Weekend notebook: Dumont helping Crunch find identity

Photo: Scott Thomas

📝 by Patrick Williams

What is the difference between working hard and competing?

Syracuse Crunch head coach Ben Groulx knows. So does his captain, Gabriel Dumont.

“It’s about playing with your identity right from the get-go,” Groulx stresses. “You cannot go out there and test the water. You’ve got to go out there and establish your identity. You’ve got to establish who you are.”

Says Dumont, “I think Ben always says that there’s a big difference between working hard — or even thinking you’re working hard — and actually working hard and competing. The word we hear most in Syracuse is ‘compete.’

“A lot of times you can work hard, but there’s an extra step that you can take [that] is called ‘competing.’”

That means a consistent effort to win the puck. Be it outmuscling an opponent along the boards or in front of the net, taking away ice, absorbing a hit, moving a puck out of danger even while under heavy pressure, or any of hockey’s other principles, do it. And do it consistently, period after period, game after game.

“Hockey is a one-on-one game,” Dumont continued. “If you beat the guy in front of you, if the 20 guys on your team beat the guy in front of them every night, you’re going to give yourself a good chance to win every night.”

“If the [opponent] lifts your stick, you lift [his] stick. Go and get the puck back.”

Hard lessons have always been part of the curriculum in Syracuse. Playing for the demanding Groulx is a challenge — just ask any of his players, present or past — but it can be quite rewarding in the end. Those players who have gone on to win the Stanley Cup with the Lightning and establish themselves as NHL regulars can attest to that. They mastered the hard-nosed, two-way game that Tampa Bay and Groulx demand as a non-negotiable.

Tonight is another chance to put those lessons into action when Syracuse hosts the Laval Rocket. A bit of payback is another incentive. The Crunch, who were knocked out of last spring’s Calder Cup Playoffs by the Rocket, went into Laval two weeks ago riding a four-game winning streak and on an 11-3-1-0 run; they lost twice at Place Bell and haven’t won since, carrying a five-game slide into tonight’s meeting in Central New York.

It was beginning to look like another typical Syracuse season was taking shape — start slowly as incoming players learn to play for Groulx, come together, and then prepare for a torrid second half. Last season’s Crunch were below .500 in mid-February, but went 24-8-3-1 down the stretch to finish second in the North Division.

“Our level of compete’s not enough,” Groulx said after last weekend, which saw his team earn only a single standings point out of meetings with Belleville, Rochester and Hershey. “Our execution is not good. It seems that everything’s got to be fixed. I think our team is way better than that right now. I don’t think we look really good.

“We have to establish our identity.”

And so the 13-13-3-2 Crunch have plenty of incentive — and opportunity — to halt this 0-4-0-1 slump. Tonight’s contest starts a stretch of six games in nine nights.

Dumont signed up for this. He signed a two-year AHL deal last summer to remain in a city in which he has spent five of his 13 pro seasons. And in addition to wearing the “C” for the Crunch, Dumont will represent Syracuse as captain of the Eastern Conference side at the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Bell in collaboration with Manulife Bank next month in Laval.

The veteran acts as a go-between in the Crunch dressing room. Groulx’s message can sell itself, but sometimes a captain’s touch helps to solidify and soften those non-negotiables. He can speak to the organization’s strengths, having played 46 games with the Lightning himself over the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.

The “TampaCuse” standard has helped to send wave after wave of players to the NHL for a Lightning club that has reached four Finals and won two Stanley Cup championships during the affiliation. So when the Crunch are going through a difficult practice or video session in which Groulx dissects mistakes, Dumont works to foster a we’re-all-in-this-together mindset among his fellow players. And then he circles back to point to Groulx’s development success once again.

“He’s proven his way,” Dumont said of Groulx.

“Obviously you can tell this team has a lot of character, has a lot of guys that care,” Dumont added. “Bring that compete level just a little notch higher, [and] we’ll be all right.”

Said Groulx after his team nearly completed a third-period comeback in Sunday’s 4-3 loss in Hershey, “If [we] had no character, we would have been kicked 5-, 6-1. So, it’s a good sign. For me, it’s a very positive sign. It’s the leadership we have in this room.”

Dumont also recognizes that a club with six rookies will have its fair share of difficulties going through Groulx’s development process.

“It’s going to be up and down this year,” Dumont said. “We knew it was going to be up and down, but it’s just a process to make sure that even in those downs that our identity is still the same, you compete every night, and [opponents] know that if you play Syracuse, you’re in one.”


The Colorado Eagles and Rockford IceHogs meet in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week tonight (9 ET/8 CT) at Budweiser Events Center. It is the first-ever meeting between the clubs.

Fans can also sample all of Saturday’s AHL action for free with a special AHLTV Freeview. League-wide coverage begins at 4 ET when Charlotte hosts Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Cleveland visits Laval. For details on how to watch the 15-game slate, go to AHLTV.com.

🏒 Four more AHL players made their NHL debuts in the last week to push the season total to 41 AHL graduates.

A day after being named to represent the Milwaukee Admirals at the upcoming AHL All-Star Classic, rookie Yaroslav Askarov was in net Thursday for the Nashville Predators and stopped 31 shots in a 4-3 loss at Montreal. Askarov, 20, was the 11th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and has gone 13-6-2 with a 2.66 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage in 22 games with the Admirals.

Providence Bruins forward Joona Koppanen also debuted on Thursday, skating in Boston’s contest against Seattle. A veteran of 215 AHL games, the 24-year-old Koppanen was a fifth-round pick by the Bruins in the 2016 NHL Draft. He has five goals and 14 assists in 34 games for Providence this season.

