The results weren’t there for the Crunch this weekend, but the process was. If there’s anything we learned about this organization’s success in the playoffs combined with the inside look into the Lightning dressing room thanks to ESPN’s Quest for the Cup, it’s that this organization prefers “process over outcome”. The two losses prior to the Winter Break to Laval were results where the process wasn’t there. Coach Groulx spoke about how their style of play was hampered by their frustration on the ice of the officials and that led to undisciplined play. The needle was scratching the record, and the Crunch were out of their groove.
This weekend the Crunch process was there, maybe not 100% of the time, but the team was playing a style of game that was more consistent with the style that brought them success. It’s a style of play that allowed them to go on a five-game winning streak in November and a four-game streak prior to the postponement of the Rochester game in December. This weekend the results weren’t there, but the process of their play allowed some hope to those watching that this is a team that’s going to fight to remain relevant in the standings come April.
Friday Night’s Game
The big story of this lineup is that goaltender Hugo Alnefelt, defender Trevor Carrick, and Forward Felix Robert aren’t in it. Since the AHL is so tight-lipped when it comes to injuries, one can only assume since they’ve been scratched a few games now that these subtractions have to be as a result of injuries. Hopefully, they’re on the path to recovery because those could be some huge additions to a team that is desperate for some consistency of play in the lineup.
Our projected lineup against Belleville ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/9E8DOaGylV— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 6, 2023
Belleville was the first to get on the board with a power play goal to make it 1-0.
In the second period, Cole Koepke hits a Belleville forward. Said Belleville forward doesn’t like it, and challenges Koepke to a fight. Koepke obliges, and there’s a scrap away from the play.
Syracuse responds with a brilliant shorthanded goal scored by Phillipe Myers.
We love to see a shorty pic.twitter.com/grl6soI6gF— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 7, 2023
In the third period, Belleville scores to go back ahead 2-1.
Then Shawn Element evens things up. It was Element’s fifth goal of the season. This tic-tac-toe goal is definitely worth your time, it’s a beauty.
Ultimately, things went to overtime, and there wasn’t much to note. The score was still 2-2, and the winner would get determined by a shootout. The Crunch were unable to convert on either of their chances, and Belleville scores on both of their shots. Belleville took the win, and the Crunch were officially on a losing streak.
Saturday Night’s Game
For this game Lucas Edmonds slotted in for P.C. Labrie at the winger position. Other than that, the lineup remained the same. Surprisingly, Lagace was the starter.
Our projected lines this evening ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/jdXMlOLSgy— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 7, 2023
It was a terrible start for the Crunch in the first period. Let’s break down what went wrong.
On the first goal that Amerks scored, there was an initial shot from the point that Lagace made the save on, but he let a rebound pop out and Ethan Prow jumped on it to bury the goal. The rebound didn’t seem as much of an issue as the recovery Lagace needed to make for the second shot on goal. When Lagace makes saves like he made on the shot from the point, he has the skillset to be able to recover and slide over in time to make the second save. This should have been the first clue that he wasn’t 100% healthy.
ETHAN PROW— Rochester Americans (@AmerksHockey) January 8, 2023
WE STRIKE FIRST! pic.twitter.com/xQfIJdCbnY
Either way, it was 1-0 Rochester, and Lagace remained in net.
For the second goal, Lagace had absolutely no chance at making this save. This was a skater that fell asleep on an assignment because as you can see all 4 penalty kill skaters are below the dot in the corner trying to make a play on the puck. There are two Amerks skaters that are left all alone, and when the puck gets passed back to one of them they’re wide open to take a shot on net. Easy goal, it’s 2-0 Amerks.
BIG MURR POWER PLAY GOAL pic.twitter.com/5A7XgjGJYH— Rochester Americans (@AmerksHockey) January 8, 2023
For the final goal of the period, Prow again scored. This time it was just a wrist shot fired from the top of the circle. That’s a goal that needs to be saved. Sean Day does go on one knee to attempt a block, and it’s possible that Lagace was obstructed from seeing the puck. However, even if that’s the case, Lagace has to be able to anticipate a shot from Prow there. It seems more likely that the goal was scored because of an injury or fatigue from a goaltender that’s trying to battle through.
Whether it was a lingering injury, the result of fatigue from playing a back-to-back, or the lack of consistent play from the skaters in front of him Lagace almost had to be pulled to start the second period. 25 year old, AHL rookie Jack LaFontaine had played in three games prior, and had posted a .918 save percentage. The Crunch needed a wake-up call and Ben Groulx made sure the phone was ringing the next period. The bullpen call was made, and to start the period LaFontaine took over for veteran Lagace.
From the start of the second period, the team looked determined to get back to Crunch hockey. The process started to shift back to getting pucks out of the zone, and trying to sustain offensive zone pressure.
