Coming out of the All-Star break, the Syracuse Crunch have not had the results that they would like. They have been doing all the right things offensively to stay competitive, but the puck just haven’t been going in for them. They continue to struggle with keeping their goalies healthy, but that seems to be just pure bad luck.
This weekend Syracuse continued their process over results approach and continued to play the style of hockey that made them so successful earlier in the season. They did become a bit more disciplined, the special teams woke up a little bit, and despite playing injured they got a big boost from Max Lagace at times. It wasn’t a perfect week, but it did put them in a safer position to maintain their playoff spot.
Wednesday Night’s Game
A noticeable absence in the roster recently has been Gemel Smith. The Crunch decided to go with 11 forwards and 7 defenseman, and Lagace was between the pipes.
We're going 11-7 tonight in Belleville. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/LHXIOJLU3E— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 15, 2023
To start the game, it was all Syracuse. They dominated puck possession for the first 2 minutes of the game, and the puck stayed in Belleville’s zone until Jack Finley and Rudolfs Balcers collided with a Sens player and Balcers got called for boarding. The Crunch did a good job of keeping the Sens off the scoreboard for their first power play, but they lost all the momentum they had gained from the beginning of puck drop.
Balcers came out of the box, and the Sens put the puck in deep and applied pressure. Lagace was able to make a few initial saves on Belleville center Cole Cassels, but he was able to eventually find the back of the net. The Sens went up 1-0.
Later on in the first period, the Crunch were playing with fire again, and took a couple of overlapping penalties. The penalty kill was able to kill off the 5-on-3, but as time was close to expiring Angus Crookshank scored to make it 2-0.
The period continued that way with the Crunch taking two more penalties, and they were lucky to get out of the period only down 2-0.
To start the second period, the Crunch had to kill off a 5-on-3, and the PK came out successful this time. Still, Syracuse couldn’t keep themselves out of the box, and at 5:11 Alex Barré-Boulet took a slashing penalty. This time the Sens Crookshank made them pay again just 10 seconds into the power play. The Crunch were down 3-0.
A few minutes after taking a puck off the face, Daniel Walcott answered for the Crunch. He continues to add to his career year with 9 goals and 21 points for the season.
A sneaky feed for Wally to send home pic.twitter.com/rIOBURWciw— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 16, 2023
Belleville seemed to want to antagonize the Crunch at this point, and took a few questionable runs at Crunch players. First it was Cole Reinhardt who hit Jack Thompson up high in the head. Declan Carlile took exception, and immediately went after him to answer for the hit. Carlile took the bulk of the penalties for instigating and got a game misconduct, and that offset any penalties the Crunch might have received for that cheapshot from the Sens forward. A few plays later, center Mark Kastilic took a run at Simon Ryfors, and captain Gabriel Dumont immediately challenged Kastilic to a fight. Both went off, and the game continued with no one getting any momentum from the hits or fights.
Instead, play went on and Darren Raddysh took a holding call. This time another defenseman stepped up in Raddysh’s absence, and scored to get the game within one. Phillippe Myers on the penalty kill skated down the ice with the forecheckers and scored his third shorthanded goal of the season. That actually ties him with 4 other skaters for the lead in the AHL even though he’s skated in 10 less games than all the other skaters.
That's 3️⃣ shorthanded goals for Phil this season pic.twitter.com/pQpCU5k15V— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 16, 2023
The period ended and the Crunch were only down one goal, and the score was 3-2.
In the third period, the Crunch applied a little bit of pressure, and they stayed out of the box to begin with. It was a tentative push to get back into the game. Then at 12:34 Max Lagace made a save and went down awkwardly. It looked like an innocent enough save, and he wasn’t near any Belleville players. He seemed to be favoring his knee, but he stayed in the game.
Later on, Gage Goncalves wanted to join the party that was happening in the penalty box, and he took a tripping call at 11:38. The Crunch were able to kill off the penalty, and they narrowly avoided a Crookshank hat trick as he grazed a shot off the post.
After killing off the penalty, the Crunch continued to push slightly, and with about 3 minutes left in the game they pulled Lagace to add the extra attacker. They were able to get quite a bit of pressure but not many shots on goal. With a few seconds left, however, the Sens were able to score an empty netter. The game was over, and the Crunch had lost their 5th straight game.
Midweek Roster Movement
On Thursday it was reported that Gemel Smith had been loaned to the Henderson Silver Knights, the Vegas Golden Knights AHL affiliate. I’ve been pretty active on Twitter in speculating why this move happened and why it happened when it happened. Smith was on pace to have a career record season in points and potentially goals. He was a major factor in the forward core in providing offense, grit, and keeping teams honest.
