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Test passed, Crunch set sights on Providence in Eastern Conference Final

The Lightning's AHL affiliate is this deep in the Calder Cup Playoffs for just the third time in franchise history

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

The Syracuse Crunch are in the Conference Final of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs for just the third time in franchise history.

After dispatching St. John's in four games in a best-of-five series, Syracuse outlasted the Toronto Marlies in a tense, back-and-forth seven-game series in the second round, the Crunch capitalizing on home-ice advantage to win each matchup at the War Memorial Arena, including a 6-3 victory at home in a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday.

Next up for the Crunch are the Providence Bruins, who were taken the distance in each of their playoff series to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, knocking out Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in five games in the first round and Hershey in seven games in the second.

Syracuse can advance to just its second-ever Calder Cup Final with a series victory over Providence.

Let's take a closer look how the Crunch and the Bruins stack up.

THIRD-ROUND OPPONENT: PROVIDENCE BRUINS

Providence became the first team in AHL playoff history to win four elimination games on the road in one playoffs following its 4-3 series win over Hershey to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bruins lost three of their first five games in the Hershey series in overtime to fall into a 3-2 series hole. The Bears had two chances to close out Providence on home ice but couldn't, the Bruins winning Games 6 and 7 each by a 4-2 count.

Providence also fell behind two-games-to-one in its opening-round series against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and faced two road elimination games but won both, downing the Penguins 4-2 in Game 4 and 2-1 in Game 5 two nights later.

Head-to-head vs. Crunch: Providence went 1-1 versus Syracuse in the 2016-17 regular season, the Crunch winning 3-2 at War Memorial Arena on Oct. 29 and the Bruins answering with a 3-1 home win on Dec. 18 in the teams' last meeting.

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PLAYERS TO WATCH

Syracuse

F Matthew Peca - The 24-year-old Peca netted the game-winning goal in Syracuse's Game 7 victory over Toronto in the second round, scoring eight seconds into the third period on a breakaway to put the Crunch up 4-3. But Peca's heroics this postseason aren't limited to just one game. Currently, he ranks second on the Crunch for scoring with four goals and six assists through 11 postseason games behind only Erik Condra (4-7-11). Peca ranks tied for fourth among all AHL skaters for playoff scoring and is tied for the Crunch lead with Byron Froese for game-winning goals this postseason with two.

F Erik Condra - Condra leads Syracuse and ranks third in the AHL for playoff scoring right now after putting up four goals and seven assists through the first two rounds. Condra has three multi-point games this postseason and recorded at least a point in five of seven games during the Toronto series. Condra had a six-game point streak going earlier in the postseason from Game 2 of the St. John's series to Game 3 of the Toronto series. Look for the Crunch captain's poise and veteran leadership to be a calming influence on Syracuse as it goes deeper into the postseason.

Providence

F Jordan Szwarz - A fourth round draft pick (97th overall) of the then Phoenix Coyotes in 2009, Szwarz shined in his first season with Providence, leading the Bruins in goals (22) and scoring (54 points) during the regular season. In the decisive Game 7 versus Hershey on Wednesday, Szwarz scored a pair of goals to lead Providence to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2009. Szwarz established career professional highs for goals, assists and scoring this season.

C Danton Heinen - Heinen, a rookie, was fifth on the Bruins for scoring (14-30-44) during the regular season but has been their biggest contributor during the playoffs, notching five goals and seven assists to lead Providence for postseason scoring. Heinen scored four of his five playoff goals in the opening round series against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and was held to just one goal over the seven-game series with Hershey. The 116th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, however, had three points (goal, 2 assists) over the final two games of the series with the Bruins' facing elimination.

CRUNCH QUESTIONS

1. Can the Crunch win on the road?

They're going to have to if they want to advance to the Calder Cup Final. Despite being a 4 seed in the Atlantic Division, Providence still owns home-ice advantage over Syracuse after finishing the regular season with 96 points, six more than the North Division champion Crunch. Syracuse has lost four of five road games during these playoffs, the lone victory coming in double overtime of Game 2 in the St. John's series. Syracuse was markedly better at home during the regular season (.684 win percentage) as opposed to when it went on the road (.500 win percentage). And in the playoffs, Syracuse has been unbeatable at War Memorial Arena, going a perfect 6-0. The Crunch will need to develop a road warrior mentality to prevail in the best-of-seven series and steal at least one game from Providence at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.

2. Can the Crunch defense carry over its dominating performance?

The Crunch didn't exactly build a wall around Mike McKenna's net during the Toronto series. Syracuse allowed five goals in a pair of games, even though the Crunch prevailed in one of those contests with eight goals of their own. The Marlies scored three or more goals in four of the seven games of the series. Yet, in Game 7, the Crunch put together one of their best stretches of defensive play all season, holding the Marlies without a shot on goal for nearly 20 minutes from midway through the second period to halfway into the third. The Marlies had just seven shots over the final two periods, notching two in the second period and five in the third. The Crunch weren't known for their stellar defensive play during the regular season, but if they can continue to put forth the kind of effort on the back end they showed over the final two periods of Wednesday's Game 7, chances are good they'll advance to the franchise's second-ever Calder Cup Finals.

THIRD ROUND SCHEDULE -- Best of 7

Game 1 - Fri., May 19 - Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, 7:05 p.m.

Game 2 - Sun., May 21 - Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, 7:05 p.m.

Game 3 - Wed. May 24 - War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, 7 p.m.

Game 4 - Fri., May 26 - War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, 7 p.m.

Game 5 - Sat., May 27 - War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, 7 p.m. (if necessary)

Game 6 - Tues., May 30 - Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, 7:05 p.m. (if necessary)

Game 7 - Wed., May 31 - Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, 7:05 p.m. (if necessary)

WHO'S NEXT?

The Syracuse-Providence winner will take on the San Jose-Grand Rapids winner in the best-of-7, Calder Cup Finals.

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