clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Crunch Wrap: Back in the hunt

The winning streak comes to an end, but points are points

Scott Thomas Photography

It was a bit of a mixed week for the Syracuse Crunch. Their winning streak came to a halt and they only picked up three points, but those three points did come at the expense of the division-leading Utica Comets. However, the Comets also picked up three points so it was a bit of a wash.

Still, overall, it was a pretty good week for the Crunch as they played well enough to beat Utica in both games, but had to settle for an overtime loss and overtime win. Overall, the strong play that has marked their return from their mini-COVID pause over the holidays continued and the team is starting to play to their identity.

The loss to Laval on Wednesday served as a stark reminder that if they don’t play the way Coach Groulx wants them to, they can lose to any team in the league. However, if they do play the game that they are capable of - skating hard, finishing checks, and winning puck battles - they can also beat any team in the league, like Utica.

They enter the week in sixth place (determined by points percentage) with a narrow lead over last-place Belleville, but only a win or two away from overtaking Cleveland and Laval. The Crunch do have games in hand on everyone in the division except Laval, so if they continue to munch up the points (to borrow a Coach Cooper phrase) they can move up the standings fairly quickly.

The kids are starting to get it

As usual with Ben Groulx teams, they’re getting better as the season goes on. Since the calendar switched to 2002, they are 4-1-1 and are averaging about 3 goals per game. Part of the reason for the turnaround is that the youngsters are starting to look a lot more comfortable on the ice. Case in point Cole Koepke.

The first year forward was held off of the scoresheet this week, but prior to Wednesday’s game against Laval Koepke had points in six straight games and goals in 5 straight. That was a nice run after putting up just a pair of assists in his previous seven games. Part of the recent run of success was mental according to Coach Groulx.

The head coach attributed Koepke’s turnaround to a dedication of maintaining control of the puck. Understanding that the puck was “his” and not fighting to keep it has helped him drive the offense. Koepke has been stronger in the corners and winning more puck battles.

When players first come into the professional leagues, they can be a little too deferential to veteran players, both on their team and their opponents. They also don’t want to be overly agressive and make mistakes. It can sometimes take them awhile to realize that they belong in the league and, for lack of a better way to put it, the pucks is theirs as much as anyone else’s.

Another youngster playing with a lot of confidence (and showing up in the points column this week) is Max Cajkovic. He was really one of the more noticeable players for the Crunch all week long. He was skating really well, finding the dangerous areas in the offensive zone, and, most importantly, shooting the puck more. Cajkovic was credited with seven shots on goal during the three games. InStat has him at twelve shot attempts overall during that time span for an average of four per game, almost double of what he’s been averaging all season long.

That shot is what is going to get him to the next level of this sport and it’s good to see that he’s recognized that and is using it to his advantage. That is giving the Crunch a lot more scoring depth at 5v5 as well as a new triggerman on the power play. Cajkovic has found himself on the top unit a lot more of late.

Have a week, Huddy

It wasn’t just the kids helping with this improved play in 2022. The veterans are carrying their weight as well, none more so than Charles Hudon. The 27-year-old free agent signing is currently riding a 4-game goal streak and is up to 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) on the season.

Among those 11 goals are 3 game-winning goals and 7 power play goals. Tack on his 5 power play assists and Hudon has been involved in over half of the Crunch’s 23 power play goals so far this season. Not too shabby. The former 5th-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens has always been able to find the back of the net as he’s posted four straight seasons of 27 or more goals and has 118 in 278 AHL games over 6 seasons.

After starting the season on the wing, Hudon has recently moved to the center of the ice and has responded rather well. Moving to the middle has allowed him a little more freedom to roam around in the offensive zone and he’s been able to find the goal-scoring spots of late.

In the two games against Utica Coach Groulx has started him off with Cole Koepke and Alex Barre-Boulet on his wings, giving the Crunch a really talented top line and allowing Gabriel Dumont to center the second line and open up some favorable match-ups for the captain of the team. With Otto Somppi and Antoine Morand centering the other two lines, Syracuse has some solid depth down the middle of the ice.

Coming/Going:

Subtractions:

Odeen Tufto (F) - The young forward was loaned to Orlando for playing time. With the forwards mostly healthy there just isn’t the ice time for some of the younger forwards and Tufto was the odd man out.

Daniel Walcott (F) - “Wally” was recalled to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s taxi squad with Ondrej Palat nursing an injury.

Additions:

Remi Elie (F): The veteran returned from his own stay on the taxi squad.

Amir Miftakhov (G): With Max Lagace out of the line-up with a non-COVID illness and the Crunch playing three games in four days, Miftakhov was recalled from Orlando to back up Hugo Alnefelt.

Frank Hora (D): The 25-year-old defenseman was signed to a PTO way back in the beginning of December when the Crunch blueline was struggling to find anyone to suit up. He’s parlayed his play into an AHL contract and should rotate in for regular shifts for the rest of the season.

