Crunch's Top Line Looks To Keep Rolling in Round 2

By Jeremy Houghtaling

Although all the weight isn’t on their shoulders, the Syracuse Crunch’s top line knows its importance.

Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Richard Panik have provided six of Syracuse’s 12 postseason goals, including two out of the four in each game. Those six markers include all three game-winners, two of which came in overtime.

With the No. 2 seed Falcons looming when the Eastern Conference Semifinals begin in Springfield Friday, the top line will be expected to do what it has done all season – produce points by the bunches in all situations.

"All three of those guys can fly," said Crunch coach Rob Zettler. "That's their best asset – they have speed. If you show that speed early and often, hopefully it will back off their defense and create some room in front of them as the series goes on."

But speed isn’t the only attribute that allowed Panik, Palat, and Johnson, who combined for more than 50 NHL games this season, nearly 30 percent (72) of the Crunch’s 243 regular season goals.

"They're good on the cycle down low, they've got speed so they can create things offensively in the neutral zone, and all three have great shots and can find the back of the net,” Zettler said. “If the goalie exposes something, they can find it."

The trio’s chemistry has continued to blossom in their second season together. Last year, before the Tampa Bay Lightning shifted its affiliate to Syracuse, all were rookies on the Norfolk Admirals team that won the Calder Cup.

"Last year was a big learning curve for us," Johnson said. "There were a couple months there that we made a lot of stupid mistakes that we had to correct. This year, we're a lot smarter and more mature players."

Johnson, named the AHL’s most valuable player, scored a league-leading 37 goals this season. He finished with a team-leading 65 points in 62 regular season games, and had six points in the first round of the postseason. The Crunch are 42-17-2-4 with the 5-9 center in the lineup, and 4-5-4-1 without him.

"We just try and do whatever can help the team out as much as possible," Johnson said. "When you're playing well, you get those points. We just have to keep our feet moving. We've got to keep working, doing all the little things, and playing well defensively and the chances will come."

Panik provided the game-winner in overtime of Game 1, one of his two points in the first round. The 6-2 Slovak played 25 games with the Lightning, but tallied 41 points in 51 regular season games with the Crunch.

"We don't feel any pressure on our line; we just try to keep it simple and play our game," Panik said.

Palat has thrived on the pressure of the postseason, clinching the sweep with his Game 3 overtime goal. The 6-foot Czech has a team-leading seven postseason points and was third on the Crunch in scoring in the regular season, posting 52 points in 56 games.

"(Johnson) has unbelievable speed and (Panik) has good skill and a big body," Palat said. "I'm more of a passer. Each guy brings something else."

The Crunch have enough firepower to stop teams from focusing on one line.

Brett Connolly, Dan Sexton, and Philip-Michael Devos combined for seven points, while Mike Angelidis, JT Wyman and JT Brown added three. Defenseman Matt Taormina has chipped in three assists, while Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr each added a pair of points.

"We have other lines that are really good and they can score… So if one line doesn't play good, the other line plays good," Panik said.

Zettler would like to see each line continue to play the uptempo style the Crunch have been known for this season. That includes attacking the net and creating traffic to frustrate Falcons goalie and former Tampa Bay Lightning, albeit briefly, Curtis McElhinney, an AHL veteran with more than 50 games of NHL experience.

"I don't think that's any secret," Zettler said. "We've played that way all year, and that's the way we'll play this series."