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Syracuse Crunch Wrap: Mitchell Stephens is ready to go

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And my case for another Crunch player to get his chance at the Big Time.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Columbus Blue Jackets
COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 23: Mitchell Stephens #67 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates after the puck during the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on January 23, 2021 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The Syracuse Crunch split their weekend series with the Rochester Americans. The Crunch ran a consistent lineup with Tampa Bay Lightning forward Mitchell Stephens back on his old team for a conditioning stint. He looked great, I’ll get to his performance at the end of this article. The Crunch beat the Amerks 6-2 in the game on Friday, with Rochester coming back to win on Saturday by a score of 5-3. First periods and penalties were key as always, but the Crunch with this lineup showed a lot of promise in their ability to win games at a consistent rate.

On Friday, the Crunch owned the first period against the Amerks thanks to four power plays that they drew with good footwork and staying one step ahead of their opponents. When the Crunch play from ahead, they’re usually golden, and this game was no exception. The second period was scoreless as the Crunch weathered a storm, and then came out in the third and closed out the game.

On Saturday, the Crunch didn’t start strong enough to carry them through the rest of the game — mostly because of penalties. Despite scoring first, they gave up three goals in a row, including two power play goals, within four minutes. Luke Witkowski taking a penalty when the team was already down was a tough moment that gave the Amerks an opening, and they took it fully. Even though they were only down a goal after one period thanks to three goals from Henry Bowlby, Boris Katchouk, and Alex Barre-Boulet, the Amerks just shut things down in the final two periods, slowed the pace of the game, and closed out a win.

John Ludvig also got injured in the second game. He hurt his arm going hard into the boards, we may or may not get an update on his status, but hopefully he is back for the next game.

If the Crunch had pushed the Saturday game to overtime, they would’ve surpassed the Amerks to sit fourth in the North Division, but unfortunately they remain fifth. Wednesday is their next chance to get ahead of Rochester.

Game 14: 6-2 W at Rochester Americans

Syracuse Crunch Lines

The Tampa Bay Lightning

Forwards

Boris Katchouk (A) - Mitchell Stephens - Taylor Raddysh
Henry Bowlby - Otto Somppi - Grigori Denisenko
Daniel Walcott (A) - Jimmy Huntington - Luke Witkowski (C)
Gabriel Fortier - Antoine Morand - Alex Barre-Boulet

Defense

Devante Stephens - Noah Juulsen
John Ludvig - Alex Green
Sean Day - Dmitri Semykin

Goalies

Samuel Montembeault
Spencer Martin

Power Play

Morand - Huntington - ABB - Stephens - Day
Katchouk - Somppi - Denisenko - ABB - Green

Penalty Kill

Stephens - Katchouk - Ludvig - Witkowski
Walcott - Bowlby - Stephens - Green

First Period

1-0

Antoine Morand opened his career on the Crunch with a power play goal. Mitchell Stephens made an unreal deceptive pass to open him up for the shot. No one was anticipating it and the lane was wide open. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen tried to come across, but Morand shot it against the grain and beat him far side. Morand is a shifty player, he didn’t need to show a great release because he had so much time on his shot, but it’s good to see him starting out on the right foot.

2-0

Grigori Denisenko doubled the lead with a great play to gather the puck, move into an open area, and beat Luukkonen while there was a crowd in front. This was another shift where the Crunch had lots of zone time and exploited some mistakes and shortcuts from the Amerks to create a man-advantage in front of the net and enough chaos to let Denisenko make a great play. This goal was the Florida Panthers prospect’s fourth goal in seven games (point per game).

3-0

John Ludvig just stepped up, and stepped up, and stepped up some more until he was basically in the slot and wired a shot past Luukkonen at the end of the period. For the second time, the Crunch were hemming the Amerks in their own zone for a while, leading to a broken stick for Remi Elie. Ludvig took advantage of the space and instead of looking for a pass, like the Amerks probably expected, he just shot it.

Second Period

This period had no goals, and was overall much more even in terms of possession and chances. The fresh faces in the top six (and the fourth line) really increased the amount of zone time the Crunch got in the offensive zone. They could move around the zone at will, make passes, get chances, and then retrieve them for more. This was something the Crunch didn’t have nearly enough of to make an impact during their early-season losing streak.

There was a solid three-minute shift where all three offensive lines just played Globetrotters in the offensive zone. That play led to an icing and even more opportunities for offense. It didn’t result in a goal, but if the team is able to consistently play like that (like those two times in the first period), those shifts will give fruit.

Third Period

3-1

Brett Murray scored on the power play with a free rebound in front. I think Montembeault over-played the pass and left himself out of the net for the rebound.

4-1

Boris Katchouk brought the margin back up to three after burying a great feed from Sean Day. The defenseman just skated right around the defense and threw the puck through the slot. Somppi crashed the net hard and created chaos while Katchouk picked up the puck and stashed it in the open net. Somppi was in the area, but he was pushed into Luukkonen, so no goalie interference. Again, Katchouk got the goal, but Somppi was a useful catalyst like he always is at center. Great play from Day, again.

4-2

Later in the period, Arttu Ruotsalainen got left wide open in the slot as the Crunch overplayed a puck in the corner. The guys coming back were all on the wrong side of Ruotsalainen and couldn’t get him out of the way.

5-2

Devante Stephens got his third goal of the year on a seeing-eye shot from the middle of the point, through several bodies and past Luukkonen. Morand thought he tipped it, but review showed the puck just went straight through. It was a good-timed shot from Stephens as there were layers of people in front, and Morand did well to get his stick clear for a tip even if it wasn’t necessary.

