Crunch Begin New Season with Excitement, Expectations

By Jeremy Houghtaling

For many of the Syracuse Crunch players, the beginning of the new hockey season comes with high expectations.

A previous season that included a record-breaking 28-game win streak and was capped with a sweep of the Toronto Marlies in the Calder Cup finals will tend to do that. But the 15 former Norfolk Admirals moving to Syracuse with the Tampa Bay Lightning affiliation welcome the pressure.

"You want to be that team that has that aura that you're a top team," goalie Dustin Tokarski said. "It's exciting going into the year as the top dog, and our goal is to stay there."

Crunch fans, likely all of whom weren't born the last time the cup was hoisted in Syracuse during the inaugural 1936-37 season, had their first chance to meet their new team during the Crunch Convention at the Onondaga County War Memorial Wednesday. The season opens Friday in Rochester, with the Crunch’s home opener to follow against Hershey on Saturday.

"We had such a good season last year, obviously people will expect that again," center Tyler Johnson said. "There's a lot of excitement with the fans here."

There's a reason for the buzz.

Last year's Admirals racked up more American Hockey League hardware than just the Calder Cup. Johnson was a member of the all rookie team, and Jon Cooper, in his second AHL season, was named coach of the year. Mark Barberio was named the league's top defenseman, and Cory Conacher collected trophies as the league's most valuable player and rookie of the year.

"It's always going to be tough to defend a championship," Johnson said. "We have some key parts of our team last year that aren't back. We'll have to have guys step up and fill those roles."

There are plenty of options.

2010 first-rounder Brett Connolly, who recorded 15 points in 68 games with the Lightning last season, was sent to the Crunch due to the National Hockey League lockout, and one of last year's late additions, Alex Killorn, looks to build on his late season run with the Admirals when he tallied 12 points in 17 playoff games.

Other new additions include center Vladislav Namestnikov, Tampa Bay's first round pick in 2011, and forward J. T. Brown, a highly sought-after college free agent who was likely to challenge for a spot with the Lightning.

"It's always tough joining a team that was so successful last year," Namestnikov said. "I just came in and tried to do my best here and prove to the coaches that I should be on the team."

"So far it’s been great," Brown said. "Everybody seems like great guys and accepting of everyone coming in who didn't play with them last year. That's one key to being successful – making sure everyone is involved and everyone is in the family."

But even the new players, knowing how well Norfolk did last year, feel the proverbial heat.

"There's obviously going to be expectations," Brown said. "I think that's a good thing to have high expectations. It seems to me, from so far talking to (the fans), they're excited to get this first home game started."

The hockey-starved fans in Syracuse, after watching the Crunch's first round playoff exit last year, had to wait a little longer to catch the team in action. Perhaps hoping to catch the lightning in a bottle again, Cooper and the Lightning took their top farm team on a trip to Newfoundland for a second straight preseason.

"It was a lot of fun, we did some paintballing as a team, and there were lots of bus rides," Tokarski said. "We bonded as a team, and I think we really grew. We saw a lot of character out of the guys, so it was a great process."

Syracuse came away 3-0 against the St. John’s IceCaps, including one win in overtime and another in a shootout.

"I thought it was a good experience up there," Brown said. "To come out with three wins, it's obviously very good for the team. Now we're looking forward to getting the regular season started."

Some wild expectations should be tamed though. Although it would be nice, the Crunch aren't immediately looking at breaking last year's record-breaking win streak.

"The league is going to be deep and this league is one of the best in the world right now," Tokarski said. "We're just going to go game by game and hopefully we get off to a hot start this weekend."

Pictured: Norfolk Admirals goaltender Dustin Tokarski stops Syracuse Crunch center Maxime Macenauer on a penalty shot in 2011. Tokarski, now a member of the Crunch, opens up the season Friday in Rochester.