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Syracuse Crunch Wrap: A win, but stop giving up so many shots!

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The Crunch are playing well, just not often with all the postponements in the North.

Syracuse Crunch Captain Luke Witkowski (28) skating with the puck against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in American Hockey League (AHL) action at the Upstate Medical University Arena in Syracuse, New York on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Syracuse won 3-0.
Credit: Scott Thomas

The Syracuse Crunch have officially turned a corner this season, stringing together wins with a revamped offense and more controlled defense. Unfortunately, the season has pulled the handbrake as the North Division faces a paralyzing outbreak that has forced a rash of recent games to be postponed.

The Crunch have been both prepared and lucky in that they have not be a part of the outbreak and can play games with the teams who are in the same position as them. On one hand, the only team the Crunch have been able to play is the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. But on the other, the Crunch have now beaten them three times in a row. It definitely doesn’t hurt that the Crunch seem to have the Penguins number during this abnormality in the season.

This week, the Crunch had both of their regularly scheduled games postponed. Friday’s game in Rochester was delayed as the Americans have been hit hardest by COVID. Saturday’s game against Utica was also shut down and moved to April. In order to not make the weekend a total wash, the Penguins called the Crunch to come over and they played a game in front of fans on Friday. The Crunch won game #11 of what is now 33 by a score of 5-2. I talked about this and more in last week’s Crunch Weekly Preview.

That 5-2 win was the Crunch’s fourth win in their last five games. Gabriel Fortier, Sean Day, Boris Katchouk, and Brady Keeper all scored. Otto Somppi showed off his excellent playmaking with two assists, and Alex Barre-Boulet got an assist in his first game back. Christopher Gibson was busy, stopping 39 of 41 in his first win in his first game in over a year.

Score effects* played a part in the high number of shots against in this game, but the Crunch haven’t been a team that has carried a lead for long stretches this season. This has been a worrying trend and before we get into the recap, I have some thoughts on why the Crunch keep getting so out-shot in every game.

*the trend in sports that says the trailing team will tend to take more shots later in a game as the leading team takes their foot off the gas

This Week in Thoughts (this time, first!)

Why do the Crunch give up so many shots? They gave up 41 in this game and average about 31 against per game, putting them in the bottom half in their division and league. For a team that doesn’t get many shots themselves (last in shots for per game), this is a worrying number. While a reasonable answer to this problem is have the team take more shots, doing so to a league average level would put them safely in the middle of the league and in a playoff spot, there’s a process to getting more shots and it starts with defense.

Possession

Out of necessity, the Crunch are a counterattack team, as a result they tend to spend less time in the offensive zone — and therefore take fewer shots. In the North Division, the Crunch are last in shots on goal, averaging 26.4 per game. They are second last in the division, in front of only the Devils with a 46% shot share. For comparison, the Comets are 54%, so essentially the opposite.

Puck Battles

That’s part of the explanation for why I’ve seen the shots against number so high each game. Another aspect of their poor shot differential goes back to why they’re a counterattack team; they get hemmed in their own zone a lot and struggle to gather the puck and move it out of the zone without control. The most common way I’ve seen them do it this year has been take the shot against, stop play, and then win the face-off — which only works about 50% of the time. The Crunch have been a decent team at battling for pucks and keeping the opponent at arm’s length, but they haven’t been very good at actually winning the battles along the boards or in open ice and taking the fight to the other team.

Daniel Walcott was a big boost both mentally to the team, but also as a puck retriever when he’s on the ice. Gemel Smith and Barre-Boulet are both the same way, ABB is a puck fiend as you’ll see in the first goal of this game. I’ve found Somppi to be very good as picking pucks out along the boards and quickly finding outlets, this game was a prime example of his skill in that and why he has so many points off the rush. Beyond those players, the Crunch have lots of guys who can box a player out of the area they want to be in, but they can’t consistently and actively win the puck back.

This mirrors my concerns over the team’s shooting. They can get guys into shooting spots, but they haven’t had the players who can beat a goalie from anywhere until ABB came back. Maybe if Sean Day was developed as a forward when he was in the Ontario junior system instead of a defenseman just because he was tall, he could’ve developed that talent, but it won’t come consistently enough for the Crunch when he’s still on defense. I’d be open to a position change, by the way. I think you can find value in him there.

