Crunch Wrap-Up: Syracuse's 'Desperate Hockey' Came Too Late


By Jeremy Houghtaling

The Syracuse Crunch resorted to desperate hockey late in the season.

Despite a promising start, midseason injuries and call-ups left the lineup scrambling, forcing some players to play out of position and outside of their normal roles. A nine-game slide in January and February made the chances of a playoff berth a longshot, but the Crunch rallied with 18 out of 24 possible standings points in March.

Ultimately, the late season push came too late. The Crunch couldn’t keep the frantic pace and finished fourth place in the North Division with 79 points (32-29-11-4), eight away from a playoff spot.

“I don’t think we played desperate hockey early enough in the season,” Crunch forward Tanner Richard said. “It’s a good lesson for me and every other guy that’s here … You can’t wait until the last 15 or 20 games to make your playoff push. The points at the start of the season are worth the same as the ones at the end of the season, and the ones at the end are harder to get.”

Syracuse was in the thick of the North Division race early, with the team sticking right around the .500 mark for the first few months. Needing reinforcements because of injuries, the Tampa Bay Lightning began to recall many of the Crunch’s leading scorers in mid-December.

Even with their depth tested, the Crunch continued on a .500 pace.

“In the American Hockey League, you’re always dealing with the unknown of the NHL club,” Crunch forward Jeff Tambellini said. “Usually you get your best players pulled from you, and you never know when that’s going to come. In December, we lost a lot of guys and it gave a lot of guys an opportunity to step into bigger roles, and it gave the guys who went up a confidence boost when they came back. I thought we played really well once we got everyone back.”

A skid in late January turned into a significant losing streak in February. Between Jan. 20 and Feb. 17, the Crunch went 1-6-3-1.

“The bottom line is we didn’t defend well enough,” Crunch head coach Rob Zettler said. “In that stretch we lost some key people … but those things happen to every AHL team and you have to be able to survive those stretches. You survive by playing good D.”

With forwards like Matthew Peca and Joel Vermin returning from injury in late February and Jonathan Drouin reinstated from his suspension in early March, the Crunch began to find their stride again. By March 26, the team was two points behind Utica for a playoff spot.

“We had to get hot just to get there,” Tambellini said. “With 20 games out we knew we had to go on a pretty good run or be out of it with a lot of games left, which is the last thing you want.”

Toronto snapped the Crunch’s season-high five-game winning streak on April 1 and Rochester dealt a further blow to Syracuse’s postseason hopes a day later. Despite a shootout win over Toronto on April 9, the Crunch were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with three games remaining.

“It’s frustrating, and you have to find the reasons why and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Zettler said. “It’s disappointing.”


BLACK ACES

For some, the season will continue.

With the Lightning holding a 3-1 series advantage against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a select group of Crunch players will be called up and practice in Tampa in case they are needed.

Kristers Gudlevskis was recalled by the Lightning earlier this week. On Wednesday, it was announced defensemen Luke Witkowski, Slater Koekkoek, Dylan Blujus, Anthony DeAngelo and goalie Adam Wilcox would join the Black Aces, along with forwards Adam Erne, Tye McGinn, Peca, Richard, Vermin and Brayden Point.

Richard made big strides in his third pro season, and paced Syracuse with 54 points in 71 games.

“I was put in a more offensive role and played with some gifted goal-scorers,” Richard said. “That made my job as more of a playmaker pretty easy. They’re good at getting open, having good timing, finding holes, protecting pucks, and forechecking. They were able to get me the puck and I was fortunate enough to have the timing and see my open teammates, and they were putting them in.”

Despite leading the Crunch in goalscoring, Tambellini was not included. Still, the veteran saw the value of the experience for many of the younger players in the organization.

“I think it’s great that the young guys get to be a part of that, even if they’re not going to play all the games,” Tambellini said. “To be in the mix and see what it’s like, it’s important. Until you see what it looks like from the inside of stretch runs, you don’t understand what it takes and the price guys pay to play. It’s valuable for all the young guys to be there and see it.”


WALCOTT

By the end of the season, Daniel Walcott made it nearly impossible for Zettler to take him out of the lineup.

Drafted by the New York Rangers out of Blainville-Boisbriand of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and traded to the Lightning organization last summer, Walcott started his rookie season by watching many games from the stands because of the Crunch’s defensive depth.

Once the injuries and recalls began to happen, Walcott was given a shot to play -- at forward.

“I wasn’t expecting that at all, but I’m happy they used me at forward that game in St. John’s,” Walcott said. “We were down on numbers and they decided to trust in me. From there, it gave me another aspect to my game that they saw and liked.”

Walcott counted 32 games at defense and another 30 at forward. The 22-year-old brought a physical presence, and saw some spot duty on Syracuse’s third line. Walcott registered two goals, 11 assists, and 54 penalty minutes in 62 games this season.

