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Crunch Wrap: Gemel Smith heads to Tampa Bay following superstar performance

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Declan McDonnell continues to exceed expectations.

Syracuse Crunch Gemel Smith (46) skating with the puck against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins goalie Emil Larmi (60) 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

With two more wins this week, the Syracuse Crunch have pulled themselves up to fifth in the North Division, well within striking distance of the Rochester Americans who have two games in hand. Their points percentage is up to .577 with a 7-5-1 record. In pure wins and losses, they’re still above .500, which seemed so far away a month ago.

The first of two wins came against the WBS Penguins, who the Crunch smashed 6-3, tying a franchise record for goals in a period on the back of Gemel Smith’s hat trick and five-point night. With Syracuse having won four games in a row against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with two more to go, the Crunch have reportedly become part owners of the Penguins. I think those are the rules?

The second win was an overtime thriller against the Rochester Americans that saw the Crunch lead (what a change) only to just barely lose it in the third before Grigori Denisenko’s overtime winner sent the Crunch home happy.

With more games against Rochester on the schedule, the Crunch have a real chance to be in a playoff spot by the midway point in the season (Game #19).

This Week in Thoughts

Gemel Smith

Gemel Smith is an NHL player. He was last year for the Lightning and he still is this season. I know the Bolts are currently in a four-way heavyweight battle for three bottom line spots with Mathieu Joseph, Pat Maroon, Ross Colton, and Mitchell Stephens all vying for ice time. I just think Smith could push them even farther forward. He’s dynamic, responsible, and determined just like the rest of them. Give him a chance!

Declan McDonnell

I’ve really liked McDonnell this season. He’s been a quick, shifty, relentless winger with a nose for the net and a good head on his shoulders when he has to be positionally sound. For a teenager, he’s obviously got room to grow in terms of bringing his stand-out offense on a consistent basis, but I love the potential he’s shown at the AHL level already. The Crunch are a team that can get their prospects to play consistently over time if they’re willing to work at it — Otto Somppi is a prime example of that — I’m sure McDonnell is well on his way to that calibre.

Game 12: 6-3 W at WBS Penguins

Syracuse Crunch Lines

The forwards were mostly the same at the top from last game, however Serron Noel was missing in this game along with Gabriel Fortier. Cole Schwindt returned to the lineup along with the entire fourth line. Henry Bowlby returned from a long injury and didn’t have a great performance, but I won’t hold it against him as he was obviously trying to shake off some rust. Declan McDonnell returned to the line and absolutely lit it up. He was so dynamic and purposeful every time he was on the ice.

The defense was mostly kept the same, with Dmitri Semykin subbed in for John Ludvig and Alex Green as the Crunch ran 12 forwards. Luke Witkowski has fallen down the defensive depth chart this season, both before and after his injury, and was on the third pair for this game. You have to hand it to Devante Stephens and Ben Thomas, they’ve been playing really well. Credit to Sean Day and Brady Keeper for becoming a reliable offensive pairing.

In net, Chris Gibson made his season debut after being on the Lightning taxi squad all season. He played well.

Forwards

Boris Katchouk (A) - Gemel Smith - Alex Barre-Boulet
Scott Wilson - Otto Somppi - Peter Abbandonato
Daniel Walcott (A) - Jimmy Huntington - Cole Schwindt
Henry Bowlby - Ryan Lohin - Declan McDonnell

Defense

Devante Stephens - Ben Thomas
Sean Day - Brady Keeper
Dmitri Semykin - Luke Witkowski (C)

Goalies

Christopher Gibson
Samuel Montembeault

First Period

1-0

Take a bow, Declan McDonnell. All alone in the offensive zone, he kept the puck behind the net, fought off a defender, and found Gemel Smith for his first goal of the game. Smith had the goal, but the Crunch wouldn’t have had anything without McDonnell’s hard work and puck protection ability. Are we sure this guy is a teenager out of the seventh round of a draft that happened less than six months ago? Keep both eyes on Declan McDonnell, my word.

2-0

On the ensuing faceoff, the Crunch got right back into the offensive zone, Thomas got a shot in from the point, Smith retrieved the rebound, and Boris Katchouk slotted it home to the surprise of all the Penguins.

3-0

While I gave the gold star to McDonnell on the first goal, this one was all Gemel Smith. He picked up the puck in the defensive zone, went coast-to-coast, and beat Emil Larmi with a sneaky backhand while off balance. If you watch the reverse camera angle, you can see how quick and sharp his backhand is to beat Larmi at the last second. I initially thought it was a fluke, but no that was a real move. So impressive.

4-0

Gemel Smith got his hat trick before even the 10-minute mark of the first period.

Cole Schwindt made a couple nice moves through the neutral zone, shifting on his skates until he was all of a sudden on a 2-on-1 with Smith. A quick pass and perfect release sealed the hat trick and likely the game. The Penguins had some life down 3-0, but it was all gone after this goal, as was Emil Larmi who was pulled.

The Penguins started gooning the game up because, well, what else were they going to do at that point. Sean Day dropped the gloves with Jordy Bellerive, who in fact later fought Gemel Smith in the third, giving the Crunch center a Gordie Howe Hat Trick along with the five-point performance.

5-0

Devante Stephens kept the party going right off a face-off win by Gemel Smith. Alex Barre-Boulet got the puck to the point and Stephens smashed it through Alex D’Orio. This goal gave Smith his fifth point of the game, barely 11 minutes into the game.

With the primary assist, ABB continued his point streak. What point streak? Well he’s gotten a point in every Crunch game he’s played in this season: eight points in six games across two months.

