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Crunch Focused on Own Play Heading Into Playoffs


By Jeremy Houghtaling

The teams are certainly well-acquainted.

Blowout wins. Shootout losses. Rowdy games with multiple dustups.

When the puck drops in St. John’s for Game 1 of the Calder Cup Playoffs’ North Division Semifinals Friday evening, it will be the ninth meeting between the Syracuse Crunch and the IceCaps this season.

The Crunch know what to expect — they were 4-1-2-1 in the season series — but are focused on their play instead of what the IceCaps bring.

“I think there’s no secret for us, and there’s no secret for them,” Syracuse head coach Benoit Groulx said. “We know each other pretty well, and it’s going to be on us to play to our strengths.”

The matchup was set on the final day of the regular season when St. John’s clinched a playoff berth by topping Toronto, which also gave Syracuse a chance to earn the North Division title with a win over Utica. The Crunch put an exclamation point on the regular season with a 5-2 drubbing of the Comets.

“They have skills. They’re a big team. They’re a physical team,” Groulx said of St. John’s. “They can shoot the puck. They have a good goalie. They’re a well-rounded team. They finished pretty strong with the win against Toronto. We know how good Toronto is. We expect a tough challenge.”

After struggling with injuries and call-ups throughout the season, the Crunch are boasting a healthy and loaded lineup since the Tampa Bay Lightning did not qualify for the postseason. The boost could be just what Syracuse needs to make a deep playoff run.

“I think there’s a lot that this team is capable of,” Crunch defenseman Jake Dotchin said. “We’ve got a lot of skill guys in there and a lot of guys with a lot of heart — guys that are team guys — and it’s going to be interesting to see what guys lay it all out on the line and what guys bring it night in and night out.”

THE REINFORCEMENTS ARRIVE

The Lightning’s loss is the Crunch’s gain.

With Tampa Bay missing the postseason, a large group of eligible players were sent to Syracuse for the postseason run. The reinforcements include Dotchin, who was on the Lightning’s top pairing with Victor Hedman, along with forwards Joel Vermin, Yanni Gourde, Adam Erne, Gabriel Dumont and Michael Bournival.

Since their return, the Crunch have gone 3-0 and outscored their opponents 16-5.

“That chemistry is there and you can see that in the past three games with everybody down,” Crunch alternate captain Matt Taormina said. “It’s something special and we all see it. We just have to make sure that we bring our game along with it, because we have a good team on paper but on paper doesn’t win it.”

While they’ll continue to chase their NHL dreams next season, the focus for the players right now is the Calder Cup.

“I want to be an NHL defenseman. That’s the ultimate goal at the end of the day,” Dotchin said. “But I’m in Syracuse now with the Crunch in the American League, and the Calder Cup is my goal.”

THE UNUSUAL FORMAT

Because of the distance between Syracuse and St. John’s, the usual 2-2-1 format for home games changes,.

The first two games will be in St. John’s on Friday and Saturday, while the last three games of the best of five series will be held in Syracuse on April 26, 28 and 29. While the Crunch run the risk of going down 0-2 before they even have a home game, they wanted to have a possible Game 5 at the Onondaga County War Memorial.

“It’s out of our control,” Dumont said. “If you think about it, it really doesn’t make sense that you claim the division title and you start with two games on the road where they’ve been sitting at home since last Saturday waiting for us while we have to travel. It’s a part of the game, and it’s something we have to do.”

Groulx shrugged off questions about the format and the series opening with a trip to St. John’s.

“I don’t think too much of it, to be honest,” Groulx said. “My focus is more on Game 1 than the format.”

THE ROOKIE

Most of the guys getting their first pro experience after their junior seasons have been skating with the Black Aces.

Not Brett Howden.

The 19-year-old center skated on a line with Byron Froese and Kevin Lynch at practice Tuesday.

Howden, the Lightning’s 2016 first rounder, has recorded three goals and one assist in five games with Syracuse after putting up 81 points in 58 games with Moose Jaw (WHL) this season.

“He’s in the lineup because I like what he brings to our team,” Groulx said. “I think he’s been a good player for us on the power play. When he has the puck on his tape, good things happen. He competes hard, skates well.”

THE FINALE IN ST. JOHN’S?

The Crunch are hoping to be the last ones to play the IceCaps at the Mile One Centre.

With the Montreal Canadiens moving their AHL affiliate to Laval next season and currently no NHL club moving in, St. John’s appears out of luck in terms of seeing AHL action next season.

Dumont, who was a member of the IceCaps last season, had praise for the supportive fan base in St. John’s, but knows the focus has to be on winning games.

“It’s sad for them. It’s a good town — a good hockey town — with good people there. I loved my time there,” Dumont said. “But we’re going there and we’re focused on winning two hockey games.”

Pictured: Crunch players celebrate a goal against the IceCaps at the Onondaga County War Memorial on Dec. 31.