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Crunch Wrap: Offensive outage in Syracuse

Team struggles to score at even strength and drops two out of three.

Scott Thomas Photography

It seems that for much of this season Syracuse Crunch head coach Ben Groulx has been channeling his inner Herb Brooks when describing his team. If the legendary Team USA coach hadn’t said it first, Groulx would have dropped a “this team doesn’t have enough talent to win on talent alone” quote in one of his pre-game interviews. Since October he has been beating the drum that the Crunch have to outwork every team they play and take advantage of special teams if they want to win more than they lose.

Last week was validation for Coach Groulx’s pragmatic appraisal of his team. On Wednesday they scored twice on the power play and won. Over the weekend they went a combined 0-for-5 and lost both games by one goal. The only two regular strength goals they recorded came from defensemen. They played pretty well in all three games (even in the 6-1 loss to Charlotte) but, like at the beginning of the season, their inability to finish the chances they set up left them with just the one win in three contests.

It’s not that the Crunch are bereft of any talent whatsoever. They do have veteran players that have proven they can put the puck in the net and young players showing an aptitude for doing the same. They’ve just struggled to do it consistently at even strength. Their 26 goals scored with the extra skater is tied for 16th in the league and their 21.3% success rate is 7th.

Unfortunately those numbers are propping up an offense that has only scored 94 goals total (28th in the league). Granted, looking at the totals does sway the numbers a bit since the Crunch have only played 34 games, one of the fewest totals in the league. However, when you sort it by goals per game their 2.76 only bumps them up to 24th.

So perhaps a more apt comparison would be to a bottom table Premier League team (like my beloved Leeds United). They will struggle against the best teams in the league unless they outwork the other team and take advantage of set pieces (power plays in the Crunch’s case). When they execute that game plan, they can win, but when they don’t it can get out of hand.

Not helping the cause is that once again, the Crunch went through the week without their top two goaltenders. Injuries have sidelined Max Lagace and Hugo Alnefelt, leading to Amir Miftakhov starting all three games. The rookie now leads the team in appearances as well as GAA (2.79) and Save Percentage (.899). That’s not how GM Stacey Roest or Coach Groulx envisioned the first half of the season going.

Despite all of this, the Crunch are currently in a playoff spot as they sit 5th in the North Division with a .500 points percentage. Laval sits right above them with the same number of points, but in fewer games. Still, with a couple of winnable games against Belleville this week (and a rematch with Charlotte) Syracuse could keep moving up the standings.

Coming and Going

Additions -

Owen Headrick (D) - With Jason Garrison hurt and a couple of Crunch blueliners in Tampa, Syracuse added the former Erie Otter to the roster on a PTO. He’d done alright in his three appearances so far, even garnering some power play time.

Daniel Walcott (F), Andrej Sustr (D), Charles Hudon (F) - The ranks were bolstered with the return of the Lightning’s taxi squad. Sustr in particular was a welcome sight as the big defenseman has been quite reliable for the Crunch.

Amir Miftakhov (G) Corbin Kaczperski (G) - Max Lagace and Hugo Alnefelt are apparently injured so Miftakov was recalled from Orlando and Kaczperski was signed to a PTO from the ECHL. When he releaved Miftakov on Saturday (and stopped all three shots he faced) Kaczperski became the 4th goalie to appear in a game for the Crunch this season. They’ve also signed four others to PTOs that have backed up, but not appeared in games. Seems like a lot.

Subtractions -

Odeen Tufto (F) - The first-year forward was assigned to Orlando as Syracuse’s injured forwards returned to the line-up. In three games Tufto acquitted himself fairly well, but will have the advantage of playing every day with the Solar Bears.

Cole Koepke (F) Darren Raddysh (D) - The Tampa Bay Lightning’s never-ending injury issues necessitated the recall of the two players as a precaution should Ondrej Palat or Jan Rutta not be able to play over the weekend. With both players seemingly returned to health (and the impending return of NIkita Kucherov from protocols) Koepke and Raddysh should be back in time for the Crunch’s games this week.

