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Crunch Wrap: A strong month propels Syracuse into the playoff race

They needed a good month to keep pace with the leaders, and that they did

Scott Thomas Photography

At the start of March we identified the upcoming month as being critical to the Syracuse Crunch’s chances of making the playoffs. With the number of games (especially inside their division) that they were playing, if they lost too many they wouldn’t have a shot at making up the gap in April.

With the last month of winter solidly behind them things are definitely looking sunnier for Syracuse. They rolled off an 8-5-1 record in the month, not perfect, but good enough to put them into the 4th spot in the North Division. Inside their own division they went 7-3-1 with all three of the regulation losses coming to Utica. What can we say, they’re a good team.

One of the keys to the Crunch moving up in the standings was that they went 5-0-1 against the Rochester Americans, the Belleville Senators, and Toronto Marlies, all teams they were chasing in the standings.

Finding their offense was key to the successful stretch as they scored 49 goals in the 14 games for an average of 3.5 per game, a half-of-a-goal higher than what they’ve been averaging on the season. With only 7 of those goals coming on the power play, it’s been 5v5 play that has been leading the charge, which is a great sign for the playoffs where special teams play is usually minimized as officials are less inclined to call smaller infractions.

As Alex discussed with Patrick Williams on her Syracuse Speaks podcast it seems the team is finally catching that Ben Groulx wave of success that happens with his teams a couple of months into the season. Usually, with Coach Groulx you tend to see the Crunch get it together around mid-to-late December and kick things into a higher gear. With the weird start to the season - multiple call-ups, injuries, unexpected COVID-break, taxi squad - you can almost break the season into two, with the re-start happening after the holidays. If that’s considered a second start to the season, March would be about the normal lead team for a Ben Groulx-led team to start succeeding in his system.

Defensively, things still haven’t quite shook themselves out as they had a goals against of 3.0, which is better than their season average (3.15) but not where Coach Groulx would like them to be. The number is also slightly inflated when you consider they gave up 11 goals in the first two games of the month to Utica. Take those games out and they are at 2.58 GA/G, a much more reasonable number.

Inconsistent goaltending has been an Achilles’ Heel for the Crunch for the majority of the season as injuries have rolled through the crease. Hopefully, Max Lagace is back for good for the rest of the year. With a regular rotation he showed how good he could be in March. In his 11 games the veteran posted a .910 SV% with a stellar 1.98 GAA with 2 shutouts. That’s the kind of goaltending the Crunch need down the stretch.

If March was the month where Syracuse needed to set themselves up for a playoff run, then April is where they have to finish things off. While they can’t catch Utica, bumping up another spot or two to avoid the best-of-three first round is well within their reach. They’ll have to survive another brutal stretch as they have 15 games in 30 days, with two three-in-threes, the first of which is this weekend. After starting the month on the road, they close with seven of the last eight games at home.

Oddly enough, due to the rescheduling of games from earlier in the year, only seven of the games are against North Division opponents. While it creates fewer head-to-head match-ups that are essentially 4-point games, making it harder for the Crunch to climb up the standings, it also makes it harder for teams behind them to catch up. Still, with points percentage being the deciding factor for standings it behooves Syracuse to win as many of the out of of conference games as possible.

Three Stars of the Month

Max Lagace - 11 games, .910 SV%, 1.98 GAA, 2 Shutouts

We’ve already talked about Lagace in this post so no need to repeat those stats. One thing to note is that Lagace appeared in 11 games in March. Prior to that month he had appeared in just 14 other games. It’s hard to get any type of consistency when you’re in and out of the line-up. Now that he appears healthy, he’s showing Crunch fans exactly why the organization brought him in as a bridge to the next generation of goaltenders.

If he can keep this type of play going, and the players in front of him continue to suppress as many shots as they have so far (they have allowed the third-fewest shots against in the league) the goals against number should decline rapidly.

Alex Barre-Boulet - 14 games, 18 points, 9 goals, 9 assists, 19:05 ice time

It’s been a whirlwind of a year for Barre-Boulet. It started with him having an excellent chance of starting for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then he found himself of waivers, then on a plane to Seattle. After it looked like he might get a fresh start for the NHL’s newest franchise, he ended up back on waivers and back with the Lightning. Then, finally, back in Syracuse. Oh yeah, he was dealing with a newborn baby as well.

It looked like everything had kind of caught up with him and he struggled through a February that saw him without a goal and just 7 assists in 13 games. Not horrible numbers, but not the production BB has put up in the past.

He kicked off March with a hat-trick against Rochester and didn’t slow down as he posted more multiple-point games (6) than pointless games (4). Barre-Boulet is driving play as well. Seven of his assists are primary assists, so if he’s not scoring, he’s setting someone else to. Nor is he relying on the power play to pad his stats (actually, no one on the team is). Just 5 (2 goals, 3 assists) of his points have come with the extra skater.

