Apr 17, 2008 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
Crunch players get physical as they enter the AHL Playoffs at War Memorial this weekend:
The Syracuse Crunch won the final 15 games of its 2007-08 season, a phenomenal streak rarely accomplished in professional hockey.
How’d they do it?
One word: Aggression.
In virtually every game over the last third of its American Hockey League season, the Crunch came out bangin.’ The second the puck dropped, the Crunchmen started throwing their bodies, elbows, shoulders — and sometimes their fists — into opposing players.
Setting the tone
By doing so, the team dictated the pace of play. The players set the tone. They physically took control of the ice.
Once physical domination is established, the rest follows: loose pucks and rebounds are snatched up by the Crunch and goals are scored.
At recent games here a home-made banner hung from the War Memorial rafters identifying the arena as “The House of Pain.”
Hard checking has its desired effect on opponents who not only feel the pain but are knocked off their rhythm and have their spirit shaken. But it also has its downside.
Too often the rough stuff results in penalties, which take a man off the ice and give the other team a 5-to-4-skaters advantage.
The Crunch leads the league in penalty minutes. In fact its 2,174 penalty minutes far exceeds the league average of less than 1,600.
Nevertheless, thanks to great goaltending and much-improved defense, the Crunch has not overpaid the price for its time in the sin-bin.
During the 80-game season, the Crunch played short-handed 471 times, but allowed just 66 power play goals. That’s an 86 percent penalty-killing success rate, fourth in the AHL.
Because the Crunch is capable of killing penalties, its players can take the chance to play more aggressively.
The penalty-kill squad and a touch of luck combined to illustrate that process during the last game of the season, April 13 against the Hamilton Bulldogs at the War Memorial. Crunch defenseman Marc Methot was charged with a five-minute boarding major in the first period after he’d slammed Bulldogs forward Brock Trotter hard into the boards in the defensive zone. Trotter went down, didn’t come up for a long time and never re-entered the game.
The penalty squelchers — notably Trevor Frischmon, Derrick Brassard, Duvie Westcott and Clay Wilson and Derek MacKenzie — whittled the five minutes down to three, then the Bulldogs took a two-minute penalty which evened skaters at 4-4. When the penalized Hamilton player was ushered back onto the ice, the Crunch PK deftly stole then iced the puck enough times to survive the final minute unscathed.
Later, when the tables were turned and the Bulldogs had a player in the penalty box for five minutes, the Crunch responded with two successive power-play goals by team captain and MVP Zenon Konopka. Of course, the Crunch won, 6-1.
Playoff faceoff Friday
The PK and the PP, the power play, will both be crucial as the Crunch makes its Calder Cup Playoff run beginning with two home games at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday April 18-19, against the Manitoba Moose ($14 to $19; 473-4444).
The power play has been reasonably productive, scoring 89 man-advantage goals out of 433 chances. That’s a rate of 20.6 percent, fifth in the AHL.
Crunch assistant coach Trent Cull thinks his players know how to approach both the PP and the PK.
“The power play is skill,” he said. “The penalty kill is hard work and determination. It’s the guts of your team.”
And that’s really the word for this Crunch team that suddenly re-invented itself as a winner after a long, dismal first half.
The Crunch has guts.
Maybe even enough guts to bring home the Calder Cup.