The Games

Crunch 3, Monsters 1

With the exception of the goaltenders and the lack of a Fredrik Clasesson, this is probably as close to the roster Coach Groulx envisioned having as they’ve had all season long. Raddysh and Sean Day make for a strong top pair and the Remi Elie, Charles Hudon, Alex Barre-Boulet line can run with any in the league.

The team showed what they were capable of as they had a really strong defensive performance and, in Coach Groulx’s words, “Amir Miftakhov was our best player on the ice”. The power play connected twice in four attempts with the first coming off of a Hudon one-timer from the right circle that is eerily reminiscent of Cory Conacher’s.

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

Gabriel Dumont extended the lead with a nice shot off of the rush, proving that you don’t need oodles and oodles of zone time to score on the man-advantage.

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

The defense was especially solid all night long, limiting Cleveland to just 25 shots and killing off all three penalties, including two in the first. This is the type of game Coach Groulx expects the Crunch to play night-in and night-out (although a few more chances at even strength would be nice).

Cole Koepke continued his strong rookie campaign with his ninth goal of the season, this one an empty-netter to secure the 3-1 victory. Captain Gabe Dumont picked up his 200th career AHL assist.

Cole Kopke (Gabriel Dumont) Empty Net

Americans 2, Crunch 1

The first period didn’t feature much offense. In fact, there were zero goals and and just 17 shots between the two teams as locked things down defensively. The Crunch had two really good chances, the first coming from Remi Elie who danced through the defense but couldn’t put one past Mat Robson. The same for Gabe Fortier a few minutes later who cut in on the right side and tried to stuff one by the Amerks goaltender.

Both teams were starting netminders that started the season pretty far down the depth chart. Amir Miftakhov was appearing in his 14th game of the season and second consecutive game after being recalled due to injuries to Hugo Alnefelt and Max Lagace. For Rochester, Robson was in his eighth game for Rochester as it seems that anyone that dons the gear in that organization immediately gets injured (Buffalo had six goalies injured, in protocol, or suspended). There was a chance that Robson may have been called up to Buffalo on an emergency basis if Craig Anderson or Dustin Tokarski hadn’t been able to return to duty for the Sabres.

Luckily for the Americans he was able to stay in Rochester and played really well early. The Crunch were able to establish some extended shifts in the offensive zone, but when they did get the shots off, Robson was able to make the stop. Miftakhov had a little more sporadic pressure, but was still up to the task.

The second period picked up where the first left off with both teams limiting their opponent’s chances. The best chance early for the Crunch came when Simon Ryfors and Gabe Fortier combined to force a turnover in the neutral zone about five minutes and then set up Ryan Jones for a one-timer that Robson turned aside.

Alex Barre-Boulet’s goal-scoring troubles continued a few minutes later when Charles Hudon set him up on a two-on-one, but his shot was headed aside by Robson. BB is mired in a six-game goalless streak and only has two assists over that stretch, both coming in the game against Cleveland.

With just under eight minutes to go, Remi Elie bulled his way into the Rochester zone and was able to get around Jimmy Schuldt. Elie threw the puck towards the net and the puck squirted over to Alex Green who had crashed the net. Green had a clear shot at the back of the net and he didn’t miss.

Alex Green (Remi Elie, Gabriel Dumont)

Rochester’s best chances for the early part of the period came from JJ Peterka and Linus Weissbach but they both fired wide from in front of Miftakhov. It looked like the Crunch were going to make it into the dressing room with a 1-0 lead, but a lackadaisical clear allowed the Amerks to get the puck down low. Ryan McInnis stepped out from behind the net and threw the puck on the net. It looked like Miftakhov tried to sweep it clear but missed and the puck trickled past him into the net. A disheartening end to a pretty good period for the Crunch.

The back-and-forth play continued into the third. Four minutes into the period it looked like the Crunch may take the lead when a point shot from Andrej Sustr pinballed off of a couple of bodies and seemed to be heading over the goal line before Robson pounced on it.