“He became more and more valuable for our team,” Zettler said. “We played him at forward out of necessity and he did well. He brought a physical presence and had a lot of great hits.”


ROOKIES

Many members of the Crunch’s rookie class faced adversity this season.

Peca and Erne each missed more than a month due to injury, Walcott started off the season as a frequent scratch, Brian Hart spent most of the season wearing a path between Syracuse and ECHL Greenville, and DeAngelo was held out of multiple games because as a “coach’s decision.”

Peca and Erne were mainstays on the Crunch’s scoring lines. Peca finished with 43 points in 65 games, while Erne had 29 points and 74 penalty minutes in 59 contests.

Even when he was out injured, Erne tried to learn what he could by taking the game in from a new perspective.

“I thought it was a good year for myself to develop and learn about the pro lifestyle and take from it what I can,” Erne said.

DeAngelo registered six goals and 37 assists for 43 points in 69 games this season. Hart had a pair of goals in 25 games on the Crunch’s checking lines. Cameron Darcy, who chipped in on the scoresheet more when he was put on a scoring line, recorded 12 points in 56 games.

Wilcox was a big part of Syracuse’s late surge, and finished the season with a 9-12-6 record, an .891 save percentage, and a 3.34 goals against average. He was mostly used as a backup to Kristers Gudlevskis, who was 16-12-8 with a .907 save percentage and a 2.83 GAA in his third season in North America.

In his exit interview with the Crunch staff, Tambellini gave his two cents on the prospects -- where they are, who took big steps, and who could make a big step in the near future.

“Peca is going to be a guy who has the potential to jump to the next level,” Tambellini said. “Erne is a guy who I think you’ll see in the next couple years, and he’ll get more confident in his strength. I think he’s going to make a big jump because there aren’t many 20-year-olds that have the physical abilities he has. I think he fought six times and he was almost manhandling guys. What he’s going to look like at 23 is a different hockey player than he is today.

“It’s exciting to see guys come along, make some strides, and feel confident in their abilities from what we see between game one and game 76.”


VETERANS

After four seasons in Europe, Tambellini was signed by the Lightning to be a veteran scorer for Syracuse.

The 32-year-old, who has almost 250 NHL games under his belt, didn’t disappoint. Tambellini recorded a team-high 29 goals and added 20 assists for 49 points, five behind Richard.

“Tamby’s season spoke for itself,” Zettler sad. “He had 29 goals and he did a lot of great things for us — not just in the goalscoring department, but off the ice as well.”

Each of the Crunch’s veterans contributed in their own way.

Matt Taormina provided a little bit of everything and was named the team’s most valuable player. Before his recall to the Lightning, the 29-year-old defenseman tallied 13 goals and 28 assists in 61 games and was named an AHL All-Star.

Taormina was joined at the All-Star Classic by Crunch captain Mike Angelidis, who had 15 points in 53 games before being shut down in mid-March because of a lower body injury.

McGinn and Mike Blunden also provided the team with power forwards who could put up points. McGinn had 44 points in 72 games, while Blunden had 38 points in 49 games.

But by the end of the season -- with Blunden and Taormina called up, defenseman Joey Mormina traded to Rochester, and Angelidis out -- the torch appeared to be passed to the next wave.

Witkowski and Koekkoek each wore alternate captain As on their sweaters in the last few weeks.

“Obviously, with (Angelidis) going down, somebody’s got to fill the void,” Witkowski said. “I’ve been a captain almost every place I’ve been, so I’m comfortable in that role. I just worked myself into it, I guess.”


FREE AGENTS

The end of the season always leaves many questions.

The Lightning organization will have plenty of tough decisions to make on who should be resigned and who will move on. Unrestricted free agents include Angelidis, Witkowski, Blunden, Taormina, Tambellini, and forward Philippe Paradis, while Richard, McGinn, Gudlevskis, Vermin, Yanni Gourde, and David Broll are restricted free agents.

While many of the players had their exit interviews with the Crunch staff Monday, any contract talks wait for the summer.

“It’s more of a review of the year and you talk about the big picture of the group, and stuff about the younger players and their development,” Tambellini said. “All the negotiations and stuff, that’s agent stuff. It’s not really for the players to talk about.”

While a veteran like Tambellini is used to the process, the younger guys like Witkowski were still feeling things out.

“I’ve been with Tampa since 2008 when I was drafted, so I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Witkowski said. “I haven’t dealt with this before. We’ll see what happens.”


Pictured: Crunch goalie Adam Wilcox makes a save against the Senators at the Onondaga County War Memorial on Nov. 13.


For more pictures from the 2015-16 season, visit the BoltProspects Facebook page.

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