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Calder Cup Finals preview: Crunch to battle Grand Rapids for title

Syracuse is aiming to become just the second Lightning AHL affiliate to win the league championship

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

The Syracuse Crunch are in the Calder Cup Finals for the second time in five years.

The Crunch defeated the Providence Bruins four games to one in the American Hockey League's Eastern Conference Championship to win the Richard F. Canning Trophy as the beast of the East.

In the Calder Cup Finals, Syracuse will face Grand Rapids in a rematch of the 2013 Final the Griffins won in six games.

The Calder Cup Finals begin Friday in Grand Rapids. The Griffins own home-ice advantage for the final round of the AHL playoffs, and the championship round will follow the 2-3-2 format.

Syracuse is aiming to become just the second Tampa Bay Lightning AHL affiliate to win the Calder Cup. The Norfolk Admirals, led by current Bolts head coach Jon Cooper, swept the Toronto Marlies in the 2012 Final the season before the Lightning switched their affiliation to Syracuse.

The Crunch face a tough challenge in the Cup Finals against Grand Rapids. The Griffins are experienced playoff combatants having advanced to at least the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs in each of the last five seasons.

Let's take a closer look at how the Crunch stack up against the Griffins.

CALDER CUP FINALS OPPONENT: GRAND RAPIDS GRIFFINS

Grand Rapids entered the Calder Cup Playoffs as the second seed in the Central Division and swept the Milwaukee Admirals in the first round for the second-consecutive season. The Griffins dismissed the Central Division champion Chicago Wolves in five games in the second round, winning three-straight contests to finish the series. And in the Western Conference Final, the Griffins again closed out the series by winning three games in a row, outscoring San Jose 14-6 combined in that trio of victories.

The Griffins come into the 2017 Calder Cup Finals battle-tested; over the past five seasons, they've played more postseason games (72) and collected more playoff wins (45) than any other AHL team. 

Head-to-head vs. Crunch all-time: Grand Rapids owns a 14-6-0-2 regular season advantage over the Crunch, with the teams' last regular season matchup coming during the 2008-09 season.

Watch: AHL Live (all seven games available for free)

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PLAYERS TO WATCH

Syracuse

F Cory Conacher - Prior to this season, Conacher was known mostly to Lightning fans as the player traded to Ottawa in exchange for goalie Ben Bishop on April 3, 2013. But Conacher returned to the Tampa Bay organization as a free agent addition during the 2016 summer signing period and has been arguably the Crunch's most valuable player this season, particularly in the playoffs (Conacher also played 11 games for the Lightning in 2016-17).

After finishing the regular season with 60 points (17 goals, 43 assists), tied for the Crunch scoring lead with Matt Taormina despite playing 14 fewer games, Conacher has raised his game to another level in the postseason. He leads the Calder Cup Playoffs for scoring (20 points) and is tied for first for goals (9).

Conacher scored five goals and put up 10 points over the final three games of the Eastern Conference Championship win over Providence and recorded back-to-back four-point games in Games 3 and 4.

D Matt Taormina - The 30-year-old defenseman has garnered just about every accolade possible during a career season. Taormina played in his third-consecutive AHL All-Star Classic in January. He was named a 2016-17 First Team AHL All-Star and won the Eddie Shore Award as the league's outstanding defenseman for the season after putting up career highs for goals (15), assists (45) and points (60) in the regular season.

Now, Taormina is looking to add one more piece of hardware to his burgeoning collection: a Calder Cup.

Taormina ranks third on the Crunch for scoring (4-12-16) behind only Conacher and Yanni Gourde (5-12-17). His 12 assists are tied with Gourde for the most on the Crunch during the postseason.

Taormina also has championship experience: He's the lone Crunch holdover from the team's 2013 run to the Calder Cup Finals.

Grand Rapids

F Eric Tangradi - The 28-year-old Tangradi is a former second round selection (42nd overall) of the Anaheim Ducks in the 2007 NHL Draft with 144 games of NHL experience between the Pittsburgh Penguins, Winnipeg Jets, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings. This season, he led Grand Rapids for plus-minus (plus-16) during the regular season, and he's put up big numbers for the Griffins in the postseason, logging a team-high 13 assists and tying Ben Street for most playoff points (15) on the Griffins.

Tangradi's 13 assists are the most in the Calder Cup Playoffs currently.

F Matt Lorito - An undrafted winger who played collegiately at Brown, Lorito joined Grand Rapids prior to 2016-17 and paced the Griffins during the regular season for scoring with 22 goals and 34 assists for 56 points. Lorito also saw action in two games for the Detroit Red Wings this season and earned his first NHL point with an assist in his league debut on April 8 versus Montreal.

The 26 year old from Oakville, Ontario continues to produce for the Griffins in the playoffs. He's tied for the team lead for postseason goals with seven. And he's proved invaluable in the biggest games, netting two tallies in Grand Rapids' 4-2, Western Conference championship-clinching victory in Game 5 over San Jose.

CRUNCH QUESTIONS

1. Can the Crunch slow down Grand Rapids' deadly power play?

Syracuse will have its hands full dealing with Grand Rapids' power play, which was the best in the AHL during the regular season and remains at full throttle in the playoffs. The Griffins set a franchise record for power-play efficiency (24.4 percent) during the regular season and have continued to connect on the man-advantage at a similar rate (24.1 percent ) in the postseason, converting a league-best 14-of-58 playoff chances.

Grand Rapids is currently on a run of 11-straight games scoring a power-play goal, establishing another franchise record.

Matthew Ford has been the Griffins' best power-play weapon, scoring an AHL-best five power-play markers this postseason.

Meanwhile, Syracuse's penalty kill has been decidedly mediocre, killing off just 79.7 percent of the power plays it's faced in the postseason, tied for the fifth-worst penalty kill efficiency among AHL playoff teams. The Crunch also haven't been the best most disciplined team in the playoffs either as they have a penchant for finding the penalty box.

The Crunch will have to be better in both their discipline and their penalty kill if they wish to defeat Grand Rapids.

2. Who will blink first at home?

Both teams enter the Calder Cup Finals with an unblemished record on home ice.

Syracuse enters the series with a perfect 9-0 record at the War Memorial Arena. The Crunch have outscored opponents 15-6 in the first period in home playoff games, jumping on their opponents early and letting the energy from the home crowd carry them through the finish line. Almost to a man, the Crunch have praised their crowd for the raucous environment they've created inside the War Memorial. They'll need that extra boost from their fans to continue in the Cup Finals.

Additionally, Grand Rapids has been just as unbeatable at its home rink, Van Andel Arena. The Griffins have won all seven home games during the 2017 postseason and have outscored visitors 33-16 on home ice.

The Crunch will have to break the stranglehold on home ice if they wish to hoist the Calder Cup. Grand Rapids has home-ice advantage for the Cup Finals based on its superior points percentage in the regular season (.658 for Grand Rapids; .592 for Syracuse).

CALDER CUP FINALS SCHEDULE - Best of 7 (all start times 7 p.m. Eastern)

Game 1 - Fri., June 2 - Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids

Game 2 - Sat., June 3 - Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids

Game 3 - Wed., June 7 - War Memorial Arena in Syracuse

Game 4 - Fri., June 9 - War Memorial Arena in Syracuse

Game 5 - Sat., June 10 - War Memorial Arena in Syracuse (if necessary)

Game 6 - Tues., June 13 - Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids (if necessary)

Game 7 - Wed., June 14 - Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids (if necessary)

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