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Crunch Wrap: Syracuse splits weekend games

Crunch lose a race, but win a defensive battle

Scott Thomas Photography

Despite the mixed results this season, the Crunch continue to trod on collecting points and staying alive in a competitive division. Even though they’re toward the bottom of the AHL North, a string of wins would shoot them right up the standings. It’s the perfect encapsulation of a season of ups and downs. It’s not quite ambivalence because the Crunch are remaining competitive, they’ve only lost one game by more than 2 goals. With that said, they’re also not blowing teams out when they win thus their goals for (GF) stat is tied with their goals against (GA) stat with 77 goals respectively.

Going into this weekend, the Crunch knew facing a couple of divisional foes meant playing a few 4 point games, where a win would keep their opponent from gaining points and they would gain ground within the standings. Let’s get into it.

Friday’s Lineup

The Crunch welcomed back goaltender Hugo Alnefelt. I’m sure they’re happy to see him healthy enough to man the pipes after a scary looking incident last week.

In other roster news, Pierre Cedric Labrie celebrated his 700th AHL game.

Gemel Smith kicked off the scoring to make it 1-0.

Jack Thompson’s shot from the blue line found its way into the back of the net to make it 2-0 Crunch.

The Senators scored in the first on the power play when the Crunch just couldn’t clear the puck, and Belleville was relentless and made them pay.

Belleville continued their push into the second period, and scored to tie it 2-2. This play perfectly encapsulates how the Senators were pushing even if they weren’t getting quality scoring chances. They threw the puck around the boards, hurried Hugo Alnefelt, and turned nothing into something with a fortuitous bounce.

The Crunch, sensing they needed to reclaim some momentum, had their own flurry in front of the net when Gemel Smith took a shot and the Senators had to clear it off the line.

Belleville seemed unfazed by this and they continued to pressure the Crunch. This pressure and offensive zone play led to their third straight goal, and Coach Groulx had seen enough and he called a timeout to regroup his team and try to help them come back to their game plan.

Shawn Element is really trying to endear himself to his teammates with his play. All season he’s been sticking up for teammates, playing physical to keep the team engaged in games, and sparking the lineup with play like this.

Right after the timeout Element went to center ice and began jousting back and forth with 6’4” AHL veteran Scott Sabourin. Sabourin is no slouch with physical play, he has a history of fighting, and he currently leads the AHL in penalty minutes with 121. Just for some context, the next closest AHL player has 67 minutes. The puck was dropped and play went on for a bit until Sabourin hit Element hard up against the boards. At that point both players dropped the gloves and fought. It should be noted, that Element is listed as 5’11”. Despite the height difference and the disparity in fight records, Element held his ground and landed a few shots. Both players came together at the end and had grins on their faces as if to say, “we put on a good show, good tilt bud.”

In terms of how the fight helped the momentum, it stopped the bleeding. The Crunch tightened up their game in the neutral zone and were able to get the puck going in the right direction. It at least allowed them to stay competitive until a bounce or call went their way.

The teams continued trading chances into and through the third period. The Senators continued their feisty play, and at one point Senator forward Matthew Wedman knocked over Alnefelt in the crease. Ilya Usau took exception and immediately confronted Wedman, and then backpedaled when he realized Wedman meant business. Usau isn’t someone that usually goes looking for a fight, but was probably emboldened by Coach Groulx’s timeout in the second and Element’s fight that sparked things back in the right direction. Still, it shows how much buy-in this team has that they’re willing to stick up for a teammate that’s just coming back from an injury scare.

This style of play ended up working into the Crunch’s favor, and they got a power play out of it. Jack Finley scores to tie it 3-3.

The Senators quickly scored to regain the lead, and they followed it up with another to give themselves a two goal cushion. It seemed to be the end of the night for the Crunch, but the Crunch’s captain wouldn’t let them fall out of contention. It was only Gabriel Dumont’s second goal of the season (2G, 2A), but he’s played in just seven games, and this game was his fourth since coming back from an injury.

Eventually the Senators would score on an empty net opportunity to take the game and win 6-4.

Final Thoughts

Shawn Element is just a second-year AHL player, and he doesn’t really have a full season under his belt yet, but he’s already bested his point total from a year ago playing in a third less games and he’s almost matched his PIM total. This is someone that has sat on the bench and seen the leaders of this team like Daniel Walcott, Labrie, and Smith play physically and contribute to the success of the team. He’s someone that went from being a healthy scratch, to an ECHL player, and when he was given his opportunity to come back has seized it and hasn’t let it escape his grasp. This iron-fisted way of playing provides the Crunch with more physicality up and down its lineup, but it also contributes to this idea that the Crunch are a tough team to play against. They aren’t going to roll over and die in games. Whether it’s on the scoreboard or with the gloves dropped, they will push back.

Saturday’s Lineup

Cole Koepke, who was reassigned to the Crunch from the Lightning earlier in the day, immediately slotted in with Ilya Usau and Gemel Smith. Koepke, who had 20 goals in his rookie season, should be a welcome addition to a team that needs to continue getting points to remain in the mix for the playoffs. In net, Max Lagace cycled in for Alnefelt.

After an uneventful first period, Alex Barré-Boulet and the Crunch struck first and scored a much needed power play goal to make it 1-0.

Currently, the Crunch’s PP is 21.7% and is good enough to be 14th in the league, but the last 5 games it’s been 31.25%. It’s getting slightly better, but not quite where it was when they were leading the league earlier in the year.

The Crunch ended up conceding a power play goal midway through the period which allowed the Marlies to tie it 1-1.

In the third period, there were a handful of defensive lapses that led to breakaways for the Marlies, but Lagace stood tall and was there to bail out the Crunch. Just like their parent clubs, who were also playing Saturday night, this game was closely contested late into the game. What is it with Crunch and Lightning games having similar vibes?

Eventually the Crunch were able to make something happen, and Félix Robert made it 2-1. It was Element that was able to get the puck in deep, Robert who was able to battle the puck off the boards and back to the blueline. Declan Carlile fired the puck into a mass of players, and the puck found Robert’s stick for his 10th goal of the season. He’s tied with Ryfors for the team lead.

When the Marlies pulled their goalie, Cole Koepke made it 3-1 by outskating two Marlies defenders to track down a puck and put it into the back of the net.

Notable

Gemel Smith’s goal on Friday night gave him 200 career AHL points for his career.

Phillipe Myers was reassigned to the Crunch on Saturday after clearing waivers. The 6’6” Myers played 11 games for the Lightning this year. Last year he split his time between Nashville (27 games) in the NHL and the Marlies (16 games) in the AHL. He’ll some blueline help with some experience, it’ll allow them to go 11 forwards/7 defensemen as well as allowing some players to get a rest if they need to. Tyson Feist in his rookie season has played in only 5 games, and one of those was as a forward. I would look for a transaction later this week to see him get more ice time in Orlando.

With a goal and an assist Saturday night, Alex Barré-Boulet is now within striking distance of second place all time in Syracuse Crunch scoring. He has 225 points all time with the Crunch, and Lenny Bohonos had 230 points from 1994-1998. Brad Moran has the record for points with 241.

Coming Up

The Crunch play the Rochester Americans Wednesday, the Toronto Marlies Friday, and the Utica Comets Saturday. It will be a divisional gauntlet that could see the Crunch finding some daylight in their division if they’re able to secure a majority of the possible points available.