Midway through the period they had their first power play of the game, and promptly gave up a rush the other way that Amir Miftakhov had to be sharp on to keep Brandon Biro’s shot out. The Crunch struggled to get set up in the zone and didn’t get a shot off with the extra skater.

Once again it looked like the Crunch were going to head into the locker room tied, but a late penalty by Charles Hudon (puck over the glass) led to a power play for Rochester. The Crunch killed off almost all of it, but with just 7 seconds left on the clock, a rebound came out to Ryan McInnis and his shot hit off of Ryan Jones and slid past Miftakhov. Brutal loss for Syracuse.

Checkers 6, Crunch 1

For a game where they lost by five goals, the Crunch actually got off to a pretty strong start. They just couldn’t find a way to put the puck behind Spencer Knight. The Florida Panthers prospect stopped all 15 shots he faced including a couple of prime chances (one from Jimmy Huntington and Antoine Morand) on the Crunch’s early power play.

On the other end, Amir Miftakhov was fairly clean in net as well, getting beat by Scott Wilson on a shot between the circles, but stopping the other nine shots he faced. For a team that was without three veteran defenseman (Fredrik Claesson and Darren Raddysh in Tampa and Jason Garrison out with an injury) they were strong in the defensive zone, keeping most of the action to the outside and were able to break out of their zone fairly easily.

The second period featured an early power play for the Crunch that was rather disjointed and didn’t produce much quality. Then the teams settled into a long stretch of back-and-forth play that featured some tight checking and few offensive chances. That ended when Charles Hudon had the puck stripped off of his stick by Wilson just to the right of the Syracuse net. Wilson promptly slid it past Miftakhov for his second goal of the night.

The goal swung the ice a bit in the Checkers favor and after a long shift in the Syracuse end, Henry Bowlby deflected a point shot past the Crunch netminder. The Crunch came back with some solid play after the goal, but still couldn’t get one past Knight. They failed to convert on yet another power play while Charlotte built their lead to 4-0 quickly into their first opportunity with the extra skater.

Aleksi Heponiemi was able to slip behind the defense on a nice entry pass by Logan Hutsko and Heponiemi put it through Miftakhov’s five-hole for the power play goal. The shot clock was 25-17 in the Crunch’s favor and they played well for large portions of the game, but it was one of those nights where their mistakes ended up in the net and everything they threw at the other net was stopped.

Sean Day managed to wreck the shutout with 1:30 left in the second period and it was a pretty inoculas play. Remi Elie got the puck into the zone and dropped it back to Day. The right-shot defenseman threw it at the net and it made it through the tangle of players and past a screened Knight.

Sean Day (Remi Elie, Frank Hora)

The Crunch needed goals early and often, but their quest to comeback was blunted by an early penalty. They were much better killing this one off and soon found themselves back on their own power play. The Checkers agressive pressure disrupted the Crunch’s entries and limited the space they had to operate. It was well over a minute into the power play before they were able to set up and fire off some chances which Knight, of course, stopped.

As the power play expired, Henry Bowlby beat Sean Day to a loose puck and then down the ice. His centering pass eluded a back-checking Charles Hudon and went right to Max McCormick. McCormick one-timed it past Miftakhov.

Less than a minute later Scott Wilson finished off a nice passing sequence for his hat trick goal. The Checkers sixth goal also chased Miftakhov and allowed Corbin Kaczperski to make his AHL debut.

Down by five the Crunch did manage to control the final moments of the game, outshooting Charlotte 7-3 through the rest of the game, but few of the chances outside of a two-on-one attempt by Antoine Morand really challenged Knight. While Kaczperski only had to stop three shots, one of those was a breakaway by Bowlby with 90 seconds to go.

Upcoming Games

Wednesday February 2nd at Belleville Senators, 7:00 PM EST

Friday February 4th at Belleville Senators, 7:00 PM EST

Saturday February 5th vs. Charolette Checkers, 7:00 PM EST