Crunch January Recap: Alnefelt is Who we Hoped he Was

Dec 30, 2021; Sunrise, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Hugo Alnefelt (60) plays his position against the Florida Panthers during the third period at FLA Live Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 30, 2021; Sunrise, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Hugo Alnefelt (60) plays his position against the Florida Panthers during the third period at FLA Live Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports /
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He’s Hugo, he’s from Sweden, and he stops pucks.

Hugo Alnefelt lived up to his famous self-assessment over the course of January posting a 4-1-0 record in net for the Syracuse Crunch and capping off the month with a stout 51 save shutout effort against the Providence Bruins (BOS) on the 29th. His only loss came on the 27th. But after only allowing one goal past him, it was the rest of the team that failed to provide any goal-scoring support in the team’s shutout loss.

Ultimately, his 0.51 goals-against average and .988 save percentage performance over the past week earned him AHL Player of the Week honors, making him the first Crunch player to be given the title since Jimmy Huntington after week one of last season.

January was just another example that Alnefelt is well on his way to becoming Andrei Vasilevskiy’s backup down the line. With a 0.929 save percentage this season, the second-year goalie looks destined for his first real extended opportunity in the NHL, perhaps as soon as next season.

Barre-Boulet sets a few franchise records

The Crunch record books were rewritten twice in January by Alex Barre-Boulet. Within a week’s span he became the franchise leader in assists and points.

A defense group that causes (good) problems

January saw the return of LHD Trevor Carrick to the lineup — after missing a month to injury — and has presented the Crunch with a good problem to have: Too many quality defensemen.

Syracuse is only carrying 7 defensemen on the roster, but it’s hard to make a case to scratch any of them. Carrick, Darren Raddysh, Phil Myers, and Sean Day all have NHL experience and make-up a daunting Top-4 defense group; Declan Carlile and Jack Thompson are two rookies that have been making significant strides as the season progresses; Ryan Jones is also one of the best defensemen in the league signed to an AHL contract.

So, what do you do when you have seven defenders that make themselves impossible to bench? You play all seven of them. And that’s what head coach Ben Groulx has done five of the nine games since Carrick has returned from injury. Day was suspended for one of the nine, so it is possible they would have gone 11/7 two-thirds of the time without his absence. Having gone 4-0-1 in those 11/7 games, I would not be surprised to see the trend continue and even become more common going forward.

Month of suspensions

As mentioned, Day was suspended for one game after getting carried away with a Utica Comets player during a line brawl that developed after a Comet took a late shot on net.

Gemel Smith was given three games for an incident against the Rochester Americans early in the month.

Jack Lafontaine treated fight fans to a goaltender showdown with Malcolm Subban in the same game versus Rochester. Unfortunately, for LaFontaine, he must have forgotten you cannot join the fight from the bench and was given a six-game suspension. But hey, goalies dropping the gloves is always a must-see highlight.

Balcers gets to stay for now

The Crunch look like they will be able to keep their new toy for the rest of their regular season after Rudolfs Balcers cleared NHL waivers.

Tampa Bay sent Balcers to the Crunch on a conditioning loan on January 15. He played six games and accumulated three assists.

Mostly resigned to a depth role on a deep team, he had shown glimpses of good performances but ultimately none of the 31 other teams in the NHL thought he was ready to step into an NHL lineup. No problem for the Crunch, though, as they will be happy to have the two-time AHL All-Star in their arsenal of forwards.

Assuming the Lightning will come calling for Balcers for the NHL playoffs, his impact may be limited to only the regular season.

Nevertheless, a handful of forward positions have been in flux in the bottom-six of the forward lineup, and Balcers’ presence will give the team the extra bit of grit to make them a tougher opponent. P.C. Labrie was brought in mid-season last year to address what was then a more dire need, but Balcers will still be an added luxury for a deeper and well-rounded Crunch team this season.

Standings situation

The Crunch must be feeling good about themselves at the moment. With a 20-14-6 record, that places them third in the North Division, they are looking comfortable to make the playoffs with less than half of the season remaining. Alnefelt has been a rock in net, Carrick’s return has been a major boost, and they are the third highest scoring offense in the Eastern Conference. The Crunch’s fortunes should continue to swing upward as things currently stand.

Overall, five teams will make the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs from the North Division, and the Crunch have a 9-point buffer over the sixth place Cleveland Monsters (CBJ). The Utica Comets (NJD) are 4 points ahead in second, and the Toronto Marlies (TOR) have been the class of the division thus far and hold a 14-point advantage over the Crunch.