After a two season hiatus, the Cleveland Monsters are back in the Calder Cup playoffs. This time they kick things off against the Syracuse Crunch. In a crazy twist of fate, the Crunch happen to be the farm team of the Tampa Bay Lightning whom the Columbus Blue Jackets just swept.
Justin G. of Raw Charge and I sat down to have a little discussion about the Syracuse Crunch vs Cleveland Monsters first round series. You can ready my interview with JG here. It’s also a preview of the first round. I highly recommend reading the whole preview instead of skipping straight to the Q&A.
ES: The last time Syracuse and Cleveland met was February 2nd, 2019 when the Crunch dominated the Monsters in a 6-3 win. What has changed for the Crunch since then?
JG: The goaltending is the biggest change. For most of the season Eddie Pasquale and Connor Ingram split their starts pretty equally and they formed a pretty good tandem. Then something happened and Ingram was sent to Orlando. Unlike most of the season and last post season, this will be the Eddie Pasquale show. I expect to see him start every game. Atte Tolvanen has been fine in his limited starts, but two months ago he was hanging out in a college cafeteria worrying about his mid-terms.
Mitchell Stephens is relatively healthy as well. I don’t think he played in any of the games against the Monsters this year. He gives the Crunch a solid number two center and allows Coach Groulx to split up some of his offense (and moves Andreoff back to his preferred position on left wing). Stephens had 24 points in 32 games and was their best player at face-offs by a wide margin.
ES: The Crunch cleaned up in the regular season awards this year. Eddie Pasquale earned the Harry “Hap” Holmes award after allowing only 104 goals. Carter Verhaeghe earned the John B. Sollenberger award for most points in the league and the Willie Marshall award for most goals (34). Verhaeghe shared the Willie Marshall award with rookie, Alex Barre-Boulet. Talk about a lot of scoring power on one team.
Other than Alex Barre-Boulet, Carter Verhaeghe, and Eddie Pasquale who has stood out for the Syracuse Crunch? Who is your under dog?
JG: The two players up front that have stood out this season were Andy Andreoff and Cory Conacher. They both were veterans who probably thought they had a chance to make the Lightning out of training camp (Conacher actually started the season in Tampa) but ended up playing with the Crunch all season. Instead of sulking or demanding a trade they went out and had two awesome seasons. Not only on the score sheet but also on the leadership front as they served as mentors for some of the young forwards.
Cameron Gaunce (the ex-monster) has also been a key to their success. One of the issues they had last season is that they didn’t have the player on defense that could be counted on for offense. Gaunce provided that this season, both on the power play as the point man and at even strength. Their power play has struggled when he hasn’t been in the line-up, so the one benefit to the Lightning getting swept was that he was able to rejoin the Crunch.
The underdog for me would be Ross Colton. He’s kind of the forgotten prospect as he’s been overshadowed by Barre-Boulet, Cal Foote and Taylor Raddysh. Colton has quietly centered the third line and killed off penalties. Prior to the season we were certain that he would spend most of the year in the ECHL, but he’s been one of the role players that Coach Groulx has relied on most. He also chipped in 14 goals with more than a few coming in close or tied games. If anyone is going to score an overtime goal, it’s Colton.
ES: Who on the Cleveland Monsters are you worried about facing?
JG: I was hoping to say Nathan Gerbe, but it looks like he’s not going to be healthy. Zac Dalpe is a concern if he stays on the roster and with the way the Bruins and Maple Leafs are beating each other up, the Blue Jackets may not need him until after Games 3 and 4. Brad Thiessen kind of worries me as well. If he stones the offense in the early going, the Crunch might start gripping their sticks a little tighter. In such a short season, a hot goaltender can really steal a series. I also have this nagging feeling that Sonny Milano is going to play some sort of key role in the series.
ES: What do the Crunch need to do to take a commanding lead in the series? What is their Achilles heel?
JG: Score on the power play and keep skating in the neutral zone. There offense is predicating on transition play, moving the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone as fast as possible. When they are moving with speed they are hard to contain both offensively and defensively. If they are on their game they will be backchecking and stealing pucks in the neutral zone.
Their Achilles Heel? Penalties, penalties, penalties. That hyper-aggressive style of play can lead to a lot of hooking and tripping penalties. While they were a top five penalty kill team, they were also spent the most time shorthanded. That style of play doesn’t play well in the postseason. Not only does it give the opponent a better chance of scoring, it also kills their offensive flow. There were games where they took seven or eight penalties in a game. That’s almost an entire period spent killing off a penalty.
ES: Do you think the Crunch’s success has a lot to do with the way Benoit Groulx coaches the team? He not only knows his own players inside and out but seems to also know the opposition quite well. How do you think that style of in depth coaching has helped the team this year?
JG: I really think it does. He pushes the team a lot and demands a lot out of his players. His focus all year was on building depth. In his eyes, “depth” is the ability to have any player step into any role on the team and succeed. Dennis Yan can play on the fourth line and or the first line and the team doesn’t suffer. I’m not sure they’re at that point yet, but they’re close. He also holds the players extremely accountable. Alex Volkov scored 20+ goals in his rookie season last year and started the season on the top line. He was careless with the puck early on and found himself on the fourth line for the next couple of games. He eventually worked his way out of the doghouse, but the point was made.
I’m not sure he worries about the other team that much. He respects them and often praises them, but he believes that if his team executes the game plan then they can’t be beaten. The uptempo, aggressive style that he preaches requires a lot of discipline from his players as they are constantly covering for each other on the ice. Groulx has walked the fine line of scolding his players and praising them. They seem to like playing for him, but also understand the consequences of not adhering to the game plan
ES: With the parent team getting swept by the Monsters’ parent team, do you think the Crunch will be even more motivated to take down the Monsters as soon as possible?
JG: I think it will serve as a lesson not to take a team for granted. Just because you’re the top seed doesn’t mean you can just throw your sticks out on the ice and expect to win. That’s what they should be thinking about. Coach Groulx will be working overtime to get them motivated. He’s preached taking the season one game at a time (cliche as it is). They’ve had set goals all season long. First - make it to the playoffs. Second - gain home ice advantage. Now I’m sure his goal is to win Game One. He has them focused on that, nothing else.
ES: What’s your prediction for the series?
I have the Crunch winning in four games. I’m thinking at least two overtime games and each goaltender steals at least one game for their team.