Then at 18:41 Amerks’ captain Michael Mersch skated into the crease where LaFontaine was, Myers gave him a shove, and Mersch fell into the Crunch goalie. The Crunch skaters didn’t seem to like that much, even though the contact was as a result of friendly fire. Either way, the Crunch response was very telling. They were not going to let Rochester walk into their goalie, their arena, and take liberties. The tone was set for the rest of the game. Mersch did get a goalie interference penalty, but the Crunch weren’t able to convert.
A few minutes later the Crunch were able to draw another penalty and this time they were able to convert for a power play goal. Alex Barré-Boulet had the puck near the point, flipped it to Simon Ryfors who backhanded a shot, and Shawn Element knocked it in from in front of the net to get back within two goals. The Amerks led 3-1.
The rest of the period was marked by the Crunch playing more effectively as a team. They had the puck more, and were able to control the puck when it was in their end. LaFontaine was tested a few times, and made some decent saves to keep Syracuse in the game. He even helped kill off a 5-on-3 penalty against the Crunch.
It was a much better period for Syracuse. They went into the second intermission with all of the momentum.
The third period is where the Crunch came alive, and it didn’t take long. The beginning of the period was a Jack Finley takeover. He won the puck at center, and got it back to the defense who was able to throw it in deep. From there, Finley’s forechecking led the way as he went behind the net to the boards and used his 6’6 frame to body off the defender and get the puck back to the blueline. The puck made its way to Darren Raddysh who fired the perfect pass to Finley who was now stationed at the net and had an easy path to a goal. The Crunch were only down a goal now, and it was only 18 seconds into the period.
The Crunch continued to buzz around the offensive zone for the rest of the first 10 minutes. Then at 9:15 LaFontaine made a tremendous point blank save, and the rebound came to Captain Gabriel Dumont who started a rush up the ice. Gemel Smith and Gage Goncalves got on the forecheck and ground away to get a greasy game-tying goal down low. The persistence paid off, and the Crunch looked like they found their game. The needle found its groove. The record was playing something triumphant, something, hopefully, royalty free. It seemed like things were finally on track, and the Crunch were going to bring this magnificent comeback to its full closure.
Then someone bumped the record. It was a blip, or a hiccup. A minor error from a backchecking forward led to a two-on-one, and the Amerks skater fired it past LaFontaine. It looked like a difficult shot to face, and an otherwise stellar back-up performance by LaFontaine had a bad mark thanks to a minor slip-up.
As the game went on, the Crunch still seemed to be getting stronger and stronger. They kept firing the puck on the net, and the puck luck seemed to not be on their side anymore. Pucks were sliding through the crease just out of the reach of Crunch forwards sticks.
LaFontaine kept them in it though with one last great save on a breakaway, and then he skated off the ice for the additional attacker. It was no use, their luck had run out. The Crunch had fired 44 shots on goal to the Amerks 29, and they got pretty stellar play from their third string goalie. They just couldn’t make up for their poor first period play.
As the horn signaled the end of the game, the Crunch continued in vain to dig the puck out of the skates of an Amerks player. Then Amerks defender Matt Barkowski shoved a defenseless Gemel Smith to the ice. Smith did not appreciate the gesture, and wanted to make sure that Barkowski knew he was being removed from any future Christmas card correspondence.
No big deal. It was an end of the game scrum. The Crunch had just dropped their fourth straight, and they lost to a division rival on their home ice. These things happen.
That’s when the abnormal happened. The rest of the teams started trickling on the ice, including LaFontaine. When LaFontaine noticed Amerks goalie Malcolm Subban skating into the fracas, the Crunch goalie threw off his gloves and immediately engaged with Subban.
Here’s a look at the scrum from last night’s game:— Future Bolts (@LightningProsp1) January 8, 2023
It all starts with Matt Bartkowski shoving Gemel Smith. You see Malcolm Subban inching his way into the scrum and that’s when Jack LaFontaine comes in and gets involved.
Both LaFontaine and Smith were suspended out of this. pic.twitter.com/JhZPDIe8ND
There was some chatter on Twitter that Smith had abused the official and would therefore receive an automatic 10 game suspension. There was also mention that LaFontaine would get an automatic suspension due to his involvement.
Either way, it’s easy to sit back and say, “they need to be smarter.” It’s home ice, there’s frustration involved, team pride is on the line, players health, and no one wants to be seen as a bystander to a teammate that’s been assaulted. At the end of it all, what happened, happened. Syracuse didn’t have to wait long to turn the page on this event.
Sunday Night’s Game
With LaFontaine and Smith seemingly sitting due to pending suspensions, and Max Lagace starting the previous two games and not looking 100 percent healthy. The Crunch signed Kaden Fulcher just before this game as insurance.
We have signed goaltender Kaden Fulcher to a PTO.https://t.co/iBIfaOZq0q— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 8, 2023
Our projected lines in Hershey ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/KtA6luv4c0— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 8, 2023
With the way Lagace has been playing, with the way Hershey’s been playing so far this season, and on the third straight game of the weekend this game seemed destined to be a loss.
The way the first period went, it didn’t seem like either team was willing to give up much either. The shots were pretty low, and Hershey was able to convert on a play where the Crunch skaters just looked tired.
