Syracuse Crunch April Recap: Max Lagace Shines with Playoffs Upcoming

LAVAL, QC - JANUARY 12: Goaltender Maxime Lagace #33 of the Syracuse Crunch gets the glove out during the second period against the Laval Rocket at Place Bell on January 12, 2022 in Laval, Canada. The the Laval Rocket defeated the Syracuse Crunch 3-2. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
LAVAL, QC - JANUARY 12: Goaltender Maxime Lagace #33 of the Syracuse Crunch gets the glove out during the second period against the Laval Rocket at Place Bell on January 12, 2022 in Laval, Canada. The the Laval Rocket defeated the Syracuse Crunch 3-2. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /
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Ending the season with a 41-26-7-2 record, the Syracuse Crunch have many reasons to be feeling good about themselves entering the playoffs. They closed out April as the North Division’s hottest team with an 11-3-1-0 record for the month, jumped clear of the midfield pack to secure second place in the North Division, and set a franchise record for 12 consecutive home ice wins during the month.

By placing second, the Crunch have avoided a best-of-3 series that North Division seeds #4 and #5 will have to play before moving on to play #1 Utica Comets.

The Crunch’s playoffs will begin with a best-of-5 series against the Laval Rocket this Friday night, but first let’s review the major headlines from April.

April Storylines for the Syracuse Crunch

Crunch’s Playoff Hopes Rest on Max Lagace Securing the Crease

Perhaps no player can be identified as having been more vital to the Crunch’s recent string of success that saw them rise from a fringe playoff team to second in the North Division than goaltender Max Lagace. He dominated the month of April from start-to-finish with a 9-1-1-0 record and held opponents to 1 goal or less in 7 games, including 2 shutouts.

Behind Lagace, the goaltending situation does not instill confidence as both Hugo Alnefelt and Amir Miftakhov looked far from playoff caliber in their starts in April. Alnefelt surrendered 4, 3, and 5 goals in his three starts and had a record of 1-2-0. Miftakhov allowed 5 goals in his lone start but did record the win.

If the Crunch are to mount a successful Calder Cup Playoff campaign, then they will need their veteran goaltender to continue his outstanding form.

Sean Day’s Injury Status Unknown but Crunch Can Overcome His Absence

It wouldn’t be a monthly recap for the Crunch without having to make note of an injury to a high-profile player on the Crunch’s roster. This month’s victim was Sean Day. He had to be helped off the ice during the April 24th game against the Hershey Bears after taking a hip check to his left leg. Day has remained out since but looked to be walking without hindrance when he accepted the Crunch “Defender of the Year” Award before Saturday night’s game.

If Day is unable to go for the Crunch on Friday night, then it will be a major loss as he was the team’s highest scoring defenseman and fourth highest scoring player on the team this season with 8 goals and 32 assists.

On a positive note, the Crunch’s two recent NCAA defensive additions – Nick Perbix and Declan Carlile – have immediately gelled with the team and handled consistent workloads. I wouldn’t say either of them would completely replace what Day brings, but they do give the Crunch enough competent defensive options to deploy in his potential absence.

Next. Biggest Headlines in Lightning/Leafs Series. dark

Riley Nash Recalled to Tampa

Before the Crunch’s regular season finale on Sunday, news was released that Riley Nash had been recalled by the Tampa Bay Lightning. This should not have come as a surprise as the Lightning had been operating with only 12 forwards since the NHL trade deadline. Nash was always going to be recalled when the NHL playoffs started to serve as Tampa’s 13th forward.

Even though Nash’s tenure with the Crunch from late-March through April was short, he made his presence felt as he took over the top centerman role and recorded 10 goals and 8 assists in his 17 games.

The loss of a forward of Nash’s caliber is a big loss, but the Crunch will still be strong down the middle as Gemel Smith figures to jump back into a center spot after playing wing for most of the time since returning to the Crunch. Smith, Gabriel Dumont, and Charles Hudon should feature as the Crunch’s main centermen in the playoffs.

Fredrik Claesson’s Playoff Status is Unclear

Another Crunch player that could find himself heading to Tampa for the NHL playoffs is defenseman Fredrik Claesson. He is the Lightning’s fourth best left-handed defenseman, but Zach Bogosian and Cal Foote likely having claims to playing before him, even at left-defense. It is possible that he might not be recalled unless there’s an injury on the Lightning’s blue line.

However, one unclear factor is whether he’ll be playing for either team at this point. He hasn’t played for the Crunch since April 23rd, but there was no noticeable injury that removed him from the game. He was present in Syracuse last night to receive his “Plus/Minus Player of Year” Award, so we’ll have to see what transpires over the coming week.

Record Against Utica Casts Shadow on Potential Matchup

Entering the playoffs there is one glaring roadblock in the Crunch’s pursuit of the Calder Cup Championship – their in-state rival the Utica Comets. In 14 games against the Comets, the Crunch managed an uninspiring 2-11-1 record. Remove all 14 games against the Comets from the Crunch’s record and they would have the best points percentage in the Eastern Conference, and the third best in the league.

Utica and Syracuse still have to take care of business in their respective Division Semifinals to meet in the Division Final, but Utica certainly looks like the most formidable opponent the Crunch could see in the Eastern Conference.

Ben Groulx Ends Regular Season as Crunch’s Winningest Coach

The Crunch have a new all-time winningest head coach after Ben Groulx recorded win #221 Friday night to surpass Gary Agnew. Groulx, currently in his sixth season with the Crunch, has made the Calder Cup Playoffs with the team every season that they’ve been held and finished second or higher in the North Division standings in 4 of 6 seasons.

Success catches people’s attention though, so it may only be a matter of time before Groulx finds himself behind an NHL bench. He was considered for the Arizona Coyotes opening before this season, and now has been mentioned as a candidate for the Detroit Red Wings opening by The Athletic as Steve Yzerman looks to find the coach that will lead the Red Wings out from their rebuild phase and into contenders in the Atlantic Division.

This a concern for another day though, so for now Crunch and Lightning fans should appreciate Groulx while we have him because he’s been top-notch for both organizations since joining the Crunch in 2016.

Full List of Team Award Winners

Defender of the Year: Sean Day

Plus/Minus Player of Year Award: Fredrik Claesson

Most Improved Player of the Year: Gage Goncalves

Brightest Prospect/Rookie of the Year Award: Cole Koepke

Power Forward of the Year Award: Gabriel Dumont

“Sole” of the Syracuse Crunch: Gabriel Dumont

Offensive Player of the Year: Alex Barre-Boulet

MVP Award: Gabriel Dumont

Stay tuned as we will have a first-round preview for the Syracuse Crunch’s opening-series against the Laval Rocket later in the week.