Penalties

This whole topic about winning pucks now bleeds into my third reason why the Crunch have been giving up so many shots: penalties. They take so many darn penalties. Here’s some numbers; the Crunch are last in the AHL in penalty differential and penalty differential per game. They are the only team in the league that averages more than one penalty taken per game than given. Luke Witkowski is the biggest culprit on the team, putting his team shorthanded on average once per game. This can’t keep happening, but it probably will because this team struggles to win puck battles. More time in the defensive zone; more chances for penalties. Less ability to win pucks cleanly; more chance for them to be taken illegally. It’s as simple as that.

The solution? First, tell the guys like Witkowski and Devante Stephens to watch where their sticks and bodies are going. I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest the refs are biased against them this year, so this is on them. Second, practice puck battles and breakouts under pressure and really focus on it on their days off. There’s lots of time to work on it. Third, try to preach possession time in the offensive zone. The Leafs organization has been a pioneer of that and you’ll notice their penalties taken numbers on both their NHL and AHL teams are always quite low. More time with the puck means less time with your stick up someone’s arm.

Game 11: 5-2 W at WBS Penguins

Syracuse Crunch Lines

The Crunch ran a very similar lineup to what they had last week, which is slowly becoming the norm with this team — thank god. Alex Barre-Boulet made his return to the lineup on the right wing of Gemel Smith and a returning Boris Katchouk. Katchouk, who retained his assistant captain letter missed the last game for an undisclosed reason, but was good to go and in fine form on Friday. Daniel Walcott was moved to the third line and what do you know, Gabe Fortier got on the board in this game.

The team once again ran seven defensemen. I can see a couple reasons why they’re doing this: one, they have the extra bodies on defense and not offense, and two, the defense has a proclivity to take a lot of penalties (still working out how and why) so having the extra body is important on the penalty kill and for evening out ice time among pairs.

Christopher Gibson made his first start in over a year — this is for any league. When you think about it, he was the emergency backup for two months where he could’ve played, so it’s not so dramatic in terms of “games missed” but a big gap because of the pandemic.

Forwards

Boris Katchouk (A) - Gemel Smith - Alex Barre-Boulet
Scott Wilson - Otto Somppi - Serron Noel
Gabe Fortier - Peter Abbandonato - Daniel Walcott (A)
Jimmy Huntington - Greg Meireles

Defense

John Ludvig - Luke Witkowski (C)
Devante Stephens - Ben Thomas
Sean Day - Brady Keeper
Alex Green

Goalies

Christopher Gibson
Samuel Montembeault

Power Play

Somppi - Smith - Meireles - Wilson - Day
Abbandonato - Pavlychev - Noel - Huntington - Thomas

Penalty Kill

Wilson - Somppi - Stephens - Keeper
Walcott - Smith - Ludvig - Green
Katchouk, ABB, and Witkowski also mixed in.

First Period

1-0

After a month’s long “scoring drought” in the AHL, Barre-Boulet got the “monkey” off his back with an assertive steal of the puck before spinning and finding Fortier off to the races. The puck didn’t get to him initially so it was a footrace between the winger and Penguins goalie Emil Larmi. The winger won it and put home the game’s opening goal.

2-0

The Crunch made it two nothing when Serron Noel drove to the net and laid a perfectly timed drop pass to Sean Day, who had followed up on the rush. This was another counterattack by the Crunch and it showed off Noel’s possession ability and playmaking. The Penguins were really aimless in their defense back. They had four guys in the room but no one actually covered a player.

Second Period

3-0

As the first turned into the second, the Crunch kept on scoring. This time it was Somppi finding Katchouk with a pass that stretched across the ice and over the neutral zone. Somppi’s vision found Katchouk early and it gave him a step in which to whip that shot up and over Larmi. Somppi does this all the time, but has never had the linemates to finish for him. Hopefully Katchouk can be that for him.

4-0

Once again, Otto Somppi creates another goal with great play in open space to settle the puck on his stick before finding Day for the one-timer. I have to highlight Scott Wilson who did a great job of protecting the puck long enough to give his linemates a chance to get into the zone. With this goal, it was the end of the night for Larmi and backup Shane Starrett came in.

4-1

The Penguins finally got on the board after the Crunch failed to clear the zone (surprise). The Crunch were down players and they were out of position, allowing Tim Schaller to get a clean shot from close on Gibson.

Third Period

4-2

The Penguins made it interesting in the third (like the Crunch have done many times after being down early this season) on a 4-on-3 power play. Witkowski had a chance to win a puck battle, lost it. Walcott got rubbed out trying to help, so suddenly it was a 3-on-1 down low and Drew O’Connor made no mistake.

5-2 (ENG)

Keeper got the empty net goal to seal the deal with a long shot in the last minute of the game. No video, sorry.