Crunch Begin Another Quest for Calder Cup

By Jeremy Houghtaling

The ultimate goal remains the same every year.

While every team in the American Hockey League chases the Calder Cup, the Tampa Bay Lighting’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, are looking to rekindle the magic that took them to the league championship series in 2013. Less than three years have passed, but the memories of 2013 seem to be shrinking in the rear view mirror.

The Crunch will take their first step toward that goal when they open the 2015-16 on the road against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms Saturday.

“It’s gone by fast, without a doubt,” said Crunch head coach Rob Zettler. “The people have changed except for a couple, but it does feel like a while away. I feel like we’ve learned a lot over these last two years, and we’re continuing to grow. The goal, as always, is to make the playoffs and win the Calder Cup.”

There are few holdovers from the 2013 playoffs. Mike Angelidis remains the Crunch captain, Philippe Paradis has been a mainstay in the lineup when healthy, and Matt Taormina returned to Syracuse this offseason after being dealt at the 2014 trade deadline.

“A lot of those guys are up (in the NHL) or gone,” Taormina said. “It’s a different team, and only a few guys are still here. It’s not gone, it’s not faded. I had that experience and I definitely want to be back there again. That’s our main goal.”

Crunch captain Mike Angelidis has been on both sides of a finals matchup. He hoisted the Calder Cup with the Lightning’s Norfolk Admirals in 2012, and fell just short in the finals against Grand Rapids with Syracuse in 2013 after the Lightning moved its affiliation.

“It’s tough to get there,” Angelidis said. “Sometime some guys never get there in their whole career. I’ve been there twice, back-to-back, and it’s not easy. That’s why it means so much when you win.”

Angelidis knows the tough task has to be broken up into smaller steps. The first is to accumulate points to qualify for the postseason.

“That’s our goal this year: to get there and win,” Angelidis said. “The first thing we have to focus on is getting to the playoffs.”

A Fresh Start

Despite climbing to the top of the conference at one point in the season, the Crunch’s 2014-15 season ended with a downward spiral.

Syracuse backed into the playoffs by losing nine out of the last 10 games of the regular season. The Crunch met the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the first round, and goalie Matt Murray held them to three goals in a 3-0 series sweep.

“I think it’s in our minds,” Angelidis said. “We went through the playoffs without winning a game, and I think that stung more than anything.”

Although Angelidis believes many of the players can learn from last season, the Crunch are looking forward to having a fresh start.

“It’s a new season and a lot of new faces,” Angelidis said. “A lot of the guys from last year are going to take what they learned last year and bring it into this year.”

Making Their Debut

Three players will have a chance to make their professional debuts with the Crunch this season, and three more are looking to build on their brief stints in the past couple years.

The rookie class is led by highly touted defenseman Anthony DeAngelo. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2014 first-rounder who recorded 89 points in 58 regular season games with Sarnia and Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League and was named the Canadian Hockey League’s top defenseman last season, is looking forward to making his professional debut.

“We have to produce, that’s one thing,” DeAngelo said. “We’ve got to keep getting better and do what we can to help the team. We’re in here and we’ve been drafted for specific roles, and hopefully we can contribute that to the team. Just as long as we help the team win, it will be a good thing.”

Brian Hart, signed to an entry level deal this summer, could also make his debut after tallying 50 points in 98 games over three seasons at Harvard.

Cameron Darcy joined the Crunch at the end of last season, but did not get into a game. The 2014 seventh-rounder registered 59 points in 56 games of his overage season with Cape Breton and Sherbrooke of the QMJHL.

Matthew Peca showed his playmaking ability with four points in eight games with the Crunch last season after completing his senior year at Quinnipiac University. Over four seasons, the 2011 seventh-rounder had 143 points in 157 collegiate games and is regarded as one of the best players to come through the Bobcat program.

Adam Erne, who amassed 106 points and 119 penalty minutes in 82 games last season with Quebec of the QMJHL, previously played eight games for the Crunch in 2013-14. The Lightning’s 2013 second-rounder had one goal, three assists, and two penalty minutes with Syracuse, but couldn’t play in the AHL last year because of his age and Quebec hosting the Memorial Cup tournament.

