Falcons Captain Ryan Craig, while with the Pens - Justin K. Aller
I was told recently by an AHL executive that, "...the road to the Calder Cup goes through Syracuse." Although it may be too early to make late spring travel plans, if Friday night was any indication, the road might just detour through Springfield.
There are only two regular season meetings between the Falcons and the Syracuse Crunch. The first was an exciting 5-3 win by the Falcons on Friday night at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
One other thing to add is that these are not last year's Syracuse Crunch. They are the defending Calder Cup champions. Less than a week after finishing off one of the best seasons in AHL history, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that they were moving their development club from Norfolk to Syracuse. These guys have been there.
The recalls of AHL Player of the Month for January, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and defenseman Tim Erixon further depleted the Falcons roster. The difference between previous seasons and now is that the remaining Falcons are still a group of terrific hockey players.
However, the game didn't start out the way the Falcons wanted.
The action was physical in the early going, with the Crunch winning most battles. Curtis McElhinney tended the twine for Springfield and was his usual, reliable self in the opening frame, turning aside all 12 Syracuse shots.
A key moment came when Nick Drazenovic delivered a crushing body check along the blueline, which immediately set off Radko Gudas.
It bears noting here that even though the Crunch have one of the best records in the AHL, they are the second most penalized team in the loop, trailing only the Rockford IceHogs in that dubious statistic.
Borrowing from Reggie Dunlop, Gudas is the "chief punk" of the Crunch. Gudas' team leading 138 PIM swelled to 165 after being assessed everything but the kitchen sink when he jumped Drazenovic and pounded the back of Nick's head. All the players converged and things got very close to a Pier Six brawl.
The Falcons earned a five minute power play from the fracas. Even as the period wound down, the Birds didn't have a solid scoring opportunity as the period ended with no score.
Early in the second period, while still on the power play, Springfield caught a break when Mike Angelidis flipped the puck toward the Springfield end, looking to kill time. The puck though went over the glass, earn Angelidis two for delay of game and putting the Falcons on a 5 on 3 power play.
Captain Ryan Craig capitalized, burying a rebound past Dustin Tokarski giving Springfield a 1-0 lead. Setting up the goal were Wade MacLeod and Nick Drazenovic. It can't be said enough how important Drazenovic is to this club. He was having a great season last year when a concussion derailed him. This year, he has picked right up where he left off, collecting three more assists on Friday night. He now leads active Falcons with 14 goals and 27 helpers for 41 points in 43 games.
One goal wasn't going to intimidate Syracuse however. Dalton Prout took a seat for slashing, leading to the tying goal by Brett Connolly.
Cody Goloubef blasted a laser from the high slot past Tokarski, giving the Falcons back their one goal lead. Goloubef, since returning from injury has again found his game and has played very well of late.
Out of the eight goals scored on the night, only Goloubef's came at equal strength. The Crunch scored all three of their goals on the power play, while Springfield had two PPG and one shorty in the mix.
The next two goals were beauties. Michael Chaput increased Springfield's lead to two when he picked up his seventh of the season on the power play. Reminiscent of a young Alexandre Giroux, Chaput muscled his way in and made no mistake in cleanly beating Tokarski.
Ryan Craig's second of the night was pure hustle from the man with the "C". Killing a penalty to Scott Howes, Craig pestered the Crunch in the neutral zone and broke in alone. A deke to Tokarski, Craig slid the disc under him to give Springfield a 4-1 lead.
Penalty trouble late almost cost the Falcons. Syracuse capitalized on a 5 on 3, closing the gap to 4-2 and just over a minute later, another PPG made this one 4-3 with just under two minutes remaining.
Syracuse pulled Tokarski and Chaput, again showing maturity, took a pass from Craig as they crossed the Crunch blueline. Rather than rushing the shot, Chaput took a couple strides, sized up the shot and buried it for the insurance tally, icing a 5-3 win for the Falcons. Highlights and interviews, from the Falcons YouTube channel:
Springfield Falcons vs. Syracuse Crunch, Highlights and Postgame Interviews Feb. 1 (via SpfdFalconsAHL)
Friday's Three Stars:
1 - Ryan Craig
2 - Curtis McElhinney
3 - Nick Drazenovic
Craig was the obvious choice for #1, although all three were key components to a big Falcons win.
Springfield tries to capitalize on the momentum of the big win when they travel to Hartford on Saturday night for yet another game with the Whale. Game time is 7PM.