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Crunch Time: Syracuse back in first place after successful January

by Doug Spencer / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Syracuse Crunch closed out a very successful January by defeating the Hershey Bears with a 3-2 shootout win on Saturday, January 31. The Crunch went 8-2-1 as they collected 17 of a possible 22 points. Syracuse also defeated the Rochester Americans 6-4 during it’s Friday night game. The Crunch now have the top record in the Eastern Conference as they sit at 28-11-5. Syracuse is only three points back from the AHL leading Oklahoma City Barons.

Syracuse kicked off it’s week with a high-scoring match against I-90 rivals the Rochester Americans. The teams combined for five goals in the first period alone in a game that saw 10 total tallies. Jonathan Marchessault continued his offensive domination blasting home the Crunch’s first and last goals. Joel Vermin was the other forward to score a goal in the game as Syracuse received three markers from defensemen: Jake Dotchin, Jean-Philippe Cote and Dylan Blujus. Vermin, Mike Angelidis and Vladislav Namestnikov all finished the game with two helpers in the winning effort. Kristers Gudlevskis was between the pipes and turned aside 22 of 27 Rochester shots while posting a .814 save percentage.

The team’s final game of the month was in Hershey, as the Crunch took on the bears. It was a battle of the goalies, as both played solidly to give their teams a chance. Tanner Richard and Yanni Gourde scored in regulation for the Crunch. Marchessault would provide the game-winner in the shootout as Andrei Vasilevskiy would deny all of the Bears’ shooters. Vasilevskiy stopped 30 of 32 shots in regulation, earning himself a .937 save percentage.

Holding their own

When looking at the Crunch’s depth chart, it is littered with asterisks denoting the presence of many first-year AHL players. Particularly on defense, the Crunch have only three active skaters that are not considered rookies: Joey Mormina, Cote and Matt Corrente. With four defensemen under the age of 23, it is a testament to the strong team game the Crunch possess as well as the depth of the organization. “We’ve tried to surround them with some good veterans…you need those older guys to help mentor the younger ones,” Syracuse Assistant Coach Stacy Roest said when asked about the team’s rookie defenders. “They have good hockey sense…their maturity and game has really grown.” Slater Koekkoek, Blujus, Dotchin, and Charlie Dodero have all helped this team develop into one of the elite outfits in the Eastern Conference but there were some growing pains. “We always tell them you have to start from your own goal line. The offensive numbers will come,” said Roest. “If you can’t play in your own end, you can’t play in the league.” With all defensemen recording pluses in the plus/minus statistic, it appears that the Crunch’s coaching staff have got the young guns playing quite well in their own end.

Testing their mettle

The Crunch will be without two of their top offensive weapons for the next little while, as Jonathan Marchessault and Mike Blunden will be out with injuries. Marchessault is expected to be sidelined for the next two weeks with an undisclosed injury, while Blunden will be shut-down for the season to undergo surgery. It will test the team’s depth, but as the Crunch have shown so far this season they will keep on fighting through the adversity.

Hitting the road

Syracuse has a busy week of hockey scheduled, with their first of three road games coming tonight as they take on the Hartford Wolf Pack (26-13-2). The Crunch will then travel to Bridgeport to face the Sound Tigers (19-20-5) under the Friday night lights of Webster Bank arena. A trip Saturday to Springfield to face the Falcons (26-15-4) will close out the week as Syracuse looks to continue its dominant play and remain atop the Eastern Conference.

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