Crunch Look to Capitalize on Opportunity Against Griffins in Finals


By Jeremy Houghtaling

The feeling is one that Matt Taormina reluctantly remembers.

The Syracuse Crunch fell behind 3-0 in the Calder Cup Finals in 2013, but became the first team to win back-to-back road elimination games to send the series back to the Onondaga County War Memorial.

But then the disappointment of coming up short, with American Hockey League president Dave Andrews handing the cup to Grand Rapids Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan after Game 6.

For Taormina, the only current member of the Crunch who was on that 2013 playoff run, Syracuse needs to capitalize on the opportunity in front of them as the teams meet again in the Calder Cup Finals starting Friday in Grand Rapids.

"They came in and won it in front of our fans, and that was really hard to deal with," Taormina said. "You don’t really get this opportunity too often to make it all the way to the finals and have a chance of winning. You just have to take advantage of it.”

Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx has only seen the Griffins on video since the teams don't play each other during the regular season, but described them as a deep team with size and speed that is dangerous on special teams. Grand Rapids has the league's best power play (24.1 percent) this postseason.

Still, the Crunch are focused on their play, and will make tweaks as needed once the puck drops.

“We’re going to have to go out there and adjust to whatever they’re going to do, but not too much to where we’re focusing too much on them,” Taormina said. “We want to focus on our style of play and what we need to do. We’re going to go out there and play the type of game we’re capable of.”

Crunch captain Erik Condra has said throughout the postseason that this has been a learning experience for many Syracuse players, whether it's playing a full 60 minutes or knowing how to close out games when the Crunch are ahead.

“We’ve built to this point all year," Condra said. "So you just go out there and do it. You don’t really need to think about it as much as sometimes you do. Sometimes you get all worked up and worried about playing in the championship, but you’re still playing the same game you love.”

Syracuse forward Cory Conacher believes the Crunch are getting hot at the right time, and now that the end is in sight, they need to finish strong.

“In the earlier rounds you’re just playing to make it to the next round,” Conacher said. “Now you know when the season is going to be over. It’s only a seven game series, and you either win or you lose. We’re going to be all in. We’ve been all in all playoffs, but now there’s an end date and an end goal.”

SUCCESS AT HOME

Syracuse and Grand Rapids have at least one thing in common this postseason.

Neither has lost on home ice.

The Griffins haven't allowed more than three goals in seven wins at Van Andel Arena, while the Crunch have outscored their opponents 42-20 in nine games at the Onondaga County War Memorial.

“Like I mentioned more than once, this building is unreal,” Groulx said. “I had an interview yesterday with Montreal radio, and I told them that I never experienced anything like that. I coached in front of 19,000 at the Air Canada Center for the World Junior (Championships), and there were maybe 14,000 more people, but the atmosphere here is unreal. It’s something very special.”

For the players, it's easy to feed off the atmosphere.

“We have such a good fanbase here. You can see throughout the playoffs how loud it gets in here,” Taormina said. “It’s so loud and we feed off that.”

But in Games 1 and 2 in Grand Rapids on Friday and Saturday, the Crunch will be looking to buck the trend. The series shifts to Syracuse for games June 7 and June 9, as well as June 10 if needed.

For Conacher, a key will be the first five minutes.

“It’s always tough to win on the road, especially in the playoffs,” Conacher said. “They get a good crowd, and I’m sure they’re behind their team all the way. It’s all about taking the crowd out of it right away. Getting an early chance or an early goal or a couple early hits, whatever it is — just to get us involved in the game and the crowd out of it. That’s what it’s going to take.”

ROOKIES CONTRIBUTING

Despite having a veteran-heavy lineup, the Crunch's two rookie defensemen have made their mark this postseason.

Ben Thomas has recorded 10 points in 16 playoff games this postseason, while Dominik Masin has logged big minutes paired with Taormina. Both played in more than 65 regular season games and have stepped up when Syracuse was dealing with injuries and call-ups.

“You don’t expect those two rookies to be key contributors at this part of the year, but we have the luxury to have that,” Groulx said. “I want to credit them, but I want to credit (assistant coach) Trent Cull as well. I think he’s been spending a lot of time with not only the defensemen, but especially with those two.”

Thomas and Masin have also learned from their teammates.

“They’re like sponges. They want to learn and they learn from not only the coaches, but they learn also from Taormina, from Jake (Dotchin), from Slater (Koekkoek),” Groulx said. “When you have good older defensemen, it’s not only about communication, but sometimes you watch them play and you see certain plays they do and it gives you the confidence and swagger to do it as well.”

Their progression throughout the season isn't lost on a veteran defenseman like Taormina.

“Throughout the season, they really matured early,” Taormina said. “They’re not really playing like rookies anymore. They’ve stepped up huge, especially now in the playoffs.”

CONACHER’S LUCK

Conacher believes it's a lot of luck.

The Crunch forward is playing in his third Calder Cup Finals, and is one of just two Syracuse players who have lifted the cup (Condra won with Binghamton in 2011).

Conacher was the AHL's Rookie of the Year when he won the championship with Norfolk in 2012, and fell in the finals with Utica in 2015. Conacher spent last season in Switzerland with SC Bern, who won the NLA championship.

“I’ve gotten set up with some good teams,” Conacher said. “Norfolk was a special team. Getting traded to Utica at the deadline, they were already in first place so that was a team that was bound to do well in the playoffs. Bern’s a team that’s usually in the top four in Switzerland. We finished eighth and we got hot at the right time — everyone was healthy at the right time — and ended up making a playoff run, which was awesome.”

Conacher certainly hasn't been a passenger on any of his postseason runs. This season the 27-year-old has registered 20 points in 16 playoffs games.

“He’s been huge in Game 7 against Toronto and against Providence. He’s a good player,” Groulx said. “He’s been around, and what I like about him is he’s leveled. He knows that he can’t be too high or too low. He’s a competitor. He believes in himself and you can count on him.”

Now Conacher is heading into yet another year of the Calder Cup Finals.

“I’ve won one and I’ve lost one,” Conacher said. “Hopefully I can get that second one.”

Pictured: Crunch forward Cory Conacher smiles as he approaches teammates celebrating a goal against the Bruins at the Onondaga County War Memorial Friday.