Bobby McMann was named the Howies Hockey Tape/AHL Player of the Week on Monday, then took the ice for his NHL debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday. McMann, 24, has eight goals and seven assists in 17 AHL games with the Marlies this season after setting a franchise rookie record with 24 goals in 2021-22.

Defenseman Vincent Desharnais made his NHL debut Wednesday with the Edmonton Oilers. The 26-year-old played his first three pro seasons on an AHL contract with Bakersfield before signing his first NHL contract with the Oilers on Mar. 2, 2022. Desharnais has played 13 games this season with the Condors and has two assists.

🏒 Hershey will raise Chris Bourque’s number 17 jersey to the Giant Center rafters Saturday night, an honor afforded to only seven other players in the franchise’s storied history.

Bourque won the Calder Cup three times with Hershey, becoming the first player in team history to do so. He was also the AHL’s playoff MVP in 2010, regular-season MVP in 2015-16, and scoring champion twice. Across nine seasons with the Bears, he played 604 games and recorded 586 points (196 goals, 390 assists), fifth-most in team history.

Now a Boston-based amateur scout with the Maple Leafs after wrapping up his playing career last spring, the 36-year-old Bourque totaled 13 AHL seasons and finished with 794 points (251 goals, 495 assists) in 746 contests with Portland, Hershey, Providence, Hartford, and Bridgeport. He ranks 12th all-time in league history in assists, 20th in points, and 40th in goals.

“I don’t think it’ll really hit me until I see it up there,” Bourque said Thursday. “But some legendary players have played here, the history of the Hershey Bears, obviously the most historic franchise in the American Hockey League, it’s an honor to be recognized with those guys.”

🏒 The Utica Comets will put a 12-game point streak (10-0-2-0) on the line tonight when they visit Providence. The Comets earned a 2-1 win over the Bruins last Sunday, then came from behind to defeat Cleveland, 3-2 in overtime, on Wednesday evening.

Utica’s franchise record for most consecutive games without a regulation loss is 16, set with a 13-0-2-1 run during the 2017-18 season. The Comets also had a 13-game winning streak in 2021-22, the longest such streak ever to begin an AHL season.

🏒 Hit hard by player recalls for much of the season, the Cleveland Monsters got a boost for a change this week with the return of standout rookie defenseman David Jiricek.

Cleveland head coach Trent Vogelhuber had Jiricek back in his defensive rotation on Wednesday for the first time since the 19-year-old left to join the Czech team for the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship. Jiricek was named the tournament’s top defenseman after helping Czechia to a silver medal.

The sixth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, Jiricek’s return to the lineup capped a notable day; he was also named to the North Division team for the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic.

🏒 Time at home has been good to the Coachella Valley Firebirds. After spending the first two months of the season waiting for Acrisure Arena’s completion, the Firebirds have gone 6-1-0-1 in their new digs and are now a league-best 23-6-3-1 (.758) overall.

One point up on Calgary for the lead in the Pacific Division, Coachella Valley hosts Bakersfield tonight and Tucson on Monday afternoon.

🏒 Expectations were high as Luke Evangelista began his first full pro season with Milwaukee in the fall. After all, the 20-year-old forward had led the Ontario Hockey League with 55 goals in 62 games last season with the London Knights.

With nine points in his last six games, including his first pro hat trick in Tuesday’s 7-5 win over Tucson, Evangelista is now tied with Iowa’s Sammy Walker for the league scoring lead among rookies with 29 points.

Evangelista was selected by the Nashville Predators in the second round of the 2020 NHL Draft and is part of an impressive group of young Nashville prospects stationed in Milwaukee.

🏒 With their All-Star goaltender Lukas Dostal back in the fold, the San Diego Gulls have become a dangerous opponent on the schedule. They start a home-and-home set with the Ontario Reign tonight at Pechanga Arena.

San Diego has won five of seven since a 12-game losing streak, and Dostal’s return from Anaheim has helped key that revival. The 22-year-old has stopped 132 of 138 shots in his last four starts (.957), including back-to-back shutouts in which he totaled 79 saves.

The Gulls’ All-Star representative ranks fifth in the AHL with a .923 save percentage this season and is tied for second with three shutouts.

🏒 Patience was worth it in Rochester, where Malcolm Subban continues his standout play. After being limited to nine appearances between the NHL and AHL last season, Subban was injured in a preseason contest and did not make his season debut with Rochester until Nov. 18.

But the veteran netminder has gone 9-2-0 (2.79, .916) and has won a career-best seven straight decisions, including consecutive 41-save nights against Syracuse on Jan. 7 and Laval on Wednesday. He has faced an average of 33.6 shots in his 11 turns in net this season.

🏒 Tucson forward Michael Carcone quickly announced his presence upon returning to the AHL with back-to-back three-point efforts earlier this week. Carcone played six games with the Coyotes, picking up a pair of goals.

Carcone missed four Roadrunners contests while on recall to Arizona, but still leads the AHL with 48 points in 29 games on the season. He will be Tucson’s representative at the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic.

🏒 The Bridgeport Islanders’ 13-3-4-0 start has been undone by a 1-11-2-1 record since, including an 11-game winless streak that they will take into tonight’s visit to Lehigh Valley. Bridgeport then hosts red-hot Utica on Saturday before a Monday matinee trip to Springfield.


🗣️ “I don’t think we’re taking any moral victories at this point of the year. It’s crunch time.”

— Grand Rapids Griffins forward Kyle Criscuolo following a 5-2 home loss to the Iowa Wild on Wednesday. The Griffins sit eight points out of a playoff spot going into the weekend.