Rob Zettler kept his attention on the task at hand.
The Syracuse Crunch coach, despite hearing his team had clinched a playoff spot with a pair of Eastern Conference teams losing, focused on his team's comeback attempt late in the third period. But the 3-1 deficit turned to 4-1 with an empty-netter, and the Hershey Bears provided the rain for the Crunch clinching party at the Onondaga County War Memorial Friday night.
"We're in, but it didn't feel very good," Zettler said.
"That was the message before (the game), we wanted to earn it," he added.
Hershey's Boyd Kane opened the scoring with a tip past Syracuse goalie Cedrick Desjardins  9:18 into the first.
The Crunch, on their heels and outshot 12-4 in the first, tied the score with less than three left in the frame when Jean-Francois Jacques  pounded home a rebound. Mike Angelidis  recorded the lone assist.
"We were playing a desperate hockey team who played hard," Zettler said. "They played harder than us in the first period especially. They won all the little battles."
Jacques left the ice after his goal in the first and didn't return, and defenseman Evan Oberg  did not play in either the second or third.
In their absence, rookies Tanner Richard , making his professional debut, and Andrej Sustr , making his Crunch debut, were granted more ice time. With the line shuffling, Richard found himself paired with Dan Sexton  and Ondrej Palat .
"Any time a guy leaves, you lose a man and someone has to step up," Richard said. "It's great for me, getting to play with two guys with NHL experience…I feel like they made the game a lot easier for me."
Richard had a few scoring opportunities, and wasn't afraid to get involved in post-whistle scrums.
"When it was tied 1-1, I had a really good opportunity," Richard said. "It's up to me to bury that one. If I bury that one, we go ahead 2-1 and it's a whole different game."
Syracuse outshot Hershey in the next two periods -- 9-7 and 10-8 -- but couldn't get another past goalie Philipp Grubauer.
"We showed up a little bit later into the second and into the third, but we just weren't able to muster up much," Zettler said.
Tomas Kudratek scored the go-ahead goal with less than a minute to play in the second, Peter LeBlanc added an insurance goal in the third and Kudratek scored the empty-netter to seal the Bears' win.
Grubauer finished with 22 saves, while Desjardins had 23.
With 87 points, Syracuse remains tied for first in the East Division and second in the Eastern Conference.
"It's great to clinch a playoff spot, but it would have felt better if we won," Sustr said. "We've got to make sure we win the next game so we have a little bit of momentum going into playoffs."
Zettler, winless in four games since taking over behind the Syracuse bench, sees a few correlations between the losses.
"Once we get in their zone, I'm seeing us stand instead of moving and moving the puck," Zettler said. "We get in, we roll down to the half wall, and then we stop, instead of moving the puck right away or moving their feet right away."
"We've been getting some good performances from people at times, and other times, our compete level along the blue line and down low in the corners has got to be better," he added.
Zettler is still optimistic his team can change the momentum before the postseason.
"We've got a lot of character in the room," he said.
The Crunch (39-21-4-5) won't have to wait long for that opportunity. Syracuse plays the second part of a home-and-home in Hershey Saturday.
"It's nice to have another crack at them tomorrow," Sustr said. "We've just got to make sure we're ready and we play better than tonight."
Pictured: Crunch goalie Cedrick Desjardins makes a save against the Bears at the Onondaga County War Memorial Friday.