With Most Productive Line Out, Crunch Forwards Look to Step Up

By Jeremy Houghtaling

The Syracuse Crunch’s lines went through a major makeover this week.

With JT Brown and Nikita Kucherov called up to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vladislav Namestnikov out with a broken hand, the Crunch’s most productive line won’t be available for the foreseeable future. While the trio amassed 55 points over Syracuse’s first 17 games, the remaining 11 healthy forwards at practice Tuesday combined for 22.

Dana Tyrell, set to take over a spot on one of the Crunch's top lines, has also been recalled by the Lightning.

With so much firepower out of the lineup, Syracuse is looking for ways to create more offense.

"We've just got to converge on the front of the net and bang away," said Crunch coach Rob Zettler. "Obviously, with those guys out, our skill level drops but our work ethic doesn't."

Tyrell and Brett Connolly, former linemates with the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League, were set to be reunited for the first time in their professional careers and hoped to recapture their chemistry. Connolly was sent down from the Lightning last week, while Tyrell has played a third line energy role for most of the season.

"Whenever the coach gives me the opportunity, I'm the kind of guy that can fill the spot and fill that role," Tyrell said of joining a scoring line Tuesday. "I'm looking forward to getting this opportunity."

Connolly, the Lightning’s first-rounder in 2010, is working on getting his game back on track. He had 74 points in 79 games with the Crunch last season, but has one assist in seven American Hockey League games this year.

"It's expected of me and I know that," Connolly said of his offensive production after Syracuse’s loss to Hamilton Saturday. "Where I got drafted, it puts a lot of expectations, so you've got to come here every day and be good, simple as that."

Tanner Richard, paired with Connolly and Tyrell, spent most of his junior career as a No. 1 center, but has been primarily used on a grinding line this season. The rookie had 65 points in 57 games last season for the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League, but is still searching for his first pro goal.

"Every time someone goes up, someone else is going to step in and fill that position," Richard said at practice last week.

On Tuesday, Syracuse’s line of Cedric Paquette, Danick Gauthier and Geoff Walker practiced together. The three have combined for 12 points this season.

Mike Angelidis practiced between Drew Olson and Eric Neilson, while Maxime Langelier-Parent and Carl Nielsen, both called up recently from the Florida Everblades of the ECHL, were paired on a partial line.

Philip-Michael Devos, who registered 26 points in 70 games with the Crunch last season, was signed to a professional tryout Wednesday to round out the lineup in Tyrell's absence.

Although nine of the 11 healthy forwards remaining have yet to register an AHL goal this season, Zettler has been encouraged by the amount of scoring opportunities they have had.

"I'm not going to put pressure on those guys to carry our offense, because that's not the kind of players they are," Zettler said. "I'm not going to ask anyone to change their game. If you start doing that, you're going to be in trouble."

Although it may seem bleak without the AHL’s most productive line, the Crunch remain confident despite the call-ups and injuries.

"We've got a bunch of forwards that can score and put pucks in the net," Tyrell said. "It's going to start coming for everybody, and once it does, the floodgates are going to open."

Pictured: Forward Dana Tyrell participates in a drill at Crunch practice Tuesday. The winger has been recalled by the Lightning.