The Games

Wednesday January 12th

Laval 3, Syracuse 2

The Crunch came into this game with a four-game winning streak and three straight wins since their unexpected long break. A win would have moved them up in the standings but they just kind of fumbled things away. Too many turnovers and an inability to put anything together in the offensive zone doomed them to a 3-2 loss to Laval.

A bad pass in the offensive zone led to a rush the other way for the Rocket. While they didn’t score on the initial rush, Syracuse never really got set up and Alexandre Fortin deflected home a point shot. Their second goal allowed was on a turnover that led to a shorthanded two-on-one for Laval and Brandon Gignac finished it off.

Those types of mistakes haunted and blunted the Crunch attack all night long. They did keep things close on goals by Maxim Cajkovic and Charles Hudon, but J.S Dea scored the game-winner (assisted by old friend Peter Abbadonato) when Cole Koepke was a little late in picking him up down low.

The goals:

Max Cajkovic (Frank Hora, P.C. Labrie)

Charles Hudon (P.C. Labrie)

Friday January 14th

Utica 4, Syracuse 3 (OT)

If Wednesday’s game was the proper result for a lackluster effort, then this one was a bit unfair. From the get go, the Crunch were the better team on the ice outshooting the Comets 15-5 in the first period. They did pick up a goal for their effort as Gabriel Dumont had a Darren Raddysh shot hit off of him and go past Mareks Mitens.

The lead made it into the second period, but not long into it. Fabian Zetterlund put one past Max Lagace to tie the game. The tie continued for most of the middle frame, but there was a flurry of scoring at the end that allowed the Crunch to leave the period with a 3-2 lead.

Charles Hudon scored on the power play for his 9th goal of the season with just over five minutes left. Nate Schnarr answered 90 seconds later, but Otto Somppi put the Crunch back on top with just five seconds left in the period. It was another period where Syracuse dominated the shot clock, as they doubled up Utica 12-6.

The Comets clawed their way back to level when Schnarr scored his second of the night with under three minutes to go in the game. Zetterlund completed his brace and gace Utica the win just 20 seconds into the bonus frame.

The goals:

Gabriel Dumont (Darren Raddysh, Sean Day)

Charles Hudon (Alex Barre-Boulet, Sean Day) Power Play

Otto Somppi (Alex Green)

Saturday January 15th

Syracuse 4, Utica 3 (OT)

For the longest time it looked like the game was going to be a repeat of Friday’s outing. The Crunch outplayed the Comets for the vast majority of the night, but they couldn’t find a way to put Utica away.

The Comets scored first in a low-event first period. Joe Gambardella put home a loose puck on one of the four shots Utica managed to direct toward Hugo Alnefelt in the period. The Crunch dictated play for most of the period, but only generated eight shots of their own.

In the middle frame it was all Syracuse as they outshot Utica 10-4, and it was really hard to consider any of the four shots Alnefelt faced as tough chances. Syracuse was helped by three power plays, but they only found the back of the net when they were shorthanded. Alex Barre-Boulet and Charles Hudon teamed up to tie the game while killing a penalty.

The score remained tied until midway through the third period where it looked like the Crunch finally put Utica away when they scored twice in a minute span. First it was Otto Somppi creating a turnover and feeding it to Gabriel Fortier who went up and under the bar for the 2-1 lead. Then it was Max Cajkovic following up a rebound off of a Frank Hora shot.

However, this is a Utica team that came back from a couple of deficits on Friday night, and almost pulled off a 7-2 comeback on Wednesday against Rochester. The Crunch backed off the pressure a little and the Comets filled in the void. Nate Schnarr converted a one-timer with just under eight minutes to go and then old friend Nolan Foote tied things up with a screened shot from distance just as a power play expired to tie things up.

Unlike, Friday night, the Crunch were able to bounce back as Charles Hudon scored his second of the night, a laser from the right circle, in overtime on a 4-on-3 power play to give Syracuse their first win of the season against the Comets.

The Goals:

Charles Hudon (Alex Barre-Boulet) Shorthanded

Gabriel Fortier (Otto Somppi)

Max Cajkovic (Frank Hora, Antoine Morand)

Charles Hudon (Alex Barre-Boulet, Gabriel Dumont) Power Play

Upcoming Schedule:

It’s another 4-game week for the Crunch highlighted by one more back-to-back with the Utica Comets. Three of the games are against the top two teams in the division so it’s another excellent opportunity for Syracuse to close the points gap a bit.

Monday January 17th at 1:00 PM vs. Belleville Senators

Wednesday January 19th at 7:05 PM at Rochester Americans

Friday January 21st at 7:00 PM vs. Utica Comets

Saturday January 22nd at 7:00 PM at Utica Comets