The @TBLightning have reassigned forward Gemel Smith to the @HSKnights. https://t.co/eMDTtI71wT— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 16, 2023
After putting my personal thoughts on Twitter, and being flippant in my armchair speculation, it really doesn’t matter why it happened or when it happened. On the ice Smith seemed like a great teammate, a fantastic hockey player, and his off ice struggles show he’s an incredibly brave human being for seeking help for his mental health issues. For whatever reason, Smith was moved, and fans need to remember that hockey players are human first. Wherever Smith ends up, I wish him success personally and professionally.
On Friday the Crunch found a player that seemed to fit the gritty role left behind from Smith. Enter Daniel Walker of the University of Waterloo, a 6’6 230 pound winger that led his team in scoring, goals, power play goals, and penalty minutes. The University of Waterloo wasn’t exactly lighting up the Ottawa University Athletics league, they finished second to last in the league. That said, the fact that Waterloo didn’t have any meaningful hockey left to play, allowed an opportunity for Walker to fit into the Crunch roster.
Saturday Night’s Game
The Crunch went back to 12 forwards and 6 defencemen, and Lucas Edmonds was the 12th forward. Max Lagace continues to start in net.
Tonight's projected lines in Utica ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/ocNRmJOO7S— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 18, 2023
The Crunch started out strong. They had most of the possession for the first 5 minutes of the game, but they couldn’t seem to get much past Utica’s defensive system.
At 7:21 Utica countered Syracuse’s push, and scored first to make it 1-0.
At 13:55, Rudolfs Balcers came into play like a rocket, stole a pass, and immediately applied pressure. His play caused confusion amongst the Comets ranks, and they hooked him to keep him from making any further plays. On the power play the Crunch found the back of the net, it was Simon Ryfors that took a shot on net that was blocked, he found the puck again and shot it, it was blocked, and on the third attempt backhanded it into the net. The game was tied 1-1.
The Crunch kept up the pressure. Alex Barré-Boulet did a dazzling job keeping the puck in the zone, he found a streaking Gage Goncalves who danced and dodged Utica players and threw a phenomenal pass to a wide open Trevor Carrick who slammed the puck home unimpeded to make it 2-1.
In the second period, Felix Robert took a hooking penalty a few minutes into the period. It was a popular call all night, and it seemed like the only call the officials were willing to make.
The Crunch were doing a decent job of causing chaos in the defensive zone on the penalty kill. The Crunch weren’t in control of the penalty kill, they weren’t getting pucks out of the zone every opportunity, but they were throwing bodies and sticks on skaters and it didn’t allow for Utica to do much with their 26th ranked power play. With about 10 seconds to go in killing off the penalty, the Crunch allowed Jack Dugan to get behind the defense and he had a breakaway that Lagace did a fantastic job saving. On the rebound, Dugan had a chance to stuff it past a stretching Lagace, but he shot it wide.
A shift or two later, Utica managed to get the puck in the zone, and somehow they had two men in alone on Lagace and the puck came to them. Lagace robbed the point blank chance, and kept the game tied. When talking with the play-by-play announcer for ESPN Syracuse Lukas Favale, Coach Ben Groulx said, “Our best players need to be our goaltending.” This game, Lagace was playing like it, he was keeping the Crunch in the game, and allowing them to take offensive gambles against this stout Utica system.
This game had a back and forth pace that could only be described as urgent. Both teams were playing like they wanted to be the next team to score. At 10:18 Daniel Walcott took that urgency and very comically carried the puck into the zone. Somehow he held onto the puck as it was bumbling, stumbling, and rumbling all over the ice, and in this process he must have mesmerized the Utica defense because his next move was to find a wide open Lucas Edmonds with the puck. Edmonds waited a professional eternity at the hash marks with the puck, but wristed a snipe shot home past goaltender Akira Schmid.
The Crunch kept the pressure on, and at one point Barré-Boulet sent Gabriel Fortier into the zone on a breakaway for a couple of shots that didn’t go in. Then the Crunch offense turned that chance into a shooting gallery on net, Schmid stood tall though, and the Comets were not only able to escape trouble they profited off it. After that sequence, Utica took the puck into the zone and threw a puck on net, Declan Carlile sprawled to try to break up a cross ice pass and the puck hit him and ricocheted into the net to make it 3-3. It seemed to be the way the Crunch’s luck was going during this 5 game losing skid.
