The Syracuse Crunch lost another two games this week against the Utica Comets and Rochester Americans. While the losses are piling up for this team, the Crunch understand that development, especially at defense, is a slow process that looks even slower in a 32-game season. Unfortunately, now the offense has started to dry up after injuries and call-ups removed some key players up front.
In Game 1, the Crunch iced 10 forwards and Dmitry Semykin up front. In the second period of that game, top centre Aleksi Heponiemi suffered a leg injury and defenseman Sean Day was moved up to winger. In Game 2, there were five forwards with less than two games of AHL experience sprinkled throughout the roster.
Jimmy Huntington and Dmitry Semykin both scored his first AHL goals on Wednesday, and Huntington was one of the best Crunch forwards across the two games. Taylor Raddysh was also a player that stood out in pushing offense, but unfortunately the team just didn’t have enough beyond that.
Losing Alex Barre-Boulet, Ross Colton, and Aleksi Heponiemi made it difficult to find players who could possess the puck reliably and move it into the offensive zone. Playing without the puck that much means the defense always had to be on their toes (or heels) — and that’s exactly how the Crunch played. They just don’t have the horses on this roster right now to have possession consistently.
While this all may look like a defense issue (and it is to some degree), the increased time in the defensive zone is a product of less possession in the offensive zone. The best defense is a good offense applies here. Against Utica, the Crunch only had a few offensive opportunities and missed when they came. I wonder if this is just bad luck and things will turn around soon, or it really is something that needs to be solved with personnel coming back.
It should also be noted that in both games, the Crunch gave their opponents multi-goal leads. Those are always hard to come back from, especially against more experienced teams and with a reduced offense on your end. Coach Groulx has preached starting on time — ie. managing space in the defensive zone and not turning the puck over. While some of these goals against have been really unlucky, giving up fewer chances and being more consistent in the defensive zone are important steps to take here.
Game Four: (5-2 L @ Utica Comets)
Syracuse Crunch Lines
With the absences of ABB and Colton, the Crunch ran eleven forwards and seven defensemen in this game. Fortier and Heponiemi were the first “pair” with forwards from the bottom six rotating in throughout the game. With the seven defensemen, Panthers prospect Brady Keeper joined the lineup next to Thomas, with Priskie moving to a more sheltered third pair next to John Ludvig and Day who were rotating. Samuel Montembeault got his fourth start of the season. As mentioned in the preview article, Raddysh was awarded an A on his jersey with both regular assistant captains unavailable.
Cole Schwindt (19), a Panthers prospect, made his AHL debut on the fourth line next to Lightning prospects Declan McDonnell (18), the very last pick in the 2020 draft, and defenseman Dmitry Semykin (20) playing wing for the short roster.
Gabriel Fortier - Aleksi Heponiemi
Boris Katchouk - Otto Somppi - Taylor Raddysh (A)
Jimmy Huntington - Ryan Lohin - Peter Abbandonato
Dmitry Semykin - Cole Schwindt - Declan McDonnell
Riley Stillman - Luke Witkowski (C)
Brady Keeper - Ben Thomas
Sean Day - Chase Priskie
Raddysh - Fortier - McDonnell - Katchouk - Keeper
Schwindt - Somppi - Huntington - Lohin - Priskie
Somppi - Raddysh - Ludvig - Witkowski
Katchouk - Schwindt - Keeper - Priskie
Stillman, Fortier, Abbandonato, and Huntington also mixed in.
After a delay to the game due to some broken glass, the game started with odd-man rushes for both teams within the first minute. The Crunch then took a penalty and had to fight their way out of it.
I’m sorry for ragging on him every article it seems, but Sean Day, man, you gave that guy the front of the net and a tap-in. Even before the goal, he missed Raddysh badly with an outlet pass, had it come right back in while his line was tired (and Heponiemi injured), and it led directly to the goal. I can’t say his partner Keeper did a much better job cutting off the pass when the guy in front was wide open, but the problem was the guy wide open in the first place.
Jonah Gadjovich. Right place. Right time. pic.twitter.com/Om7LLhRETV— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) February 18, 2021
Day was moved to the wing to start the second period in the middle six. Heponiemi wasn’t back for the second after what looked like a leg injury. Abbandonato, Huntington, and Lohin all cycled in with the remaining top-six forwards with Day taking shifts on the third line.
Stillman and Witkowski, even with Somppi (later Schwindt), Raddysh, and Katchouk out on the ice, couldn’t get the puck out of their zone and were hemmed in. A point shot with traffic in front got through Montembeault and doubled the Comets lead.
Sneaky, Sneaky Steve Santini... pic.twitter.com/6y6XN3wflh— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) February 18, 2021
The Crunch had a power play before this, but some careless passes by Keeper caused turnovers and time spent in the defensive zone. Eventually luck ran out and Somppi took a penalty. The Comets scored on their man-advantage with a great pass through the seam down low. Witkowski was in front of Nathan Walker and couldn’t tie up the stick in time. In those situations you need to get the puck, stick or body, and Witko missed on the puck.
