Playoff Crunch Wrap: Delicious Home Cooking

Playoff Crunch Wrap: Delicious Home Cooking
Syracuse Crunch Felix Robert (36) before a face-off against the Rochester Americans in American Hockey League (AHL) playoff action at the Upstate Medical University Arena in Syracuse, New York on Friday, April 21, 2023. Photo by Scott Thomas (Scott Thomas Photography)

Welcome to the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs, Syracuse Crunch fans. There are so many questions revolving around this team.

After an up-and-down season, have the Crunch finally flipped the switch? The Groulx Effect so many fans brought to my attention never materialized in the season, but could it be possible for it to shift into the playoffs? Can the goaltenders gain some confidence and get hot when the team needs them the most?

There’s only one way to answer all of these questions and that's to play the games. This weekend the Crunch took a step forward as a team.

Friday Night’s Game - Syracuse 3, Rochester 2 (OT)

Roster-wise, there were no surprises  as the Crunch stuck with the players that have got them this far. Jack Finley is still out with what one can only assume is an injury, and Sean Day is suspiciously absent as well. Don’t expect too much news on the injury front as the typical tight-lipped AHL team will become even more quiet as the playoffs commence.

Veteran Ryan Jones took Day’s spot as a left-handed defenseman on the third pairing. Rookie defender Max Crozier is a right-handed defenseman and it can only be assumed that he’ll continue to get playing time as long as there aren’t any other adept organizational right-handed defenseman with a free schedule.

The first period ended scoreless with the Crunch outshooting the Amerks 11-9. The Crunch’s play was timid, and they struggled to connect passes. Still, they were doing a lot of positive things, and they just needed to clean up their play to make it all click.

Syracuse Crunch Declan Carlile (72) skating with the puck against Rochester Americans Linus Weissbach (13) hosted the Rochester Americans in American Hockey League (AHL) playoff action at the Upstate Medical University Arena in Syracuse, New York on Friday, April 21, 2023. Photo by Scott Thomas.

In the second period, Declan Carlile was the first to get either team on the board. Carlile has slowly emerged as an important part of the team as the season has progressed. In 69 regular season games, he had 8 goals and 16 assists, but that was largely sheltered because of his rookie status. That and the Crunch already had a few puck moving defenseman that could score. Once Darren Raddysh went up later in the season, Carlile’s role and confidence seemed to grow. Either way, his bomb from the point was good enough for Syracuse’s first goal of the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs. They led 1-0.

Linus Weissbach tied the game for the Amerks. In 10 games against the Crunch this year, Weissbach had 4 goals and 4 assists. His efforts were once again rewarded, and the game was tied 1-1.

A little later on Amerks defenseman Jeremy Davies took a penalty for tripping. While shorthanded the Amerks stole the puck away and had a breakaway on net. Veteran Max Alnefelt was unfazed and turned aside the shot on net, and kept his team in the game and chasing the lead.

That lead would come when Felix Robert scored to put the Crunch on top. The power play (Davies was in the box yet agains) came through again in a big way, and the Crunch were now up 2-1.

Just like the regular season, these teams were just too evenly matched to have one pull too far ahead. The Amerks came right back and tied it with just over a minute left in the period. Josh Passolt came in to find the rebound and he hit the puck so that it looked like an offspeed pitch was lofted over a sprawling Lagace. Just like that it was 2-2.

Just like the first period, by the end of the second both teams tied, and the Crunch led in shots on goal 22-17.

In the third period, the Crunch really turned it on. They doubled their efforts to get the game in hand in front of the home crowd. They added more shots on goal (14 total in the period) and really kept the Amerks from getting anything into the zone (only 6 shots on Lagace). Still, the Crunch weren’t able to find the back of the net due to the heroics of one Malcolm Subban in net for Rochester. To make matters worse, after dominating the period, the Crunch took a late period penalty and put the Amerks in a position to score on the power play. Syracuse killed off the penalty without allowing a shot on goal.

At the end of regulation Syracuse led in shots on goal 36-23, but the game was tied and would require a sudden death overtime.

If it's overtime in April then it's Philippe Myers time. The big defenseman ended things just 2:20 into the bonus frame.

Myers, The God of Overtime, came through for the Crunch. In April he had two overtime game winning goals for the Crunch, once against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and once against the Rochester Americans.

