The Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t the only team in the organization looking for a long playoff run. After it looked like their season was in jeopardy in early February, the Syracuse Crunch went on a tear and ended up with the second seed in AHL North Division. Their reward was a trip directly to the second round and a match-up against the Laval Rocket.
It’ll be the first postseason meeting for the division rivals and the Rocket’s first trip to the playoffs in their five-year existence. For the Crunch, they haven’t tasted the postseason since their underwhelming series sweep to the Cleveland Monsters in 2019 (hey, that sounds familiar to Lightning fans!). The AHL playoffs were cancelled in 2020 (and the Crunch were a borderline team that year) and then they opted out of the postseason last year.
The two teams met eight times this year and the Rocket emerged with the better record at 5-3. However, delving into the numbers a little more could bring some hope to Crunch fans. Three of the Rocket wins came in a four-game stretch in February when Laval was red-hot and the Crunch were still kind of scuffling and Amir Miftakhov and Corbin Kaczperski were manning the nets for Syracuse while Max Lagace and Hugo Alnefelt were out injured.
Alnefelt returned for the fourth game in that stretch and helped the Crunch to a 5-2 win that kickstarted their tear through the league for the rest of the season. Laval also defeated the Crunch 5-1 on the last day of the season with Syracuse icing a prospect-heavy line-up.
That being said, expect this series to be close and a battle of the goaltenders. Laval will have the privilege of choosing between two very good goaltenders in Kevin Poulin (18-8-3, 2.34 GAA, .920 SV%) and Cayden Primeau (16-12-3, 2.94 GAA, .909 SV%) while the Crunch will counter with the AHL Goalie of the Month for April, Max Lagace.
Lagace finished the season with a 23-9-2 record an a 2.31 GAA with a .910 SV%. Numbers that are really good, but hindered a bit with some early season struggles as he worked his way through injuries. In the final month of the season he went 9-1-1 with a 1.56 GAA and .943 SV%. Yeah, that’s pretty good.
He is going to be the most important player on the roster for the Crunch. If he can continue to post those types of numbers, and the players in front of him continue to suppress shots at an elite rate (they were among the top three fewest shots allowed all season) it will be tough to score on them.
Offensively it will be up to a couple of veterans, Gabriel Dumont and Charles Hudon, to make the difference on the ice. Dumont posted a career year with 30 goals and 32 assists as he returned to the team after a two year absence. Hudon, signed in the offseason to bring in some veteran scoring after the Crunch knew they were likely to lose Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk to the Lightning, rewarded GM Stacey Roest’s faith by matching his career high with 57 points. The former Rocket also hit the 30 goal mark for the first time in his career.
After a whirlwind start to his season, Alex Barre-Boulet regrouped and had another outstanding season for Syracuse. In only 58 games, he put up 16 goals and 47 assists, despite an eight-game slump that saw him net only 2 assists during that stretch. After starting the season in Seattle and then getting NHL ice time in Tampa, it had to be hard for him to readjust back to life in the AHL, but, to his credit, he did just that and ended the season on a six-game point streak.
The Crunch battled injuries, not only in net, but up and down their forward ranks. Key veterans like Gemel Smith, Remi Elie, and Otto Somppi were in and out of the season all year long, forcing coach Ben Groulx to mix-and-match his lines constantly. The good news is that younger players like Cole Koepke and Gage Goncalves were forced into slightly bigger roles than initially expected and they more than held their own. Koepke hit the 20-goal mark as a rookie while Goncalves posted a solid 32 point season (17 goals, 15 assists) in 70 games.
Defensively, the Crunch should be pretty set. Veterans Fredrik Claesson and Darren Raddysh lead the group with Sean Day and rookie Nick Perbix following them up. Day had a breakout season as he finished with 8 goals and 32 assists and filled in admirably early in the season when the blueline was in disarray with injuries and call-ups. Ryan Jones had a solid, if somewhat under the radar season and was the only member of the team to appear in all 76 games.
The emergence of Perbix, who signed with the team after his collegiate career ended, really helped to spark the power play at the end of the year. Coach Groulx immediately threw him into the quarterback role on the number one unit and the youngster posted 4 power play assists in 12 games (which was the second most PPA among defensemen behind Day’s 12).
This Crunch team is built to go deep in the playoffs as they have three solid lines that can make life miserable for opponents, a surprisingly deep defensive group, and the hottest goalie down the stretch of the regular season. In a show of support for the solid season, the Lightning didn’t call-up a host of players to be part of the Black Aces squad. Of the regulars that contributed to the success, only Riley Nash, acquired at the trade deadline, joined the Lightning for the playoffs. So they should have basically their full roster ready to go.
They were also dominant at home during their hot stretch, ending the season with a team-record 12 victories in a row. They will need to continue to play well to get past a Laval team that struggled at the end of the season, but has it’s own cast of veteran players (including old friend Cedric Paquette!).
Game 1 — Rocket @ Crunch — Friday, May 6 7:00 p.m. [AHL TV]
Game 2 — Rocket @ Crunch — Saturday, May 7 7:00 p.m. [AHL TV]
Game 3 — Crunch @ Rocket — Thursday, May 12 7:00 p.m. [AHL TV]
Game 4* — Crunch @ Rocket — Saturday, May 14 3:00 p.m. [AHL TV]
Game 5* — Rocket @ Crunch — Tuesday, May 17 7:00 p.m. [AHL TV]