and in two minutes it was 3-1 in favor of Utica. That’s just tough to overcome (especially when Thompson blows a shot past Alnefelt a minute later to make it 4-1).

Turnovers and the inability to maintain their composure in the second overshadowed a really good first period where the Crunch pumped 17 shots on the Utica net, but saw 16 of them turned aside by Nico Daws who ended up with 40 saves on the night. The lone shot that got by him was an absolute stunner off the rush. He busted down the right side and picked the corner on the far side of Daws for his fourth goal of the season.

While the power play did connect twice, it did take them awhile to get going. It took a five-on-three to finally connect when Charles Hudon rocketed a one-timer from the right circle that Daws never really had a chance to stop. Dumont added another early on in the third to make the final numbers somewhat respectable.

Alnefelt was fine in net (despite getting run by A.J. Greer twice) but there were a few goals he’d like back. Like Coach Groulx said post game, allowing five goals on twelve shots during the opening stretch wasn’t good enough.

It just wasn’t a good enough effort for a team that can’t outscore their problems (like their NHL affiliate can).

Highlights

Gage Goncalves, on the rush, snaps a beauty into the back of the net.

Charles Hudon on the power play from the Cory Conacher spot.

Gabriel Dumont on the power play. He flashed in front of the net and tipped it past Daws.

Game Nine

Crunch 4, Rocket 0

Gage Goncalves - Gabriel Dumont - Daniel Walcott

Gabriel Fortier - Jimmy Huntington - Antoine Morand

Charles Hudon - Remi Elie - Max Cajkovic

Tristin Langan - Simon Ryfors - Cole Koepke

Sean Day - Alex Green

Ryan Jones - Evan Wardley

Dmitry Semykin - Jesse Lees

Amir Miftakhov

What really tweaked Coach Groulx about the loss on Friday night was the lack of compete from the Crunch. He sees them as a team that has to grind out their two-to-three goals per night and if they’re not willing to put in the effort, they aren’t going to win a lot of games. While they struggled a bit more to get shots on net against Laval than they did against Utica, they definitely played a much better game in regards to their compete level.

It also helped that they got a solid effort from their goaltender Amir Miftakhov. Again, Hugo Alnefelt didn’t play bad against the Comets, but he also didn’t bail the Crunch out when they struggled. Miftakhov was a difference maker on Saturday. In the second period, after the Crunch had jumped up to their three-goal lead, Laval made a serious push, pinning the Crunch in their own zone for a lengthy spell. Miftakhov didn’t make any sensational saves, but he stopped the shots that got through while the defense in front of him cleared away any second opportunities.

In fact, there was probably a fifteen minute stretch from midway through the second and into the third period where the Rocket were the better team. During that timeframe the Crunch survived by pushing Laval’s chances to the perimeter and keeping the area in front of the goaltender clear. It wasn’t pretty hockey, but it was effective.

As for the offense, it was that “compete” level Coach Groulx has been harping on that made the difference. After a power play goal in the first from Tristin Langan, who jammed home a rebound from a Gage Goncalves shot, the Crunch scored twice within 20 seconds in the second period. Both of the goals came off agressive play that forced turnovers. First up it was Daniel Walcott creating puck separation along the boards with a big hit. Charles Hudon collected the loose puck and then sent Walcott in alone on a breakaway. Wally went forehand-backhand-forehand and tucked the puck inside the post past Cayden Primeau.

On the next shift, Cole Koepke forced a turnover in the neutral zone. Sean Day collecte the puck in his own zone and passed it up to Langan, who took a hit into the boards to make a pass to Koepke. The rookie fired a shot past Primeau to put the Crunch up 3-0.

Those are the types of plays that warm the cold, cold heart of Benoit Groulx. Force the other team into making mistakes and then take advantage. That’s pretty much his ideal game plan. While the Crunch may not be blessed with a ton of high-end talent, they do have the skills to finish off plays when they create the advantage. They just might have to work a little harder than other teams to create that advantage.

The early power play goal also helped create a little momentum, something that was missing from the loss to Utica. After starting the game a little flat, the Langan goal really seemed to turn the flow of the game. The Crunch tightened up their defense as well in the first as they didn’t allow a shot on goal for almost 15 minutes of game play (4:43-19:35) and ended up outshooting the Rocket 9-4 in the first period.

It was a solid bounceback game for the Crunch after a disappointing effort on Friday. If they maintain that style of play for the rest of the season, they should be one of the tougher teams to beat in the AHL North.

Thoughts

The Tryouts

As both the Lightning and Crunch get a little healthier, Syracuse is able to release some of the players they’ve had on PTO/ATOs. Jayden Dureau and Tyler Bird have already been released and it’s likely Evan Wardley or Jesse Lees will be next now that Andrej Sustr is back in town.

Having six players on tryout contracts this early in the season is a bit much, but for the most part they’ve held their own. Langan in particular is making it hard for the coaching staff to keep him out of the line-up as he’s put up three points (one goal, two assists) in the six games he’s appeared in. He’s also filled a role on one of the power play units and played around thirteen minutes a game.

Lees has proved to be an important fill in, especially with Darren Raddysh having missed the last few games. In the four games prior to this weekend, he was averaging 13:05 of ice time according to InStat, that number will probably go up a little once the last two games are factored in. He hasn’t been spectacular, but has been reliable on the third pairing. One of the more impressive stats is that he hasn’t taken a penalty in any of the six games he’s played. That shows that he isn’t overwhelmed by the pace of the game despite being a rookie. He’s making a case to possibly turn his PTO into an actual AHL schedule.

The Stats

Is there anyone sitting atop the stats page that is a bit of a surprise? Not at the very top. Gabriel Dumont and Charles Hudon are leading the way with eight points each and that was pretty much expected. They are two of the more experienced players on the team and Coach Groulx needs to lean on them to produce.

Sean Day has been thrust into more ice time than has been expected and has responded. He’s tied with Hudon and Dumont with eight points (one goal, seven assists) with three of those helpers coming on the power play.

After that, a couple of rookies have shown that they can provide the depth scoring that was a huge question mark entering the season. Cole Koepke has seven points in seven games (two goals, five assists) with three of those apples coming with the extra skater. Gage Goncalves is showing his scoring touch with four goals in nine games (the only rookie to appear in every game so far).

Jimmy Huntington is an interesting case. An early season hat trick has boosted his goal total to a team-leading six so it’s left to be seen if it is a fluke or if he can sustain it. He’s unlikely to maintain a 30% shooting percentage, but on the other hand he has recorded points in five of the nine games and is averaging 17:23 of ice time and the bulk of his shots come from between the circles. The soon-to-be 23-year-old may just be finding his stride at the pro level.

Amir Miftakhov has probably played his way into the number spot after three games. He’s posted a 3-0 record with one shutout, a 1.29 GAA (7th in the league), and a .953 SV%.

Upcoming Schedule

It’s midweek back-to-back games as the Crunch finish up their four-game home stand on Wednesday against Bridgeport before heading over to Utica for a rare Thursday matinee against the Comets. They finish up their week by hosting the Bears on Saturday.

Wednesday November 10th vs Bridgeport Islanders, 7:00 pm EST

Thursday November 11th at Utica Comets, 3:00 pm EST

Saturday November 13th vs Hershey Bears, 7:00 pm EST