Crunch Wrap-up: Syracuse’s Late Surge Can’t Overcome Midseason Spiral

By Jeremy Houghtaling

The Syracuse Crunch’s 2013-2014 season was defined by hills and valleys.

The proverbial wheels fell off after a fast start, and by the time the Crunch recovered it was too late for a playoff push, leaving lofty pre-season expectations unfulfilled.

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2012 American Hockey League affiliate, Norfolk, hoisted the Calder Cup, and the Crunch won the Eastern Conference championship in 2013 but fell in Game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals last June.

“You have to keep the bar that high,” said Syracuse coach Rob Zettler. “As soon as you lower the bar or lower the standard, everybody takes their foot off the gas. That standard has been set here the past couple years. But more than that is the process, the effort, and the commitment level that it took to get to those places – those are the standards you have to keep in place and the winning takes care of itself.”

Despite a shootout loss in Binghamton to start the season, Syracuse opened its home schedule with plenty of excitement on Oct. 12. The kickoff to the 20th season in Crunch history featured a hat trick by standout rookie Nikita Kucherov, as Syracuse routed Rochester 5-1.

The Crunch seemed to pick up where they left off in the spring, going 5-2-1-0 in October.

A potent power play converted nearly 28 percent of its chances, Kucherov led all rookies in goals and points, and Vlad Namestnikov tallied 21 points in a 13 game point streak to start his sophomore campaign, which turned out to be second-best league-wide for the season.

“I felt like we started really well,” Zettler said. “And then we went into a funk in the middle of the season and we weren’t able to get out of it.” 

The downward spiral started Nov. 15.

A 5-3 loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was the first of a five-game slide. The Crunch finished out the month with a 1-0 win over the Adirondack Phantoms, but the decline had just begun.

With injuries and call-ups depleting its anticipated depth, Syracuse won just two games and collected five points during 11 games in December.

“There were some where it was close, but there were some where we just – bottom line – didn’t play very well,” Zettler said. “We – the staff, the players, everybody – have to find a way to be competitive through those times.”

After a brief recovery of winning four of their first six games of 2014, the Crunch stumbled again at the end January. Syracuse finished the month with six straight losses, and continued to tumble with just one win over the first seven games in February.

“Good teams have to find a way to battle through that,” said Crunch captain Mike Angelidis. “I think one of the things was the team was getting frustrated. Sometimes you think you’re playing your best hockey, but you’re not playing 100 percent.”

Jean-Philippe Cote was one of the players who wondered if they could have done more.

The veteran defenseman, who believed his shot at playing in the NHL was over, earned a contract with the Lightning in mid-December and played 19 games with Tampa Bay.

Reassigned to the AHL in February, Cote was sidelined with an injury in his second game back in a Crunch uniform. When he returned one month later, he had to leave the game with a lower-body issue and missed two more weeks.

“When I came back and it was a crucial time for the team, I got injured,” Cote said. “In a way, I really feel bad about this. I know I could have contributed more, probably bring something more to the table. Who knows where that would have got us.”

But the reasons for the slide don’t fall on the shoulders of just one or two players. Veterans or rookies, the team believes it could have performed better.

“We went through stretches where we weren’t consistent,” Cote said. “We didn’t bring it every night, we didn’t bring it every shift.”

A turnaround started in late March.

After a 6-2 loss to Albany on ‘Turn Back the Clock’ night March 22, Syracuse went on its best stretch since October. The Crunch remained optimistic, despite the window to a playoff berth rapidly closing.

“Everyone knew, and all still know in the room, we have a great group of guys and we’re a good hockey team,” said Syracuse rookie forward Tanner Richard. “If you looked at our team on paper, you’d never think we were that far down in the standings.”

Trade deadline acquisitions Jonathan Marchessault and Dalton Smith joined recently signed veteran forward Jon DiSalvatore to shake up the lineup and provide skill and grit. Syracuse added more skill when they inked Yanni Gourde, which gave Syracuse another valuable playmaker. Coupled with the return of veteran defensemen like Joey Mormina and Cote, the Crunch began to catch fire.

“Overall, we’re a more talented group than we were midseason with the additions of Marchessault and Gourde,” Zettler said. “We got some D coming back for us, which is really important.”

Syracuse recorded points each of its final eight home games, and in 10 of its last 13 overall.

For Angelidis, a big part of the reversal of fortune can be attributed to Zettler and his staff. The coaches provided the players with valuable instruction, and got everyone on the same page during the stretch run.

“We went through a lull there where we weren’t doing all the little things right to win,” Angelidis said. “I think Zetts and the coaching staff did a good job to get us going again and finding a way.”

But ultimately, the ability to persevere through the adversity of a challenging season came too late.

“Not making the playoffs, it’s just hard to live with,” Cote said. “It is what it is, it’s just hard to put into words.”

Although the season is over, the late push provided positives to look forward to next season.

Brett Connolly led the Crunch with 57 points in 65 games, followed by Marchessault, who had 56 points in 77 games. Namestnikov finished with 48 points in 56 games, Cedric Paquette led all rookies with 44 points in 70 games, and first-year defensemen like Luke Witkowski and Artem Sergeev showed plenty of progress on the blueline.

In his first year in North America, netminder Kristers Gudlevskis earned a promotion from ECHL Florida to Syracuse and went 18-11-4 with a .901 save percentage, a 2.68 GAA, and five shutouts. The 21-year-old Latvian became the first person to play in the ECHL, AHL, NHL, and Olympics in the same season.

“It’s good for the organization to have a lot of guys that have developed throughout the year,” Angelidis said. “They went from the lows to the highs, and that’s something that’s hard to do to come out of the low and end on a high.”

Many of the young players, including Joel Vermin and Henri Ikonen, who joined the Crunch at the end of the season to get a head start on next year, are expected to return in 2014-15.

“Hopefully the positives are we had some young guys play a lot of minutes for us and gain some valuable experience – not just the young guys that have been with us all year, but guys who joined us at the end of the year have all had a chance to play,” Zettler said. “Hopefully they’ll come in next year refreshed and ready to go.”

Still, the Crunch’s high expectations for the 2013-14 season were met with disappointment, as they finish the season 31-32-4-9, 12th place in the Eastern Conference and 11 points out of a playoff spot.

“Ultimately, I’m not happy with where we stand at the end of the season,” Zettler said. “To finish in the middle of April is unacceptable. Finishing in the middle of April, frankly, feels like we still have a lot of hockey left, which we don’t.”

Pictured: Crunch goalie Kristers Gudlevskis makes a save against the Senators this season.