📝 by Patrick Williams
The Syracuse Crunch, remember them?
American Hockey League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They play in one of the AHL’s loudest buildings. An annual contender. Routinely churn out NHL-ready talent to fuel Tampa Bay’s next Stanley Cup chase.
Well, the Crunch are back after playing just four games since Nov. 27 ―and none since defeating the Toronto Marlies, 4-2, on the road Dec. 15.
Now after that three-week absence from the AHL schedule due to league COVID-19 protocols impacting both the Crunch and several opponents, Syracuse finally resumes play tonight when they visit the surging 17-9-0-0 Rochester Americans, who hold second place in the North Division (.654).
“It’s tough,” Crunch head coach Ben Groulx acknowledged Tuesday after practice. “Twenty-one days without playing, it seems like an eternity.”
Syracuse jumps into the fray quickly this week, playing three games in four nights. They host the Hershey Bears on Friday before the Amerks come to Syracuse on Saturday. It’s part of a stretch of 55 games in the final 116 days of the AHL season for the Crunch that includes 13 games in 25 days in January.
Groulx says his players will be ready to go after a demanding set of practices that he likened to a mini-training camp.
“We tried to combine a lot of skating, a lot of transition drills, a lot of up and down,” the sixth-year Crunch head coach said. “A little bit of teaching here and there, because we realize that certain things we forgot in our system. I told them every time we were on the ice for practice, we had no time to lose, and the steps were to get our conditioning back, get our habits back, and get our system back. In order for us to get our conditioning, we need our habits. Then when you have your conditioning and your habits, then you can have your system.
“They don’t want to practice. They want to play. I think they’re glad it’s over. Hopefully, the excitement, the adrenaline and all that will take over.”
What’s more, Groulx reported that the Crunch are relatively healthy after having this long layoff to heal. While Groulx said that injured forward Gemel Smith will not make his season debut just yet, he did say that forward Charles Hudon is “day-to-day.” Hudon ranks second to captain Gabriel Dumont in team scoring with 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) in 20 contests.
Several players who recently made their Tampa Bay debuts will be back in Groulx’s line-up in Rochester, including goaltenders Max Lagace and Hugo Alnefelt, defenseman Sean Day and forward Remi Elie. Defensemen Darren Raddysh and Andrej Sustr remain with the Lightning, but forward Gabriel Fortier returned to the Crunch on Tuesday.
“[This is] probably the best team on paper we’ve had since the beginning of the year,” Groulx said.
An offseason signing by Tampa Bay, Lagace went 1-1-0 in two National Hockey League starts last week as the Lightning endured their own roster issues. The goaltender anticipates a heavy workload to come in the next three-plus months, and he welcomes it: Lagace has been limited to just seven games with Syracuse this season along with the two starts for Tampa Bay. Last season he made just 10 appearances between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Lagace has not had “a chance to settle down,” Groulx said. “Practice for a good week, play three, four, or five games, feel good about yourself, get in a rhythm. It did not happen for him. It did not happen for any of our goalies this year.
“So, it’s what I hope for. I talked to him, and he’s very excited to play. I think that’s what [Lagace and Alnefelt both] need. With the schedule we have in front of us, they’ll have the opportunity to play and perform, no doubt.”
After starting opening night Oct. 15 in Cleveland and exiting that game with an injury, Lagace did not play again until Nov. 19, a five-week absence. Soon thereafter Syracuse’s schedule difficulties arose.
“It was a rough start getting no rhythm,” Lagace admitted of his season. “You want to just play and go in there confident, and when you don’t have that chance, it’s like, ‘Okay….’
“But I’m looking forward to just get in the rhythm, play with the guys, and just have fun.”
Lagace shrugged aside any potential challenges created by the recent schedule interruptions.
“It’s part of being a pro to adjust to a different situation,” Lagace said. “I’m sure the guys are just ready to go now. I’m not too worried about the results. The results just come with team effort. I feel like the mood is good, the mood is right in the dressing room, and we’re ready for the second part of the season.”
A week with Rochester, a team that has beaten the Crunch in each of the teams’ two meetings this season, and Hershey on the schedule is not exactly an easy way to jump back into action. At 8-10-2-1 (.452), there is work to do to move back into contention – and plenty of games in which to do it.
“I think quickly we’ll find out where we’re at, and it’s got to be for us to get to our best level,” Groulx said. “We don’t feel sorry for ourselves, but our plan is to adapt and take what is thrown at us. Our goal is to play good hockey, good hockey games, get back to our best, and we start [Wednesday].”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.