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Crunch open Calder Cup playoffs against St. John's

Lightning's AHL affiliate takes on Montreal's AHL affiliate in first round series

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

Bummed the Tampa Bay Lightning didn't make the postseason?

Feeling deprived without a rooting playoff interest?

Fear not.

The Syracuse Crunch begin their Calder Cup playoff run tonight when they travel to St. John's to take on the IceCaps in a best-of-5, first-round series. The Crunch won the American Hockey League's North Division, finishing one point (90) ahead of the Toronto Marlies (89) by virtue of a 5-2 win over Utica and Toronto's regulation loss to St. John's on the final day of the regular season. Syracuse finished first in its division for the third time in franchise history and second time since becoming a Lightning affiliate prior to 2012-13.

in that same 2012-13 season, the Crunch won their division and advanced all the way to the Calder Cup Finals before falling in six games to Grand Rapids.

Can the Crunch make a similar run this postseason?

Their quest starts tonight.

FIRST ROUND OPPONENT: ST. JOHN'S ICECAPS


St. John's placed fourth in the AHL's North Division, earning a playoff spot by three points (82) over Utica (79). The IceCaps 82 points are the second-lowest total among the 16 AHL playoff teams. St. John's is one of just two playoff teams with a negative goal (-4) differential during the regular season. Albany (-2) is the other.  

St. John's qualified for the playoffs after missing out the last two seasons. In 2013-14, the IceCaps advanced to the Calder Cup Finals before losing in five games to the Texas Stars.

Head-to-head vs. Crunch: Syracuse went 4-1-2-1 vs. St. John's in 2016-17.

Crunch record in St. John's: Syracuse went 2-1-0-1 at the Mile One Centre in 2016-17.

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PLAYERS TO WATCH

Syracuse
D Matt Taormina - Taormina collected quite an impressive array of awards during the regular season. He was named a 2016-17 first team AHL All-Star and played in the AHL All-Star Classic, his third straight All-Star appearance. Taormina also won the AHL's Eddie Shore Award as the most outstanding defenseman. The Michigan native set career highs for goals (15), assists (45) and points (60) and finished tied for first among league defensemen for scoring.

F Cory Conacher - Conacher was signed by the Lightning as a free agent during the offseason and was thought to be ticketed for Tampa Bay, perhaps to help with the loss of Jonathan Marchessault, who signed with the Florida Panthers during the offseason. The emergence of Brayden Point, however, sent Conacher to Syracuse, where he put up impressive totals. Conacher tied with Taormina as the Crunch's top regular season scorer with 17 goals and 43 assists for 60 points despite playing 14 less games than the d-man. Conacher finished tied for eighth in the AHL for regular season scoring.

St. John's

F Chris Terry - Terry led the IceCaps for goals (30), assists (38) and points (68) and ranked second in the AHL for scoring after spending the majority of the past two seasons in the NHL. The fifth round draft pick (132nd overall) in the 2007 NHL Draft played 57 games for Carolina in 2014-15 and 68 games in 2015-16 and scored 19 goals combined between the two seasons. Terry signed a one-year, two-way free agent contract with Montreal prior to the current season.

G Charlie Lindgren - Lindgren was selected to the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic in his first full professional season following a standout career for St. Cloud State University. The 23-year-old Lindgren compiled a 2.56 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and five shutouts in 48 games for the IceCaps. Lindgren ranked second among AHL rookie goaltenders for wins (24) and fifth for GAA and save percentage.

CRUNCH QUESTIONS

1. Who's in net?

Veteran goaltender Mike McKenna was traded to the Lightning organization on trade deadline day in exchange for Adam Wilcox. The 34-year-old McKenna played 14 games for the Crunch and put up a .901 save percentage and a 2.87 goals-against average while splitting time with longtime Crunch netminder Kristers Gudlevskis.

The 24-year-old Gudlevskis recorded a 2.65 GAA and .897 save percentage in 37 games this season with the Crunch.

The two goalies shared starts over the final two months of the regular season. Both played well at times. Both struggled at times too.

Ideally, the Crunch would go into the postseason with a clear No. 1 goalie, but neither McKenna nor Gudlevskis took control of the top spot. It will be interesting to see if Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx continues to rotate his goaltenders during the playoffs or if he will settle with a No. 1 and stick with him.

Or, in a perfect world, one of the two will get hot early, and the Crunch can ride him as far as he takes them.

Whatever the potential outcomes, who starts in net and how effective that starter can be remains the biggest question mark surrounding the Crunch's playoff run.

2. Will team chemistry be an issue?

The Crunch received a major influx of talent when Cory Conacher, Yanni Gourde, Gabriel Dumont, Adam Erne and Jake Dotchin were returned a day after the Lightning's 4-2 victory over Buffalo to end the 2016-17 NHL regular season.

Conacher was only in Tampa Bay for a couple weeks. The other four, however, spent considerable time with the Lightning and away from the Crunch. Dumont played 39 of Tampa Bay's final 40 contests, only missing a game to be with his wife for the birth of his second child.

Gourde, a midseason AHL All-Star Classic selection, made a huge impact at the NHL level, scoring six goals and adding a pair of assists over the Lightning's final 18 games, even playing some games as the Bolts' second line center.

Erne proved a valuable addition to the Bolts roster, adding physicality and a surprising playmaking ability over the final 22 games for Tampa Bay.

And Dotchin was maybe the biggest surprise of the season for the Lightning, stepping in as a rookie and finishing as a top pair D-man with Victor Hedman. Dotchin picked up 11 assists in 35 games with the Bolts, ranking tied for third among Tampa Bay blueliners for helpers despite playing in less than half of their games.

Certainly, adding that level of talent to an already skilled Syracuse team will be a huge boost for the Crunch's playoff run.

But, with the Crunch continuing to win while those players were with Tampa Bay, one has to wonder how the returnees will re-acclimate themselves to their teammates and if the winning chemistry the Crunch established in their absence will be disrupted.

It's a good problem to have, but one that bears following closely

FIRST ROUND SCHEDULE (all times Eastern) - Best of 5
Game 1 - Fri., April 21, 6 p.m. - Mile One Centre in St. John's, NF
Game 2 - Sat., April 22, 6 p.m. - Mile One Centre in St. John's, NF
Game 3 - Wed., April 26, 7 p.m. - Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, N.Y.
Game 4 - Fri., April 28, 7 p.m. - Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, N.Y. (if necessary)
Game 5 - Sat., April 29, 7 p.m. - Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, N.Y. (if necessary)

WHO'S NEXT?
The Syracuse-St. John's winner will take on the Toronto-Albany winner in a best-of-7, second-round series. The Crunch would have home-ice advantage in that second-round series should they advance.

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