Crunch Start Strong in Win Over Checkers

By Jeremy Houghtaling

The Syracuse Crunch took it to the Charlotte Checkers in the first 19 minutes.

Crunch captain Erik Condra netted a goal in his long-awaited return, Jamie McBain had a hand in three goals and the Syracuse power play converted twice. The Checkers made it close late in the second period, but the Crunch held on to win, 5-3, at the Onondaga County War Memorial Saturday.

“I thought we came out strong and overall, we played a very good game,” Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx said. “They’re a good team. probably the best team we faced this year with Toronto. They have skill on every line. They play with a lot of poise and they make plays with the puck. It’s very impressive the way Charlotte is playing. Tonight we were a good team.”

Condra finished with a pair of goals, including the marker to seal the victory with 1:41 remaining. The Crunch captain has been out since the Calder Cup Finals last spring.

“It was a long road,” Condra said. “It was tough to watch at the end of the year when I wasn’t able to play, and it was a long summer. It took a little longer than I expected, so that’s frustrating but it’s nice to come back and have a good night when you do it.”

McBain finished with one goal and three assists. Mathieu Joseph and Michael Bournival each scored once, while Anthony Cirelli, Kevin Lynch, Tye McGinn, Dennis Yan, Carter Verhaeghe, Alexander Volkov and Cory Conacher each had one assist.

Michael Leighton made 21 saves for the win.

“You know what I noticed tonight? It’s our captain, Erik Condra, Bournival, McGinn, McBain, (Mat) Bodie, Leighton, (Reid) McNeill,” Groulx said. “Our veterans tonight were our best players, and I really feel that they took charge of the team tonight.”

McBain, a veteran defenseman who used to be in the Hurricanes system, pinched in and opened the scoring 9:14 into the contest. Condra added to the Crunch lead with a power play goal a little more than two minutes later, and Joseph’s goal with the man-advantage extended the Syracuse lead to three with 5:35 left in the first.

“We had a game plan and we came in after a good week of practice, and we executed exactly what we wanted to do,” McBain said. “We knew they’re coming on on a 3-in-4, so we wanted to get on them early. Our power play did a great job. We were just getting pucks to the net and making it hard on their goaltender.”

Nicolas Roy’s goal with 13 seconds left in the first period got Charlotte on the board and Andrew Paturalski’s marker brought the Checkers to within one. Bournival scored two seconds after a power play ended to give the Crunch some insurance, but Aleksi Saarela brought the Checkers back to within one late in the second period.

Condra’s goal on an odd-man rush in the final minutes of the third period sealed the win.

“It seems that he didn’t miss a beat,” Groulx said of Condra. “Big goal, poise goal at the end. He had to keep his calm, but that’s him at his best. We waited a month before having him on the ice, but it paid off tonight.”

For Groulx, Condra’s goal was big, but so was the play of Leighton in net.

“It was big, but I also think our goalie was very solid,” Groulx said. “He shut the door. Even at the end in a 4-3 game, he made two or three big stops and that’s what we need from him — timely saves — and we had that tonight.”

CONDRA’S COMEBACK: The effort to make a comeback can be more than meets the eye.

“Sometimes people don’t understand when you’re hurt, you’re in here twice as much as when you’re healthy,” Condra said. “Not only are you on the ice, but you’re here doing rehab and here doing extra lifting. … I put a lot of hard work in and it feels good to pay off a little bit today.”

The amount of work Condra has put in certainly hasn’t been lost on Groulx.

“That’s a pro,” Groulx said. “That’s what we need for an example. Tonight he came up big for us.”

POWER PLAY: The Crunch have put their power play struggles behind them.

Syracuse’s play with the man-advantage was much improved on the road and went 2-for-7 on Saturday.

“Our power play was good again tonight. We scored two, but we had chances in each and every one of them,” Groulx said. “Their goalie was solid, but I like the movement we bring. We’re shooting the puck and the guys seemed more comfortable together.”

WHAT’S NEXT: Syracuse (4-6-1-2) hits the road for three games next week. The Crunch visit Hershey Wednesday before a pair of weekend games in Toronto.

Pictured: Crunch captain Erik Condra is congratulated by the bench after scoring against the Checkers 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.