Alex Barre-Boulet has options on the Crunch power play

A look at the choices the rookie forward and his success with the extra skater.

The Syracuse Crunch had a bit of a line-up problem in their game against Binghamton. Their captain, Gabriel Dumont, was scratched from the line-up due to feeling ill. Another one of their key forwards, Alex Volkov, was a bit “banged up” and also out of the line-up. With the injuries to two of their top-six forwards, their league-leading power play would be key to getting back on the winning track.

They got their opportunities in the first period, as they generated three power play opportunities against Binghamton. The only problem was they didn’t convert on any of them (granted, one was only 40 seconds long). They did have decent zone time and were able to fire some pucks at goaltender Evan Cormier, but there was one glaring omission: Alex Barre-Boulet was nowhere to be found on either the first or second unit.

Normally it’s not a big deal if a rookie isn’t getting power play time or is occasionally shuffled off of a unit through the course of a game. It’s peculiar in this case because while Barre-Boulet may be playing in his first professional season, he is leading the entire league in power play goals with 11. He’s also chipped in another 8 assists with the man-advantage. His 19 power play points ties him with Carter Verhaeghe for second on the team, one point behind Cory Conacher.

Why wasn’t he in his normal spot down low when the Crunch had the extra skater on the ice? There could be multiple reasons. Maybe Coach Groulx saw something he didn’t like in practice or in previous games. Maybe he wanted to shake it up against a team that they see more than 10 times this season. Maybe he wanted to give Cal Foote a chance with the top unit. Maybe it’s a reminder to Barre-Boulet and the other young players on the team that spots in the line-up aren’t guaranteed.

Let’s not focus on the why, but on the what. What does Alex Barre-Boulet bring to the power play that has allowed him to be so successful in his first 33 games in the AHL? The undrafted free agent brought with him the reputation of being a hard worker with excellent hockey sense and puck handling. He lit up the QMJHL with 325 points in 255 career games and was named the CHL player of the year in his final season.

That hockey vision and skill has carried over to his AHL career so far, and is best displayed on the power play. He normally lines up on the right wing on a unit that features Andy Andreoff at center, Verhaeghe on the left side, Cameron Gaunce at the left point and Conacher on the right. As the Crunch get set up in the zone, Barre-Boulet will drift down to the goal line off to the goaltender’s left side.

This positioning gives him the opportunity to read the defense and adjust his choices accordingly. His linemates and their abilities give him plenty of options.

Option number one: Shoot

As you can see from this goal, he isn’t afraid to let a shot go even if it isn’t from the best angle. He heads into Friday’s game against Cleveland with a team-leading 99 shots, and a majority of his goals have looked similar to this one. As the Crunch work the puck around, he puts himself in a position to be ready to shoot once it heads his way. He has a quick release and excellent accuracy. If there is room as the goalie tries to slide over, he will find it.

Option 2: Drive the net

With the puck down low he can either pass it out to Conacher, who has a cannon of a shot from the left right circle. The defender has to respect that and choose to either take that pass away or press in on Barre-Boulet and keep him from driving to the net. In this case, the defender played off of him and left a lane for him to attack the net (with some help from Andreoff’s screen). Barre-Boulet backed out and put the puck on net.

Option 3: Go around the net

In this case, Barre-Boulet is following up on his own shot as he goes around the net, but it’s also an option if the front of the net isn’t available to him. He may not be the fastest skater on the ice, but he is quick from point to point and has quick enough hands to stuff the puck into the net if the goalie is leaning the wrong way.

Option 4: Pass from behind the net

Here, Barre-Boulet has drifted behind the net, drawing the attention of the defense. As they collapse down low he spots Verhaeghe alone at the top of the circle and puts a pass right on the spot to set up the goal.

*Option 5: Pass across the net*

Back in his customary spot to the goaltender’s left, Barre-Boulet sees a small lane in front of the net and zips the puck across. Because he has established himself as a shooter, the goalie completely committed himself to stopping the expected shot from Barre-Boulet and is totally out of the play when he sends the puck back across the crease.

Having success on the power play is almost entirely about making the correct reads as the plays develop. With his production so far in his young career, Barre-Boulet has shown that he has that ability. It shouldn’t take long until he’s back where he belongs, hanging out next to the goaltender waiting for the puck to come to him so that he can do something productive with it.

Today’s game:

Syracuse Crunch (21-11-2-0) vs. Cleveland Monsters (17-14-4-1)

It’s the third meeting of the year between these newly minted Northern Division rivals. The Monsters won the first one in overtime and the Crunch rebounded the next day to win 5-3. Cleveland will be without goaltender J.F. Berube who was recalled to Columbus earlier in the week. Brad Thiessen has started the last three games Berube did not, so expect him in net.

Both teams are in a bit of a funk. Cleveland has lost four in a row and Syracuse has dropped three of their last four. For Syracuse, the offense has stagnated a bit since they dropped a 10 spot on Utica at the end of December. In the four games since they have only totalled 11 goals.

Barre-Boulet and Verhaeghe lead the scoring against the Monsters with 3 points (1 goal, 2 assists), while Cleveland will be without their leading scorer in the series as Kole Sherwood (1 goal, 2 assists) sits out the second game of his two-match suspension for an illegal check to the head in a game against Utica.