6-2

Alex Barre-Boulet closed the game out on the power play, extending his season-long point streak to seven games (nine points). ABB made some space by pretending to go up to the point, but then cut back down, attacked the slot and sniped past Luukkonen for his fifth goal of the season. ABB extended the streak to eight games in the next game.

Game 15: 3-5 L vs. Rochester Americans

Syracuse Crunch Lines

The Crunch ran identical lineups for both games last weekend. The only change saw Spencer Martin back between the pipes with Montembeault backing him up. In terms of the skaters, it seemed they really liked the energy third line with a super offensive fourth line. The defense did well in Rochester and it seems they can roll them fairly regularly, though the Stephens pair did take on a lot of responsibility.

Forwards

Boris Katchouk (A) - Mitchell Stephens - Taylor Raddysh
Henry Bowlby - Otto Somppi - Grigori Denisenko
Daniel Walcott (A) - Jimmy Huntington - Luke Witkowski (C)
Gabriel Fortier - Antoine Morand - Alex Barre-Boulet

Defense

Devante Stephens - Noah Juulsen
John Ludvig - Alex Green
Sean Day - Dmitri Semykin

Goalies

Spencer Martin
Samuel Montembeault

Power Play

Morand - Huntington - ABB - Stephens - Day
Katchouk - Somppi - Denisenko - ABB - Green

Penalty Kill

Stephens - Katchouk - Ludvig - Witkowski
Walcott - Bowlby - Stephens - Green

First Period

1-0

Henry Bowlby opened the scoring early on a turnover created by Denisenko in the neutral zone. Somppi got the puck moving forward as Bowlby streaked down the wing. His initial shot was partially stopped, but trickled through for his first goal in two months (his first came in the first game of the season against Utica).

1-1

The Crunch were mostly in control of the play following their lead-creating goal, but this fluke got through Martin and gave the Amerks life.

1-2

And then with both Morand and Witkowski in the box, the Amerks took advantage of an open back door and grabbed the lead. Once again, penalties.

1-3

On the same kill, with Witkowski in the box, the Amerks extended their lead with another goal from in front of the net. I don’t know what they’re doing in front of the net on the penalty kill anymore. The puck gets there and it’s a tap-in most of the time.

2-3

Boris Katchouk got the Crunch back in the game with a sweet five-hole goal. Stephens, once again, applied pressure on the defenseman and got the puck into the front of the net. All Katchouk had to do was spin, shoot, and score.

2-4

Once the Crunch got down, they seemed to lose track of themselves, especially later in the period. They were swimming all over the ice as the Amerks strung together some passes for a chance. The initial shot didn’t go in, but Griffin Luce made sure the big rebound got in. Montembeault did his best to make it close.

3-4

Alex Barre-Boulet extended his point streak to eight games with a goal right at the end of the first. Unlike the first game, the goals from the Crunch came on turnover counterattacks. This one started with ABB at the defensive blue line, the puck went through Huntington and Katchouk, before coming back to ABB for a wicked shot from distance.

Second Period

There was no scoring in the second. John Ludvig, who seemed to hurt his left arm as he fell hard into the boards in the first period. Partner Noah Juulsen slipped and both defensemen crashed hard into the boards. Ludvig was slow to get up and didn’t return to the game. Day took his spot on the second pair and Witkowski got moved back to defense.

Third Period

5-3

Top prospect Jack Quinn closed the game with another power play goal. This one came off the rush and was the result of a really nice play from the teenager. Hats off, to be honest.

This Week in Thoughts

Mitchell Stephens

Mitchell Stephens was a breath of fresh air in Syracuse as he joined the team on an injury conditioning stint. I will say right off the bat that he’s good to go. Nothing to worry about with him and the rumors of his fourth line demise have been greatly exaggerated. He’s going to be in the starting lineup every game and I don’t think anyone that’s fighting him for that spot will be able to match his pace of play, energy, athleticism, and vision. I like Ross Colton, but after comparing him to Stephens in the AHL as a 1C, it’s not as close as some are convincing themselves it is.

I will note that Colton is running extremely hot in the NHL right now. His personal shooting percentage is outrageous (28% at 5v5) and will not continue, neither will the on-ice shooting and save percentage the team experiences when he’s on the ice. That will mean fewer goals and a hard crash to level out his numbers back to 50-55% where his expected numbers are. I’ve seen this with a lot of players, that hot streak at the beginning doesn’t last. The dam might not break right now, but I’m more convinced of Stephens this season, last year, and after this weekend in the AHL.

Devante Stephens

The Lightning should call up Devante Stephens. He’s shown enough to earn a chance. There’s enough of an argument to be made that he drove the pairing with Ben Thomas more than Thomas did. While the call-up was earned and Thomas played well for the Lightning, I think Stephens is capable of doing more on the ice and making a difference, rather than being a quiet complimentary partner.

Stephens is really good in the corners, battling for pucks with his positioning and stick. He was part of the solution to the Crunch’s problems when it came to exiting the zone with control. He started doing it right away with the team and was part of the reason for his meteoric rise to the top of the lineup. Offensively, he moves well and has a good eye for passes and shots from the point. He reminds me of what I wish Dominik Masin could’ve turned into, but lacked the consistency to pull off. This is something I felt with Andreas Borgman back in his days with the Marlies.

Give Stephens a chance. The Crunch will miss him, which is exactly why he should get the call.