The Syracuse Crunch ended March as one of the North Division’s hottest teams after posting a 9-4-0-1 record during the month and outshooting opponents in 12 of their 14 games. They now stand at 4th in the North Division with a season record of 30-23-6-2.
We did not have a recap out for February, so, let’s catch up with what’s been happening with the Crunch since the end of January.
March (and February) Storylines for the Syracuse Crunch
Razor Thin Playoff Margins
Heading into the final month of the AHL’s regular season, the Syracuse Crunch are holding onto a playoff spot by the thinnest of margins. The top 5 teams in the North Division will make the playoffs based on their season points percentage.
The Crunch are in 4th at 0.557, the Rochester Americans are in 5th at .556, and the Belleville Senators are in 6th at 0.553. Syracuse and Belleville still have 15 games remaining to solidify their playoff standing, but Rochester only has 13 games remaining.
Ahead of the Crunch, their rival, the Utica Comets, have held a commanding lead in the North Division for most of the season and look destined for the #1 seed. The Laval Rocket and Toronto Marlies in 2nd and 3rd are at 0.588 and 0.576, respectively. While they are not out of reach for the Crunch and the other two teams battling for position, but they do look to be sitting comfortably for the time being.
Realistically, only one of the aforementioned teams, other than Utica, will miss the playoffs as the Cleveland Monsters look close to being officially out of playoff contention with a 0.468 points percentage.
Gemel Smith Returns (briefly) from Detroit
Gemel Smith finally made his Crunch season debut in late February after being reclaimed on waivers by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Smith was originally placed on waivers by the Lightning in January after starting the season on Season Opening Injured Reserve due to an injury he sustained in the preseason but was claimed by the Detroit Red Wings.
Similar to Alex Barre-Boulet’s early season excursion to the Seattle Kraken, Smith’s placement on waivers by Detroit gave the Lightning the chance to reclaim their former player and send them directly to the Crunch without needing them to pass through waivers again.
Unfortunately for Smith, his return to the Crunch only lasted 5 games as he’s been out of the lineup since early March after sustaining another injury. In his 5 games he recorded 1 goal and 2 assists.
Andrej Sustr Claimed Off Waivers by Anaheim
In other waivers news, the Lightning lost Andrej Sustr on waivers on March 8th to the Anaheim Ducks after they tried to reassign him back to the Crunch.
Sustr had been a valuable part of the Crunch’s blue line prior to be claimed by Anaheim. In 25 games he had 2 goals and 10 assists with a +9 rating.
Without Sustr, the Crunch have often looked to Frank Hora to fill a right-handed defenseman spot in the lineup. In 35 games with the Crunch, Hora has no goals, 6 assists, and a +5 rating. While Hora is not as offensively talented as Sustr, he has proven to be more than capable of filling in one of the right-handed defensive roles behind Darren Raddysh.
Anthony Richard Acquisition Proving Fruitful
When the Tampa Bay Lightning traded struggling forward prospect Jimmy Huntington to the Nashville Predators for AHL veteran forward Anthony Richard, it was not immediately clear what role Richard would take on for the Crunch, but for now Richard has proven to be an excellent addition to the Crunch.
In 26 games he has 4 goals and 12 assists often playing as the top line’s right wing. While not necessarily a dynamic presence of the top line, Richard is well suited to playing as a complementary piece and has been a steadying factor both offensively and defensively for the Crunch.
Riley Nash In & Gabriel Dumont Down
Tampa Bay was busy adding at the trade deadline adding the likes of Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul, but the Crunch were not forgotten as they received a major upgrade at center in Riley Nash. Nash’s defensive talents should almost be overkill in the AHL and he stands to regain a bit of a scoring touch to his game against lesser competition. In 3 games thus far he has 2 goals, 2 assists, and a +3 rating.
Nash’s return from the Arizona Coyotes has unfortunately coincided with a decrease in form from the Crunch’s captain, and former top line center, Gabriel Dumont. In March’s 14 games Dumont had 4 assists and a -10 rating.
The Crunch will need their captain to regain his form over the final month of the season if the Crunch make the playoffs as Riley Nash is likely to be recalled to Tampa at the beginning of the NHL playoffs to serve as their 13th forward. While Nash is an excellent boost to get the Crunch into the playoffs, they will have to rely on Dumont to lead the way again.