Saturday Night’s Game - Syracuse 3, Rochester 0 (Crunch lead 2-0)

There would be no line blender for Coach Ben Groulx as the two teams were right back out there. The lines, the defense, and the goaltender were all the same. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In the first period, the Crunch continued their dominance from the previous night’s game. It’s nice to jump out to a lead, but it must feel even better for the team to get a goal from an unlikely player. Ryan Jones scored 3 goals in 61 games for the Crunch. He’s not known as a scorer, and honestly, the team probably doesn’t expect or need him to score. That’s why Syracuse has players like Alex Barré-Boulet and Simon Ryfors, but when you get contributions up and down your line up from all skaters, it makes players skate a little faster and sit a little taller on the bench.

It took all of 1:52 for Jones to find the back of the net. It's one of those goals that you wonder if he was just throwing it at the net hoping for a deflection in front. No matter his intention, the Crunch were up 1-0.

The Crunch continued to push for the next goal, and halfway through the period Gage Goncalves came through. It was excellent patience by the youngster as Malcolm Subban had come way out to the top of the crease and Goncalves just waited until Subban committed before firing it past him.

Not only were the Crunch dominating offensively in this period, but they held Rochester to zero shots on goal. In team history, according to play-by-play man Lukas Favale, this feat has never been accomplished.

That level of dominance couldn’t be sustained in the second period. Especially when the Crunch’s lack of discipline started to creep back into their game. The refs, to this point, were calling the game in a typical playoff fashion. Letting a lot of things go, only blowing the whistle when an particularly egregious play dictated the need for a call, the officiating was typical playoff officiating that seems to be incredibly divisive amongst fans. That said, when the play becomes more aggressive as a result of the lack of whistles it can lead to some dangerous moments.

One of those dangerous moments came six minutes in the second period. Rochester winger Filip Cederqvist was skating the puck out of the zone when Syracuse Captain Gabriel Dumont lunged for the puck with his skate. It led to a knee-on-knee play that immediately sent Cederqvist spinning to the ice in pain. The Amerks took exception to the hit and made a weak attempt to go after Dumont. It seemed clear from Dumont’s body language that he didn’t intend for the hit to be injurious, but rules don’t need to be enforced on intent. If that were the case, then every tripping call in hockey would be null and void. After reviewing the play, the official deemed the play was a Major penalty and gave Dumont a Game Misconduct penalty on top of that which ended Dumont’s night. Cederqvist was able to come back into the game, and he looked no worse for wear on the ice.

As for Syracuse, the Crunch did an admirable job of picking up their play after the absence of their captain. The penalty kill came in the clutch despite missing arguably its best penalty killer in Dumont. In the game the Crunch killed off 4 penalties, and the Amerks were unable to build any momentum off these game moments.

Goaltender Max Lagace has looked every bit the calming influence in net. He hasn’t looked bothered by much this weekend. He’s even been more aggressive at playing the puck. On one occasion Lagace seemed to flip the puck right to an Amerks player, but quickly recovered his positioning in net and the Crunch were there to wrap the player up.

Syracuse Crunch goalie Max Lagace (33) makes a save against the Rochester Americans in American Hockey League (AHL) playoff action at the Upstate Medical University Arena in Syracuse, New York on Saturday, April 22, 2023. Photo by Scott Thomas

Team defense was something that was inconsistent throughout the season, and at times lacking. The large discourse this year over poor play was whether the defense or the goaltenders were largely to blame for the failures of the Crunch to keep other teams from scoring. After watching the way that Syracuse played this weekend, and how they were positioned correctly, how they picked up the slack, and recovered for one another, it seems like the answer to the poor defensive play was there all along. It needs to be a team effort. If this team can play from their defensive zone out, and if they can sustain this level of systemic play they will be a tough out in the Calder Cup playoffs.

In the end, the Amerks did pull Subban to get an extra attacker on the ice, but the Crunch calmly and collectively got the puck out of the zone and onto the stick of Goncalves who didn’t miss the chance at an empty net goal. Goncalves scored his second of the game, and the Crunch lead the series 2-0.

Coming Up

Despite having an even regular season record against Rochester, the Crunch have found some success winning at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena. In the regular season the Syracuse Crunch won 4 and lost 2.

By winning the first two games, the Crunch now have three cracks at winning the five-game series. Their first attempt will be against the Amerks on Friday at 7:05 PM, and if need be they will play again on Sunday at 3:05 PM.