Crunch Wrap: Punch and Counterpunch

Syracuse Fights For 3 Points This Weekend

This has been a tough year for the Syracuse Crunch’s special teams. They’ve struggled with discipline, their power play hasn’t clicked, and at times their penalty kill hasn’t been able to bail them out of games where they were dominating 5-on-5 play. They’re also a feisty team, they are small up front, but they play up to their competition, and they do not back down from a fight. The aggressive style of play is beneficial when teams try to take liberties on Crunch players that can’t protect themselves or shouldn’t have to protect themselves.

How much of that style of play combined with their reputation as a heavily penalized team contributes to the penalties they receive? Are the Crunch falling victim to poor officiating? Do they seem to get the short end of the game management schtick that refs tend to rely on to keep games competitive? This weekend the Crunch had to navigate all of these questions, and they did it with the grace of a team that’s still looking to polish up their game for the playoffs.

Friday Night’s Game

It was good to see Captain Gabriel Dumont back after a brief absence last week. Jack Finley also returned to the lineup after some time away from the ice. Max Lagace got his 30th start of the season and he’s posted an .890 save percentage and a goal against average of 3.35.

Towards the end of the 1st period, Phillipe Myers took a tripping penalty. The Crunch killed off almost all of it, and then right as time expired former Crunch player Mitchell Stephens scored the first goal of the game for Laval. It was Stephen’s 13th goal of the season, and his 8th goal in 13 games.

In the second period the Crunch had to kill off a double minor high sticking penalty that Gage Goncalves took, and it looked too easy for the Crunch defenders. It could be because the Crunch have been sneaking up the rankings in special teams. They currently sit at 5th in the Eastern Conference for penalty kill percentage at 81.3%. This is no small feat too considering the Crunch are one of the highest penalized teams in the AHL.

Unable to get much going offensively and toward the end of his shift in the offensive zone, Shawn Element tried to get the team going by dropping the gloves with heavyweight Rocket Defender John Parker Jones. Jones is listed at 6 foot 7 230 pounds whereas Element is 5 foot 11 197 pounds. Still Element is not one to back down from a fight, and it pretty evenly fought. His linemates seemed to appreciate the scrap as they came over and gave him a few shin taps on his way off the ice.

One of those linemates, Daniel Walcott, was out on the ice to kill off another double minor penalty for high sticking, when he took the puck from the defensive zone and took off. He had Phillipe Myers trailing him, and Walcott threw a perfect backhand pass back to Myers who shot the puck and it came right to Walcott who was on the doorstep of the goal to score a shorthanded goal. Walcott continues to amass goals in his career offensive year with his 10th goal of the season. It was also his second shorthanded goal of the year and that also is a career high for him.

With a few minutes left and momentum on their side, the Crunch unfortunately took another penalty. Still, the penalty kill led by their Captain Dumont and all-star Alex Barré-Boulet. They did a phenomenal job of keeping the Rocket from taking any shots on goal. The Crunch were able to kill off the penalty, and eventually the time in regulation ran out and despite not having a 5-on-5 goal or a power play goal the Crunch had earned a point thanks to the play from their veterans.

In overtime, that strong play was washed away with one errant drop pass at the blue line. The Rocket took off with the puck and had a 2-on-1, and once again Mitchell Stephens made his old team pay, as he sent a puck to his Laval teammate for an easy tap-in past Lagace.

Saturday Night’s Game

Max Lagace got his second straight start Saturday, and aside from some line shuffling the skaters remained the same.

The first period was all Crunch as they outshot Rochester 18-7. Aside from the numbers, they just carried the play, and Rochester couldn’t do much to slow them down. Toward the end of the first period, Rochester winger Mason Jobst took the game’s first penalty with a hooking call. Prior to that, it seemed like the on ice officials were going to let these division rivals just play hockey. The whistles were swallowed, the teams were playing physical, and the Crunch were dominating in all of the important parts of the ice.

The Crunch were unable to do anything on the power play, and the penalty carried over into the second period.

In the second, Amerks defender Austin Strand took a penalty just 14 seconds into the period. Still, the Crunch were unable to convert. For a scoreless game this would typically be a bad omen for a hockey squad. One of Phil Esposito’s, Lightning founder, favorite adages is if a team can’t convert on a 5-on-3 they’re destined to lose the game.

It definitely seemed like the Crunch were falling victim to this saying in the second period. After their failed 5-on-3, the Crunch were called for 3 straight penalties each spaced perfectly apart. Remember in the first period when it seemed like the on ice officials were just going to let these two rivals play it out? The second period was an overreaction to the neglect of actual officiating happening in the first period. The decision to not call a penalty for fear of affecting the game, means you are affecting the game. The gameplay of this game was dictated by the misfeasance of the officials.

On the second penalty of the period, Captain Gabriel Dumont had position to play the puck and Amerks defenseman Lawrence Pilut cheaply hit Dumont square on the jaw after the puck had exited the zone. The officials apparently saw nothing wrong with the hit deeming it was close enough to the play on the puck to not be late. The Crunch were pretty perturbed by the play, and they made sure to express their anger toward Rochester’s power play skaters.

A few stoppages later, Lagace made a stop on a point shot and winger Brett Murray skated his 6’5 frame into the Crunch goalie. Trevor Carrick immediately began expressing his anger out on Murray’s face with his fist. The lineman jumped in to protect Murray, but Carrick continued to punch away and the refs gave him a minor for roughing. On the third penalty, the Crunch failed to kill it off, and the Amerks struck first to make it 1-0.