6-0

Jimmy Huntington put a bow on the Crunch’s party with a power play goal. Brady Keeper, Ben Thomas, and Peter Abbandonato made a passing triangle at the top of the zone that opened up lanes down low for Huntington to sneak his way through and knock in his second goal of the season. Full marks to Thomas for his pass to Abbandonato.

6-1

The Penguins got one back late in the second, with Tim Schaller stealing the puck from Henry Bowlby in the defensive zone as he was trying to exit the zone and beating Gibson form the slot. Those defensive zone turnovers as the forwards bail the zone are killers and something the Crunch as a group still need to clean up.

Second Period

6-2

The Penguins scored another early in the second period off a face-off. Pierre-Olivier Joseph (brother of Crunch alum Mathieu) passed to Josh Currie who’s shot beat Gibson.

The Penguins had nothing going for the rest of the period and the Crunch were just cruising with their lead. The Crunch only had three shots in the period, but the Penguins were shockingly poor in their quality, only getting shots from the wing to hit the net. The Crunch did a good job of pushing them to the edges and were happy to give those shots up to Gibson, which he mostly handled with ease.

Third Period

6-3

Nick Schilkey scored near the end of the third on the power play from in front of the net. Even with this game in the bag, I would’ve liked to see better performances on the penalty kill. They’ve given up a lot shorthanded this season.

The third period was interesting in that shots were pretty even for both sides in both number and location. While the Crunch had turned off their offense, giving the Penguins more chance to play forward, the Penguins just kind of gave up and didn’t attack as much, essentially neutralizing the game. There was some fighting at the end of the game, Bellerive got his coveted ejection after that second fight with Smith.

Game 13: 4-3 OTW at Rochester Americans

Syracuse Crunch Lines

Big changes had to happen for this game as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers both made moves during the day before the game. I’ll take about all those in the Crunch Preview later this week.

At forward, Luke Witkowski, yes really. He moved over from defense to skate on the third line. Honestly, considering some his missed defensive assignments, I don’t disagree with the decision to play him there rather than have seven defensemen. Also at forward, Henry Bowlby joined the first line centered by Boris Katchouk (I mean, ABB was right there). Somppi got the sniper he always wanted in Grigori Denisenko returning to the line. McDonnell stayed on the fourth line with Lohin and now Abbandonato.

On defense, the top four stayed intact with Panthers defenseman Noah Juulsen on a conditioning stint joining the third pair next to Lightning prospect Alex Green.

In net was Samuel Montembeault, backed up by goalie Tyler Johnson while the Lightning completed their swap of Gibson and Martin.

Forwards

Henry Bowlby - Boris Katchouk (A) - Alex Barre-Boulet
Scott Wilson - Otto Somppi - Grigori Denisenko
Daniel Walcott (A) - Jimmy Huntington - Luke Witkowski (C)
Peter Abbandonato - Ryan Lohin - Declan McDonnell

Defense

Devante Stephens - Ben Thomas
Sean Day - Brady Keeper
Noah Juulsen - Alex Green

Goalies

Samuel Montembeault
Tyler Johnson (the goalie)

First Period

The Crunch did a really good job in this period winning battles and keeping the Amerks out of their zone. I didn’t see one shift with extended pressure in the Crunch zone, while I saw lots of shifts where the Crunch kept the puck deep in the Amerks zone, even stealing the puck a few times and maintaining possession. The numbers bore this out as the Crunch led in shots 9-3, with their shot locations in much better places than the Amerks.

Second Period

1-0

Scott Wilson opened the scoring really early in the second as newcomer Noah Juulsen won the puck in open ice and flipped it up to a breaking Wilson. From there, all he had to do was make the goalie commit and he slotted home his first goal as a Crunch against his old team.

1-1

The Amerks got one back a few minutes later with rookie Brandon Biro taking the puck at the offensive blue line, skating past an awkward-looking Ben Thomas, and beating Montembeault as he fell past the net. It was a little less impressive slowed down to normal speed.

2-1

Blink and you miss it, ABB got in the slot following a faceoff win by Katchouk, tipping home a hard point shot from Devante Stephens. Ben Thomas got the secondary assist, making up for his play on the previous goal. This goal gave ABB four goals and eight points in as many games since the start of the season.

3-1

Boris Katchouk crucially doubled the Crunch’s lead later in the second thanks to Thomas winning a battle along the boards, opening Katchouk and ABB for a 2-on-1. Katchouk kept the puck, shot it, and somehow the puck bounced its way in.

3-2

The Amerks got a goal back at the end of the second, putting a little anxiety in the minds of the Crunch. Defenseman Oskari Laaksonen scored off a long point shot that found its way through four bodies and Montembeault.

Third Period

3-3

Biro got his second goal of the game with a little over 10 minutes left in the game as the Crunch were trying hard to hold their lead. The Crunch had done a really good job up to that point of keeping the Amerks away from dangerous areas, but they had a shift before this goal where they were really starting to come on. This shot from distance found its way through Montembeault again and into the back of the net. Tough for him and definitely not an ideal goal at the time.

The Crunch should be proud of themselves for only giving up three scoring chances (while getting three of their own) in the third while defending a lead for the entire time. They kept a lot of shots to the point and reduced rebounds, which is all you can ask. Sometimes, you need to ask your goalie for just one more save.

Overtime

4-3

Nevertheless, the Crunch made it to overtime and the game-breaking sniper I’ve been frothing for all season, Grigori Denisenko held up his end of the bargain with a brilliant overtime winner. Somppi again with the primary assist for his team-leading 10th point in 13 games.

Game 14: POSTPONED vs. Utica Comets

As the Rochester Americans exit COVID Protocol, the Utica Comets had to enter following the outbreak in Rochester seemingly also having an effect on them. The Crunch have had to postpone two games against their local rival, we should see dated for the rematches sometime this week, probably as early as today.