Groulx, Crunch Look to Turn Page on Last Season

By Jeremy Houghtaling

Benoit Groulx paused before answering the question.

“How long did it take for you to get over that finals loss? Was it a whole summer thing?”

The Crunch head coach, whose team fell in six games to the Grand Rapids Griffins in the Calder Cup Finals in his first year behind the Syracuse bench last season, smiled and shrugged. While Groulx believes his team had a good showing, it was tough to come up just short.

Groulx and the Crunch are looking to turn the page as they begin their 2017-18 campaign.

“We have many different faces,” Groulx said. “We have nine or 10 rookies on the team, but we also have solid vets — guys with a lot of experience in this league. We want to play a certain style, and that’s our goal to be competitive and see where we’re at when it starts.”

The Crunch took to the ice for their first practice of the season at the Onondaga County War Memorial Tuesday, with the importance put on creating good on-ice habits and drilling the team’s system.

“For me, every season is different,” Groulx said after practice. “We have to focus on what we can control. What we control is what we bring on the ice every day and our preparation, and we start today.”

The Crunch are expected to ice a rookie-heavy lineup, with goalie Connor Ingram, defensemen Erik Cernak and Matthew Spencer, and forwards Mathieu Joseph, Anthony Cirelli, Dennis Yan and Mitchell Stephens all making the jump full-time from junior hockey.

Each knows through various camps what is expected when they hit the ice.

“We want to play fast,” Stephens said. “We’re a fast team. We showed that last year in the playoffs. We were one of the fastest teams in the league, and that’s why they made it that far in the playoffs. That’s the biggest thing for us — be fast.”

Since many of the newcomers were 2015 draft picks, they have played together through many rookie and development tournaments. Four players — Stephens, Cirelli, Joseph and Ingram — even played together for Team Canada during the 2017 World Junior Championships.

“I’ve known a lot of the rookies for year now coming from the draft,” Stephens said. “I think there were four of us on the World Junior team. We’re so familiar with each other that it’s second nature. You know where they’re going to be, their tendencies, their skills. It’s cool to develop with them and start our first year pro together.”

The Crunch are surrounding the large rookie class with a veteran group that includes new blueliners Jamie McBain, Reid McNeill and Mat Bodie. New veteran goalie Michael Leighton was also added to go along with more than a handful of players who were key to the team’s run to the Calder Cup Finals last year like Tye McGinn, Ben Thomas, Adam Erne and Matthew Peca.

For returning players like Erne, the goal is to build on what the team accomplished last year.

“It definitely stings, but it was a really good run,” Erne said of last season's postseason run. “There’s a lot of positives that came out of it, and it makes you hungry for this year.”

The Crunch open up the preseason against the Utica Comets in Rome on Saturday, with Syracuse hosting the rematch on Sunday. The Crunch begin the regular season in Rochester on Oct. 6 and have their home opener against the Americans the next night.

“There’s a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys. It’s exciting,” Erne said. “We’ve got a couple games coming up this weekend. We’ll see how those go. It’s hard to know what to expect, but everyone is out here excited and ready to work.”

Pictured: Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx gives his team directions during practice at the Onondaga County War Memorial Tursday.