Daniel Walcott, a defenseman who was acquired by the Lightning in a trade over the summer, played one game with AHL Hartford last season after finishing up his final year with Blainville-Boisbriand of the QMJHL.

“I think everybody is just excited to finally get going,” DeAngelo said. “There’s a lot of preseason and camps and stuff going on, so we finally get a game that counts toward the standings.”

In the Crease

Zettler is handling the goaltending just like he would any other position.

With Kristers Gudlevskis looking to prove himself in his third season in North America and Adam Wilcox hoping to get playing time fresh out of college, the Crunch head coach said he would start whoever is playing the best.

Zettler plans to give Gudlevskis the nod on Saturday.

“Whoever is the best goalie is going to get the net,” Zettler said. “That’s the way I have to look at it. Last year I thought when we rotated back and forth, I challenged both of them, I said ‘Whoever is going to be the best goalie is going to play.’ I thought both goalies played extremely well after that.”

Gudlevskis became the first player to skate in the ECHL, AHL, NHL, and the Olympics in one season in 2013, but seemed to take a step back in 2014-15. The Latvian netminder had flashes of brilliance that earned him worldwide attention at the Olympics, but struggled with consistency. In 46 games last year, Gudlevskis had a .900 save percentage with a 2.81 goals against average.

Wilcox had a .875 save percentage and a 3.18 goals against average in two appearances with Syracuse last season. In his junior year with the University of Minnesota, the netminder had a .912 save percentage and 2.42 goals against average in 38 games. He was the 2015 Most Outstanding Player at the Big 10 tournament and won the Big 10 player and goaltender of the year the previous season.

“We want the best player in there to help us win hockey games every night, just like we want the best lineup in there to win us hockey games every night,” Zettler said. “Goalies are no different. Of course we want them to develop and keep growing as players and goalies, but at the end of the day we have a responsibility to everybody, not just one guy.”

The Depth

The Lightning augmented the Crunch’s core with three veteran additions.

On top of leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault being passed through waivers and the return of Angelidis, Mike Blunden, and defenseman Joey Mormina, Syracuse has added former NHL forwards Jeff Tambellini and Tye McGinn and brought back Taormina, a puck-moving defenseman.

He was an AHL All-Star with 38 points in 76 games for Worcester last season.

“I’m excited to be back here,” Taormina said. “We’ve got a good team. We’ll start Saturday and move on from there.”

Tambellini, who recorded 63 points in 242 career NHL games with the Kings, Islanders, and Canucks, spent the last four seasons in Europe. McGinn split last year in the NHL with the Sharks and Coyotes, and finished the season with seven points and 21 penalty minutes in 51 games.

The veterans are added to a roster that already includes developing defensemen Luke Witkowski, Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin, and Dylan Blujus, as well as young forwards like Yanni Gourde, Tanner Richard, and Joel Vermin.

Zettler is pleased with how the roster has been built, but knows it ultimately comes down to how well the team can execute on the ice.

“I’m excited to have all of them on board,” Zettler said. “I think they add a lot. When I look at the lineup right now, I feel like I can put any line out in any given situation. We’re really deep up front and on the back end. We have some good speed mixed in with some good size. Now, it all looks good on paper and I was happy with the way our exhibition season went, but the real bullets start flying on Saturday. We’ll see how it goes from there.”

LINES AT PRACTICE ON THURSDAY:

Forwards
Adam Erne - Jeff Tamebellini - Jonathan Marchessault
Tye McGinn - Matthew Peca - Joel Vermin
Yanni Gourde - Tanner Richard - Philippe Paradis
Henri Ikonen - Mike Angelidis - Mike Blunden
David Broll - Cam Darcy - Brian Hart

Defensemen
Slater Koekkoek - Luke Witkowski
Matt Taormina - Anthony DeAngelo
Jake Dotchin - Dylan Blujus
Daniel Walcott - Joey Mormina

Goalies
Kristers Gudlevskis
Adam Wilcox