Just 41 seconds into Saturday night’s game, the Onondaga County War Memorial crowd of more than 5,000 went silent after St. John’s IceCaps center Aaron Gagnon pushed the puck past Syracuse Crunch netminder Iiro Tarkki.
To their credit, neither the crowd nor the Crunch gave up on Syracuse’s much-anticipated return to the American Hockey League playoffs, its first foray into the post-season since 2008.
In the end, Brandon McMillan’s third-period goal gave the Crunch a 4-3 win and knotted the Eastern Conference quarterfinals series 1-1.
The Crunch tied the game midway through the first period when Mark Bell lunged for a loose puck and slipped it past IceCaps goalie Eddie Pasquale.
Defenseman Mat Clark gave the Crunch a 2-1 lead less than a minute into the second period. Clark’s shot from the point bounced off several players in front of the net before trickling over the goal line. Two minutes later John Mitchell threw the puck on net and it was deflected past Pasquale for a 3-1 Crunch lead.
The Crunch went into the second intermission with a one-goal lead after St. John’s Patrice Cormier scored 4:18 into the middle period. Gagnon tied the game with his second goal of the night 46 seconds into the final frame. St. John’s began the period on the power play after Nate Guenin was called for interference as the second period came to a close. Gagnon scored off the rebound of a Jason DeSantis shot.
McMillan notched the game-winner on the power play while former Crunch defenseman Brett Festerling served a tripping penalty. Kyle Palmieri tossed the puck on net and McMillan knocked the puck past Pasquale for his first goal of the series.
The Crunch had come close to winning both of its two playoff games here last week. They skated hard, hit hard, and shot hard on Friday, but came up one goal short in a hard-fought 3-2 loss.
Palmieri and Bell each scored for the home team Friday, and Tarkki made several spectacular saves, but IceCaps forward Jason King netted the game-winning goal with less than two minutes remaining in the third period. Tarkki seemed to have a bead on King’s hard-wired wrister from the left circle, but the puck hit the goalie’s glove and continued on into the net.
Over its first two playoff games, the Crunch has outshot the Icecaps 77-50, and in game two, Crunch centers started winning more faceoffs to keep control of the game.
The Syracuse skaters will finish the first-round series – one way or the other – starting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, at Mile One Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. The Crunch will be buoyed by the return of red-hot rookie center Peter Holland, who has been out since suffering a concussion against Connecticut on April 14.