This goal came off a faceoff in the offensive zone with Somppi between Day and Semykin (defensemen) and Ludvig and Thomas behind them. Off the faceoff, Hugh McGing made a great pass with Ludvig falling on top of him. Day didn’t have the feet to catch Dakota Joshua, who scored a brilliant goal.
Jimmy Huntington forced a steal on Jett Woo and whipped the puck into the back of the net for his first AHL goal after 36 games between this season and last season. McDonnell achieved the zone entry but wasn’t credited with an assist.
Huntington was at it again, this time setting up Dmitry Semykin for his first career AHL goal off a wicked shot that ricocheted off a body in front of the net and in. This goal gave the Crunch some life but it was ultimately the last goal they were scoring that night.
FIRST PRO GOAL!!— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 18, 2021
Congrats, Dmitry! pic.twitter.com/2SddRyn6AN
Jonah Gadjovich finished the game with an empty net goal with less than a minute left in the game.
Game Five: (2-3 L vs. Rochester Americans)
Syracuse Crunch Lines
With Heponiemi injured on Wednesday with a leg injury, the Crunch iced a much younger lineup than what they did on Wednesday. Huntington had a great night and I thought he deserved a higher lineup spot, but I can see that the team spread out the veterans with the youngsters, and in doing that put Panthers prospect Serron Noel in good hands for his AHL debut. Declan McDonnell looked great right out of the box and deserved to be one of those trustworthy guys.
Sean Day was scratched for the first time this season. I can’t say I’m surprised after three frustrating games.
Gabriel Fortier - Cole Schwindt - Taylor Raddysh (A)
Boris Katchouk (A) - Otto Somppi - Grigori Denisenko
Peter Abbandonato - Jack Finley - Declan McDonnell
Jimmy Huntington - Ryan Lohin - Serron Noel
Riley Stillman - Luke Witkowski (C)
Chase Priskie - Brady Keeper
John Ludvig - Ben Thomas
Katchouk - Abbandonato - Denisenko - Raddysh - Priskie
Huntington - Somppi - Finley - Schwindt - Keeper
Fortier - Raddysh - Stillman - Witkowski
Katchouk - Schwindt - Ludvig - Thomas
Abbandonato, and Huntington also mixed in.
Halfway through the first, defenseman Ryan Jones snuck in behind the Crunch as all five were watching Brett Murray and a teammate in the corner. Jones had two tries at the puck and got it in on the second try.
With two tired lines on the ice, CJ Smith made a great play to lift the stick of Stillman and shoot a perfect no-look pass to Brett Murray on the back door. I would nitpick and say Witkowski was slow, but it would’ve been so hard to anticipate that pass getting anywhere close to the net, let alone it coming at all.
Keeper, who was serving a suspension from last season for the last three games, scored his first goal of the year after jumping up into the play and roofing the puck over Dustin Tokarski. Keeper is a highly touted offensive defensive prospect for the Panthers. He had a rough power play in the last game but is expected to be more consistent this season. He looked much more comfortable in this game.
Keeper goes to work. pic.twitter.com/RZebSFPpKH— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 21, 2021
Denisenko scored his second goal of the season on the power play after connecting on a wicked shot off the rush. He was initially back to stop a chance going the other way, as the group moved up, he found himself in a pocket of space and just ripped it to the top corner, tying the game.
Denisenko out here like pic.twitter.com/YgTEbkiNtb— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 21, 2021
In this helpful highlight pack from the Crunch, you can see Serron Noel in his first AHL fight on his AHL debut. He smashed a Rochester player against the boards and took a charging penalty. Casey Fitzgerald stood up for his teammate and fought him, leading to a lot of penalty minutes.
After some sustained pressure in the offensive zone, the Amerks got two chances on Martin, the second of which laying in the slot for Ryan Scarfo. He pushed off from Fortier, getting into the pocket of space in front of the net and burying the goal.
The Crunch put the pressure on at the end of the game, but they couldn’t get near the front of the net or the slot with their shots. Everything was from the outside and cleared away.
This Week in Thoughts
To me, this season has felt like Raddysh trying to rebuild his game to be less dependent on the situation around him and more become a driving force on his line. He’s begun to do that this season with his increased level of engagement and effort. In this process, I’ve noticed that he hasn’t quite unlocked how to get that final 10% of offense that leads to goals. He can create scoring chances with his lines, but there’s that last little bit of decision-making and instinct that he’s working towards that still needs some time. He had it in junior, but never learned how to do it at pro. Now at 23, he’s learning it. Color me surprised, and optimistic, this season!
I’ll try and have an injury update on him for Wednesday, but the way he left the ice and the fact that we didn’t see him on Saturday doesn’t make me optimistic for his return soon.
Are you sure this kid is going to be a teenager for another whole year? Even in his first game it was clear that this player works hard, knows where to be, and has a collection of speed, talent, and skill to make it in this league and beyond. Are we sure he was the last overall pick in the 2020 Draft? Wow. I am impressed with McDonnell.
He looks practiced like he spent the last month absorbing everything he could from Groulx, the staff, and his teammates and put it into practice immediately. That shows me an eagerness to learn, a quick learner, and a quick thinker. All of those will serve him well in the AHL and beyond. Wow.