The trend of this period would continue to be that Rochester would make a dirty play that would go uncalled, and Syracuse would respond and get a penalty. Can you blame them for standing up for their goalie, their captain, or for protecting their own bodies from unchecked abuse? This writer is not someone that believes fighting needs to be a major part of the game, but after watching games like this it reminds us all of the necessity of it. Officials will either not do their jobs, do their jobs poorly, or do their jobs unfairly. Teams need to police each other and keep the safety of the on ice product in check.

Could this be a match-up of perception versus reality? Perception would lead refs to see that Syracuse is the 5th most penalized team in the entire AHL with 927PIM, while Rochester is the 28th with 642 PIM. The reality is Rochester was overmatched with a highly skilled Syracuse team that was skating circles around them on the ice and whom they are just as behind in the standings. They had to toe the line of dirty and aggressive hockey to be competitive.

To their credit, the Crunch stuck to their process too. They didn’t let Rochester’s play dictate how they were going to play. On paper, it looked like the Crunch lacked discipline, but the perception of this writer is that the Crunch were incredibly resilient in fighting through the rough stuff and reserved in their judgment when it came to doling out retribution.

Syracuse was inevitably rewarded for their play as Jack Thompson struck first on a 4-on-4 for Syracuse to tie the game at 9:55. It was Thompson’s 6th goal of the season, and it was a sneaky good pinch in the offensive zone.

Just 35 seconds later Rudolfs Balcers joined the foray, and scored his 4th of the season to put the Crunch in the lead 2-1.

Play continued and even the Crunch were able to get another power play out of the 13 penalties called in the period. Toward the end of the period, the Amerks took a shot on goal that Lagace saved but sprawled out in the crease to make. A Rochester player came by Lagace after the whistle and took a whack at the puck. This time it was Ryan Jones to express his disapproval at the behavior of the Rochester player. He made sure to let him know he was disappointed with the play by pushing him up against the glass and reiterating his dissatisfaction by shoving him a few times. This led to a scrum of both teams, and a power play for Rochester.

The Crunch did a good job of killing off the penalty for Jones, and play continued and toward the end of the period another Rochester player hit Felix Robert up high. It was a borderline penalty, but it went uncalled right in front of the official and the Crunch bench. The next player on the ice for Robert was Daniel Walcott, and he let the Amerks know he saw the hit by hitting a Rochester play up against the boards. To the surprise of no one, Walcott was called for boarding and the Crunch ended the period on the penalty kill.

In the third period, the Crunch killed off the penalty without any damage done from the Amerks power play. A few minutes later, Trevor Carrick reminded everyone sometimes all you have to do is shoot the puck and good things happen. It was Carrick’s 10th goal of the season. He is only one goal away from tying his career high which was done when he was with the Charlotte Checkers in 2017-2018.

The Crunch were content with a two-goal lead, and they shifted their attack from a more conservative defensive approach. Halfway through the period the final tally from the Crunch was this insurance goal by Gabriel Dumont.

It was the Captain’s 17th goal of the season. That’s 5 goals above his AHL career average of 13 goals a season. It’s his 4th highest total of any season in the AHL. It seems unlikely he bests last year’s career high of 30 goals with only 16 games left in the regular season, but if he pulled it off it wouldn’t surprise me. Gabriel Dumont is a force, and when he puts his mind to something he gets results. Most of the time that means he’s figuratively pulling his team into the fight, literally pulling a player into a fight, or fighting through an injury. The force is strong with Dumont, and he’s the kind of stubborn, annoying, and feisty player that the Lightning organization usually pays plenty of assets to obtain at draft time.

After that it was all Crunch, and they sat back and let Rochester come to them. They’ve been trying to control play with the lead, and it’s leads like this that allow them to practice this style of play. It’s different from the pace pushing play that they typically play, but it’s just as important to winning games. Especially when you get into the playoffs and the scoreboard margins narrow with the familiarity of your opponent. It did allow for a lopsided period in terms of shots on goal, Rochester had 17 to Syracuse’s 8, but that was due more to the Crunch’s prevent defense than anything.

The Crunch have taken their fair share of penalties this season, and on paper it would seem like this game was called evenly. One might even argue the game management was on full display for the Crunch to keep the penalties close (Rochester ended up with 6 times shorthanded to Syracuse’s 7 times shorthanded). To those people I would say, “You didn’t watch the game.” This game should have been called a lot tighter in the first period, but the refs let stuff slide, and in the second period they had to make egregious calls to let the players know they were still there. Luckily for the Crunch, they were still able pull off the victory despite the officiating, but it has been a frustration all season.

Coming Up

The Crunch go to Providence Wednesday to play the Atlantic leading Bruins. The Crunch are 1-2 versus Providence this year. They dropped the first two, but beat the Bruins decisively in a 4-0 win that last time they faced each other.

On Friday Syracuse visits Bridgeport who is toward the bottom of a really competitive Atlantic division. The Crunch beat the Islanders 4-3 the last time the two faced off which was December 17th.

Saturday the Crunch will be at home to take on Wilke-Barre/Scranton who is now at the bottom of the Atlantic. The Crunch will look to sweep the season series as Syracuse’s 2-0 versus them this year.