Formation of a Misfit Line
The term misfit might not be entirely fair to use here, but there is no denying that forwards Gabriel Fortier, Otto Somppi, and Simon Ryfors have been bounced around the lineup their fair share this season.
Fortier has played as high as the top line and as low as the bottom line at times. Somppi was a solid top line center for Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh last season before struggling to find his game to begin this season after an early season injury. And Simon Ryfors has been given opportunities throughout the lineup in his first season playing in North America.
Now the three of them have been together since the March 16th game against Hartford. In the 7 games since they have combined stats of 6 goals and 14 assists.
Here’s a look at some of the great chemistry the three have shown together at times over recent games.
In some ways this line reminds me of the line featuring Henry Bowlby, Ryan Lohin, and Peter Abbandonato that formed on the Crunch towards the end of last season. None of those 3 are with the Crunch this season, but having an extra line to role out that can play hard defense and control the puck in the offensive zone should allow the Crunch to close out the regular season in a strong fashion again.
Alnefelt Injured Again, Lagace Carrying the Load, Hello Melnichuk
It seems like every month this season there has been something going wrong with the Crunch’s goaltending, and March was no exception, besides there also being good news.
The Crunch have had trouble fielding their desired healthy goalie tandem of Max Lagace and Hugo Alnefelt for most of the season. Things were finally looking to settle in at the beginning of the month before Alnefelt went down with an injury (again) that has kept him out of the lineup since the March 12th game against the Toronto Marlies.
While the news of Alnefelt going down may have looked like one of the final nails in the Crunch’s playoff hopes coffin, Lagace has stepped up and played like the #1 AHL goaltender that he was signed to be. He has recorded a 6-1-0 record in the 7 games he’s played since Alnefelt’s injury, including two shutouts.
While Amir Miftakhov has since been recalled from the Orlando Solar Bears to fill in as the #2 option, his usage is probably best minimized as he’s seen a slow but steady decline in consistency from the beginning of the season as he’s been regularly juggled between Orlando and Syracuse.
One last trade deadline move by Tampa Bay that altered the Crunch was trading forward Antoine Morand to San Jose for goaltender Alexi Melnichuk. Melnichuk, a 23-year-old Russian, has both NHL and AHL experience since signing with San Jose before the 2020-21 season. He’s struggled through most of his two North American seasons but has looked good in his first 3 games with the Orlando Solar Bears posting a 1.95 GAA and 0.930 Sv%. Should further goaltending issues plague the Crunch, having added Melnichuk as another option will prove to be a good choice.
College Reinforcements Inbound: Nick Perbix, Declan Carlile and Potentially More
With the NCAA hockey season being over for all players outside of the four teams going on to the Frozen Four, players are free to sign NHL and AHL contracts.
So far, the Lightning have added their 2017 6th round draftee Nick Perbix and free agent Declan Carlile. Both Perbix and Carlile are defenseman, albeit of different handedness – Perbix is right-handed and Carlile left-handed.
Perbix, a 23-year-old senior from St. Cloud State, figures to immediately see playing time with the Crunch as he’s been one of the best defensemen in college hockey the past two seasons. This season he recorded 6 goals and 25 assists in 31 games. Additionally, Perbix recorded 1 assist in 4 games with Team USA during the Olympics. He will likely fill in the spot of either Frank Hora or Alex Green once he gets up to speed with the team after enough practice.
Carlile, a 21-year-old Junior from Merrimack College, was a 2021 Hobey Baker Award nominee for the best college hockey player in the country. He is not quite as offensively gifted as Perbix is, but he does have a knack for blocking shots. He has been with the team for nearly two weeks now but is still yet to see playing time.
Two more possible late season additions remain in the Frozen Four for the Crunch. Senior forwards Cole Guttman (Denver) and Sammy Walker (Minnesota) will have the option to join the Crunch once their seasons end but could possibly hold off until free agency in the summer to sign with a different NHL club than the Lightning and forego immediate AHL practice/playing time.
Ben Groulx Reaches 200th Win Milestone
Congrats to Crunch head coach Ben Groulx on having reached his 200th win with the team back in February.