Crunch Beat Comets, Win North Division Crown

By Jeremy Houghtaling

In a season filled with overcoming adversity, the Crunch were able to achieve one of their goals on the final day of the season.

Syracuse, which has dealt with a barrage of injuries and call-ups all season, rested many of their top players but still managed to pull out a 5-2 win over the Utica Comets, as the Crunch clinched the North Division championship at the Onondaga County War Memorial Saturday.

Syracuse begins a best of five series against St. John’s in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs on Wednesday.

“We’re very proud of those guys. Obviously, with all the challenges we have faced this year, the way they responded is awesome,” Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx said. “We managed to get points in our last five games to put ourselves in position with the last two games at home with a chance to clinch the division. We did it.”

Syracuse iced a lineup without some players sent back from Tampa Bay like Yanni Gourde and Jake Dotchin, as well as some of their veterans like Cory Conacher, Erik Condra and Matt Taormina.

For Groulx, it was about getting the players who didn’t play Friday some game action before the postseason.

“All those guys have contributed to our success in many different ways,” Groulx said. “Today was a matter of getting everybody ready to play next week.”

Syracuse’s Joel Vermin and Henri Ikonen each recorded one goal and one assist, Byron Froese had three assists and Tanner Richard had a pair of helpers. John Kurtz, Brett Howden and Adam Erne rounded out the scoring, while Jonathan Racine, Dylan Blujus and Mathieu Brodeur each had one assist.

Kristers Gudlevskis made 23 saves in net for the Crunch, and was named the first star of the game.

Ikonen opened the scoring by jamming in a rebound 5:24 into the contest, and Howden scored on a similar play 10 seconds later.

Kurtz scored as he was falling 3:31 into the second. Nikolay Goldobin cut the Crunch lead back to two less than a minute later, but Vermin restored the three goal advantage midway through the middle frame.

Then came the announcement. It was noted over the PA that St. John’s beat Toronto in regulation — what Syracuse needed, along with a win, to clinch the division.

“You kind of put it in the back of your head,” Vermin said. “We just knew that we had to take care of business tonight. Just win and that’s it. Worry about our stuff and don’t worry about anything else, and I think that’s what we did tonight.”

For Erne, the announcement meant little.

“We didn’t really care, to be honest with you,” Erne said. “We’re happy to clinch the division, but we were ready for whoever we had to play.”

The Comets didn’t roll over. Utica’s Goldobin scored with 1:14 left in the second to cut the Syracuse lead to 4-2 heading into the final frame.

The Crunch came up with three key penalty kills in the third, and Erne added an empty netter with 2:32 remaining to seal the win.

“I think it speaks volumes for what kind of team we have here,” Kurtz said. “We were short bodies since I got here, and for a month and a half we were kind of thin. Now that we have everyone back from Tampa, we’re pretty deep. It’s well earned and it feels good.”

With the team’s depth being tested for most of the season, the Crunch are confident they have the right people in the room to make a long playoff run.

“It’s really nice to see that everybody can play and we don’t really need to worry about if down the road we get some injuries,” Vermin said. “Guys can fill in and contribute right away. That was good to see tonight.”

Syracuse wraps up the regular season with a 38-24-7-7 record. Now it’s time to focus on St. John’s in the first round of the playoffs.

The Crunch hit the road for games next Friday and Saturday before returning home for the next one to three games in the series the week after.

“They have a good team. A skilled team. A big team,” Groulx said. “We know it’s going to be a challenge, and our job is to get prepared.”

Pictured: Crunch forward Adam Erne rushes the puck up the ice against the Comets at the Onondaga County War Memorial Saturday.

For more pictures from the game, visit the BoltProspects Facebook page.

To listen to postgame interviews, go to this SoundCloud page.