Having the fourth-year veteran return to form has helped alleviate some of the scoring pressure from Gabriel Dumont and Charles Hudon, and has allowed Coach Groulx to spread his offensive firepower across a couple of lines. Scoring depth is a hallmark of the team and now they are starting to get it.

Darren Raddysh - 14 games, 8 points, 4 goals, 4 assists, 26:02 ice time

If for nothing else, he earns a star for his two overtime game-winners in one week. Outside of that, the fact that he is logging 26 minutes per game for a defense that has lacked consistency gives Coach Groulx one less thing to worry about. Raddysh is on the ice in all situations. His 3:24 leads defensemen in power play time while his 3:33 shorthanded is second to Fredrik Claesson. He’s also second to Claesson at even strength (19:06 to 20:35).

Brought into town for his veteran leadership, it was an up-and-down start to the year for Raddysh as he had some injury issues as well as more than a handful of call-ups to the Lightning. Now that things are a little more settled he’s turned into that consistent force on the top pairing that has allowed Sean Day and Alex Green a little relief and freedom to excel against more favorable match-ups.

Game 59

Crunch 4, Monsters 0

Max Lagace picked up his fifth win in a row and his second shutout of the season by stopping all 21 shots he faced from Cleveland. While they were able to generate 41 shots, the Crunch did fail to convert on their four power play chances. On the flip side their penalty kill did finish with a perfect 3-for-3 record.

P.C. Labrie opened up the scoring late in the first period with his first goal in seven games (and first since February 22nd). The crowd favorite has been in and out of the line-up recently, but when he’s in there is a certain extra step in the Crunch’s game.

The pressure from the home team continues in the second period as Syracuse outshot Cleveland 15-5. More importantly they added two goals as Cole Koepke and Alex Barre-Boulet added markers of their own. Gage Goncalves kept pace with his fellow rookie, Koepke, by adding his 14th goal of the season early in the third.

P.C. Labrie (Sean Day, Alex Green)

Cole Koepke (Charles Hudon, Alex Barre-Boulet)

Alex Barre-Boulet (Fredrik Claesson, Riley Nash) 3-0 Crunch

Gage Gonvales (Darren Raddysh, Gabriel Dumont) 4-0 Crunch

Game 60

Comets 3, Crunch 1

The lone loss of the week was still a pretty competitive game against one of the top teams in the AHL. Max Lagace was sharp in net stopping 21-of-23 shots while Gage Goncalves continued his strong rookie campaign with his 15th goal of the season.

There wasn’t much action in the first as the familiar rivals held each other to just 10 total shots. After Goncalves opened the scoring less than a minute into the second, Utica took control with Fabian Zetterlund scoring a brace.

Syracuse pushed back in the third, but couldn’t find the equalizer before Brian Flynn found the empty Crunch net to finish off the game.

Gage Goncalves (Anthony Richard) 1-0 Crunch

Game 61

Crunch 5, Americans 1

The Crunch closed out the week (and their season series against the Amerks) with a convincing win. Max Lagace recorded his 100th win in the AHL by stopping 26-of-27 shots. Syracuse jumped out to a three-goal lead in the first as Riley Nash scored his first as a member of the Crunch just over five minutes into the game. Charles Hudon doubled up the lead with an unassisted goal and then Nash scored again.

Anthony Ricard and Hudon sandwiched goals around Arttu Ruotsalainen in the third as the Crunch cruised to the easy victory.

Riley Nash (Gage Goncalves, Simon Ryfors) Power Play, 1-0 Crunch

Charles Hudon (Unassisted) 2-0 Crunch

Riley Nash (Anthony Richard, Fredrik Claesson) 3-0 Crunch

Anthony Richard (Gage Goncalves, Riley Nash) 4-0 Crunch

Charles Hudon (Alex Barre-Boulet, Darren Raddysh) Empty Net, 5-1 Crunch

Transactions:

Additions:

Riley Nash (F): It took a little longer than originally planned, but the Crunch finally added some veteran depth at the deadline. The Lightning traded for the center who had been claimed off of waivers from them earlier in the season.

Amir Miftakhov (G): With Hugo Alnefelt nursing an injury, the Crunch brought back Miftakhov for another stint backing up Max Lagace. It’s been an up-and-down year for the young netminder (both on the ice and and the transaction wire).

Subtractions:

Tye Felhaber (F): With Nash coming aboard and an existing glut of forwards despite the Antoine Morand trade, someone had to go down. Felhaber played in two games without recording a point.

Corbin Kaczperski (G): The young netminder was released from his PTO as the Crunch needed a little more (stress little) experience. He did post a 1-2 record with a 3.55 GAA and .870 SV%.

Dmitry Semykin (D): Russian Thor appeared in one game during this recall.

Upcoming Schedule:

After a few days off to catch their breath, the Crunch kick off April with a three-in-three this weekend. All three are on the road and two are outside of their division.

Friday April 1st at Utica Comets, 7:00 PM EST

Saturday April 2nd at Hartford Wolfpack, 7:00 PM EST

Sunday April 3rd at Providence Bruins, 4:05 PM EST