The Syracuse Crunch stand in the way of the Toronto Marlies’ attempt to advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the second consecutive season.
The teams have only met once before in the Calder Cup playoffs — back in 2008, also in the second round, in what turned out to be a seven-game series victory for the Marlies.
The two teams battled for the North Division title down the stretch of the 2016-17 regular season, with the Crunch claiming top spot and home-ice advantage.
The head-to-head during the regular season battle was extremely tight, with Toronto claiming ten points and Syracuse nine. During the eight-game series, six were determined by a single goal, with four of those decided in overtime or shootout. The lone blow-out victory belonged to the Marlies with a 4-0 success at home on March 26.
Tale of the Tape: Syracuse Crunch
Syracuse reached the second round in a similar fashion to Toronto. Facing St. John’s, the Crunch lost the first game of the series on the road but bounced back to win three consecutive. The series featured four hard-fought games, with each result determined by a single goal and a pair decided in overtime.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have bolstered the Syracuse ranks by reassigning a host of talent. Joel Vermin, Stefan Fournier, Michael Bournival, Yanni Gourde, Adam Erne, Gabriel Dumont and Cory Conacher have beefed up the forward ranks. Jake Dotchin has also returned on defence, while 20-year-old centerman Mitchell Stephens (33rd overall draft pick in 2015) has joined the team after finishing his junior season in London.
Syracuse has scored by committee this season, making them a potent threat now that all of their offensive weapons have returned. That strength was underscored in the opening series against the IceCaps, with eight different players responsible for the ten goals scored.
Cory Conacher led the way during the regular season with 60 points and has proven somewhat of a “Marlie killer” during his time in the AHL. In six games against Toronto this season, Conacher has accumulated four goals and five assists. The Marlies kept him quiet in the final two meetings of the season, a that trends needs to continue in this series.
And then there is Matt Taormina, who also recorded 60 points this year off of the blue line. The 30-year-old defenseman was awarded the Eddie Shore Trophy for a remarkable season that included 45 assists (sixth among all skaters) and eight power play goals.
Left winger Yanni Gourde led the team in goals with 22 in 56 games, with four of those coming while shorthanded.
Tye McGinn put up 10 goals and 19 points during his 21-game stint in the AHL this season and went on to score a further 20 NHL goals for the Lightning, marking a career year for the 26-year-old. St. John’s found out what a threat he can be as the winger helped himself to a pair of goals and four points in the first round.
Right winger Erik Condra netted 15 times this season, while Matthew Peca, Joel Vermin and Adam Erne also scored 12 or more. Former Toronto forward Byron Froese has battled injuries since the trade to Tampa, but he’s managed seven points in six games for the Crunch, including a pair of power play goals.
On defense, Dotchin’s return adds depth to a defensive core that has featured two rookies in Ben Thomas and Dominik Masin throughout the season. There is plenty of experience in the ranks, however, between Mathieu Brodeur, Adam Comrie and Slater Koekkoek. Taormina grabs the headlines with his offensive output, but Comrie has eight goals in 55 outings and Thomas has chipped in with 21 points.
Toronto’s opponent can also call on a wealth of experience between the pipes. Mike McKenna is a veteran of the AHL with over 400 regular season games under his belt and he’s due to pass the 30 playoff game barrier in this series. Somewhat surprisingly, the goaltender has an all-time losing record of 10-15 in the postseason.
A late addition to Syracuse via trade, McKenna was 5-5-2 for the Crunch with a pedestrian save percentage that hovered just above .900. However, the 34-year-old posted a 3-1 record and a 0.932 SV% in the first round.
Latvian Kristers Gudlevskis could be called into action should Syracuse choose to change things up in net. Capable of brilliance, as we witnessed in the Olympic games for Latvia, Gudlevskis numbers in the AHL have not been sparkling this year: a save percentage under .900 and a record of 15-10-7.
Keys to the Series
As for Toronto, their only real injury concern entering the series is in net. Garret Sparks hasn’t seen action since being relieved after 40 minutes in Game 2 in Albany. Kasimir Kaskisuo has proven himself an able deputy up until now (2-0, .955 SV%), and if Sparks isn’t 100%, expect Sheldon Keefe to continue to roll with the Finnish netminder over Antoine Bibeau.
Kasperi Kapanen appears to have fully recovered from the elbow to the head he received during the Albany series and is expected to be in the line-up for Game 1.
Carl Grundström has been signed to an ATO and is eligible for the post-season. The Leafs 57th overall pick in 2016 is fresh off a second successful professional season in Sweden and Keefe has shown he isn’t afraid to throw rookies into the deep end. Indications are the 19-year-old will factor into the series at some point.
Brendan Leipsic netted four goals and three assists in five regular season games against Syracuse and will be looking to add to his three points in the post-season.
Special teams are likely to have a big say in the outcome of a series between two evenly-matched opponents. Syracuse owned the fifth-best penalty kill in the Eastern Conference and tallied 12 short-handed goals to boot. On the flipside, their power play registered at a fraction over 16% and gave up 13 shorthanded markers.
Toronto found themselves outmatched in the special team’s department Game 1 of the Albany series but bounced back with aplomb — especially on the penalty kill, which allowed just one goal against in 12 opportunities for the Devils.
Syracuse and Toronto both dominated on home ice through the season and the first round of the playoffs. The key for both sides, but especially the Marlies without home-ice advantage, will be finding success on the road. Toronto’s two wins in Syracuse came courtesy of the shootout, while the Crunch mustered just one victory at Ricoh Coliseum.
|Friday, May 5||7:00 p.m. EST||Syracuse|
|Saturday, May 6||7:00 p.m. EST||Syracuse|
|Tuesday, May 9||7:00 p.m. EST||Toronto|
|Wednesday, May 10*||7:00 p.m. EST||Toronto|
|Saturday, May 13*||7:00 p.m. EST||Syracuse|
|Monday, May 15*||7:00 p.m. EST||Toronto|
|Wednesday, May 17*||7:00 p.m. EST||Syracuse|