Syracuse Crunch defenseman Jake Dotchin said it's been a "whirlwind season" after joining the Tampa Bay Lightning for the second half of the regular season and making his National Hockey League debut while combining with All-Star Defenseman Victor Hedman on the Bolts' top defensive pairing for 35 games.
Now, Dotchin is helping the Crunch in their fight for the franchise's first Calder Cup. The Crunch currently trail the best-of-seven series 2-1, and Dotchin has six assists and is plus-12, second best among Crunch defensemen, through 18 playoff games. He says the lessons picked up playing alongside a Norris Trophy finalist have helped improve not only his game but those of his fellow Crunch blueliners.
"I learned tons playing with Hedman and tons from (Lightning associate coach) Rick Bowness, the coaching staff there, they kind of just helped me feel comfortable down there and let me play my game," Dotchin said ahead of tonight's Game 4 of the Calder Cup Finals at Syracuse's War Memorial Arena. "To come back here and kind of help and send that to other guys' directions, it was something I kind of embraced when I was a younger guy as well."
Dotchin called it a "dream" to play in the NHL and said he had success with the Lightning by playing a simple game, focusing on physical play and making smart, solid passes.
"I kind of watch the All-Star Game every year growing up and everything and thought, 'How much better could these guys actually be?' he said. "To kind of get to the NHL and see those NHL All-Stars and play beside one, it was pretty special and it's something I'll remember for the rest of my life. Just little things he taught me, it helps out in tons of different ways."
Video: Julien Brisebois Crunch update and Lightning futureGOALS GALORE: Grand Rapids (4.06 goals per game) and Syracuse (3.79) rank first and second, respectively, in the AHL for playoff scoring.
That high goal output poses a particularly difficult challenge for defensemen and goaltenders during the offensively-charged Cup Final. In the last two games of the series, the teams have combined for 19 goals.
"That was a tough game number two, 6-5, we don't like that," Crunch defenseman Slater Koekkoek said. "I thought we were a bit better for that 5-3 Game (3), but we've still got to keep more pucks out of our net.
Prior to Game 3, Syracuse head coach Benoit Groulx challenged his squad to work harder in the defensive zone. The effort was better in the Crunch's win on home ice, their first of the series, but it can still improve.
"We get to know them, we know them much better now," Groulx said. "I think what we see on the ice is what we're going to see until the end. It's their identity, our identity. They have a plan. We have a plan. For us, it's execute our plan to a T, and make sure that we know what's coming and we're ready for it."
CONDRA QUESTIONABLE: Crunch forward Erik Condra didn't play in Wednesday's Game 3 after re-aggravating a lower-body injury in Game 2. Following the victory on Wednesday, Groulx said Condra was day-to-day.
Condra didn't participate in Friday's morning skate and his status for Game 4 remains up in the air.
"Erik Condra is a warrior, and he's been playing hurt for a long time," Groulx said in Wednesday's post-victory press conference.
Condra was named Crunch captain late in the regular season. He ranks fourth on the Crunch for playoff scoring with five goals and 11 assists through 18 games. His absence in Game 3 was his first missed playoff game during the Crunch's Calder Cup run.