It was 1-0 after one period.
For the second period it seemed like fatigue was going to more of a threat to the Crunch than the Bears. Just 3 minutes into the period, forward Connor McMichael of the Bears was given a puck that came from a takeaway in the Crunch offensive zone. He immediately skated around both Crunch defenders to have a clear shot at the net. It was 2-0 Hershey.
Then a few minutes later, Hershey stole a puck, skated it in on a 3 on 2 and seemed to add on to their lead to make it 3-0. However, the referees immediately whistled no goal. Upon review, one of the three skaters body checked a Crunch defender without the puck which allowed the other skater to have a free shot at the net.
The Crunch seemed to kick it in gear after that call went their way. Jack Finley got things going by stealing a puck in the defensive zone. The puck found its way back to him and he scored another goal to get the Crunch going. It was Finley’s fifth goal of the season.
Finner out here playing darts pic.twitter.com/OXE3W5BPyw— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 8, 2023
Hershey was able to get that goal back. On the power play they scored to make it 4-1. It should have been a deflating goal for the Crunch. It was a deflating period, and they would only need to finish out one more period for some much needed rest. No one would have blamed them if they went through the motions for the third.
That’s not the identity of this team. That’s not the style of this team. That’s not the type of leaders that are in that dressing room. Speaking of leaders, Captain Gabriel Dumont continued to get his nose dirty as he took a pass that squeaked its way through the crease and found his stick and he saw nothing but net. He scored to make it 4-2
Wide open net for the Captain pic.twitter.com/cE3m4Vs3NU— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 9, 2023
Speaking of grit and hard nosed play. Shawn Element scored in his third straight game to get the Crunch within one goal.
A three-game goal-scoring streak pic.twitter.com/YDKHBB3FOl— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 9, 2023
It was exactly the style of play that the Crunch needed. It just happened to be too little and too late. The Crunch weren’t able to convert to tie the game, and once again at the end the opposing team tried to create a scrum. Just like Saturday, this team didn’t back down. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be any suspendable offenses for the Crunch.
We’ll let Coach Groulx take the lead on this one courtesy of Patrick Williams from theAHL.com:
Crunch head coach Ben Groulx after a 4-3 loss to Hershey on Sunday (he also benched a few players in the third period):— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsAHL) January 9, 2023
"Our level of compete's not enough. Our execution is not good. I think our team is way better than that, but right now I don't think we look good.#AHL
"It's about playing with our identity right from the get-go."— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsAHL) January 9, 2023
Then he pivoted.
"If we had no character, we would have been [beaten] 5-, 6-1. So, it's a good sign. For me, it's a very positive sign. It's the leadership we have in this room."#AHL
On the one hand, this team has to learn to play a complete 60 minutes. For the Crunch starting strong has been an issue all season, and this weekend was no different. That said, they didn’t entirely let the moment fluster them and drive their game into the ice like in their previous losses.
Considering the circumstances, and against the opponents they were facing, it’s pretty admirable to watch a goalie tough out three straight games where he’s clearly battling through some kind of pain and injury like Lagace did. It’s also amazing to see this team turn on the switch and take over games at will when they’re down.
It has to be a little perplexing for Crunch fans to watch this team claw their way back into 3 straight games only to come away with one point to show for it. This moment seems like a critical moment in the Crunch season. The injuries, the suspensions, and the lackluster play, these are obstacles that if they can be overcome will only make this team stronger and tougher to eliminate in April.
The postgame scrum after Saturday night’s game did lead to a few suspensions. Gemel Smith was levied with a 3 game suspension for “physical abuse of an official”. Whereas Jack LaFontaine’s suspension came as a result of “leaving the players’ bench during an altercation”. Both were out Sunday night’s game so they’ve already served one game that counts toward their respective suspensions.
Syracuse's Jack LaFontaine (six games) and Gemel Smith (three games) have been suspended as a consequence of their actions following Saturday's game vs. Rochester.— AHL Communications (@AHLPR) January 9, 2023
: https://t.co/jFY5PrWUJB pic.twitter.com/IqNDSfHtX3
We have released goaltender Kaden Fulcher from his PTO. https://t.co/PDMIbLG9xR— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 9, 2023
After his one game stint as a back-up against Hershey, Kaden Fulcher’s time with the Crunch has come to an end. With LaFontaine out for the next 6 games, this has to be a good sign that Hugo Alnefelt is healthy enough to come back into the fold.
The Crunch will face divisional foe Laval Friday at home. The two games in Laval to end 2022 seemed to be the beginning of this play. This ought to be an opportunity for them to exorcise some demons. They follow up that game the next night in Lehigh Valley, where they will face a team that seems to be dwelling in the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Then they’ll get an afternoon game for MLK Jr. Day against Utica at home. That will kick off a furious every other game pace in which they’ll face rival Utica for 5 out of the next 8 games. Utica currently sits in second place in the North Division. Buckle Up Crunch fans, this is bound to be an entertaining month.