The Crunch didn’t seem to hang their heads after the play, they continued their aggressive offensive push. Toward the end of the period, the officials missed an obvious trip on Gabriel Dumont that would’ve given the Crunch a power play. Instead the puck went into the defensive zone, and the Crunch managed to find Barré-Boulet and Dumont exiting the zone on a 2-on-1. Barré-Boulet and Dumont did their thing, and the score was 4-3 Crunch with just seconds left in a breathless middle frame. With the goal, Dumont and Barré-Boulet extended a streak of 10 straight games with points on road games.
Then a familiar face tied the game. Dylan Blujus took a slapshot from the point and tied the game 4-4.
That wouldn’t last for long though because Ryfors would get his second of the night off a tipped puck from a slapshot.
Then Walcott and Edmonds would open things up, Walcott had a really slick play to get the puck across the offensive zone to make it a 2-on-1, and he deke passed a puck that just sat there for Edmonds to slam home for his second of the game. It was 6-4 Crunch.
The offense kept coming in the final frame as Balcers and Edmonds found the back of the net on power plays. For Edmonds it completed his first professional hat trick in North America. Joe Gambardella added a meaningless goal with 11 seconds left to finish off the high-scoring affair with the Crunch winning by the final tally of 8-5.
Sunday Night’s Game
Notably absent is Jack Thompson, Ryan Jones slots into his defensive slot, and once again Max Lagace took his spot in net.
Our projected lines this afternoon ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/AqB5OYnrHY— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 19, 2023
With 5:19 in the first period Cole Koepke took a high stick, and the Crunch went on a power play. While taking a stick in the face isn’t ideal, it’s good to see Koepke being rewarded for his hard play. This weekend he has been all over the ice, and he’s been making plays.
On the power play, Gage Goncalves skated a puck from the point, and took a shot on net. Shawn Element picked the puck up and scored his 9th goal of the season to give the Crunch the lead 1-0.
The power play has been lethal this weekend pic.twitter.com/bVdZ7Z15BR— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 19, 2023
In the second period, Lagace was tested by Rochester and made some saves, but he came away looking uncomfortable. It’s no secret that Lagace has been battling an injury, but it hasn’t been serious enough to keep him out of games. At 4:24, Lagace made a routine save, and the puck went out of play. Immediately after making the save, Lagace looked to be in some discomfort, but stayed in the game. The faceoff was to his right, and the Crunch lost it, and it went back to an Amerks forward who tied it 1-1.
At 8:15 Alex Barré-Boulet had probably the easiest goal of the season with a tap-in after Phillipe Myers hammered a shot on net. Looking closer at the play, Gabriel Fortier was hooked as he was trying to block the Amerks goalie Houser’s vision. When Fortier fell he made some contact with Houser, and Houser didn’t realize the puck was stopped at his pad. That allowed Barré-Boulet the easy tap-in, and the Crunch were ahead 2-1.
Doesn't get much easier than that pic.twitter.com/Y3a9ExQ81b— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 19, 2023
The Rochester bench was livid, and they definitely got their money’s worth in protesting the goal to the officials. The officials in kind found a penalty to call on Syracuse a few shifts later.
No matter because the Crunch were cruising toward their second straight win when with 3 minutes left the Amerks tied it. Lagace made the initial save, but couldn’t stop the rebound goal from Juri Kulich.
In overtime, the Crunch started out on a power play, and immediately put pressure on the Amerks, but couldn’t find the back of the net. It seemed like the ice was starting to tilt toward Rochester after they killed off the Crunch power play, but then Barré-Boulet stole a puck away and got it deep into the Amerks zone. He found Darren Raddysh who scored the game winner, and the Crunch won their first overtime game of the year.
Mr. Overtime™️ pic.twitter.com/YKP7BEKFcN— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 19, 2023
With the win Syracuse (53 points) was able to fend off Rochester in the division standings and move into second place just ahead of Utica (53 points) because of their winning percentage.
The Crunch get some time to rest up and regroup, but they have a trio of games to face in succession this weekend.
First they’ll play Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at home on Friday. The Penguins and their .500 record are at the bottom of a competitive Atlantic Division. It really does seem like any team in that division has a shot at making the playoffs.
Then Syracuse will play Hartford at home Saturday night. Hartford is also near the bottom of the Atlantic standings.
Lastly, they will take on the North Division leading Marlies in Toronto Sunday for an afternoon game. The Marlies have a firm grasp on the top spot of the North Division. That said, they lost a couple players recently due to a trade from the big club. We’ll see if that affects their roster at all.