Why should the playoffs be any different? All season long the prevailing characteristic of the 2001-02 Syracuse Crunch has been their ability to overcome adversity. They have been faced with a myriad of obstacles and time after time they have triumphed over every impediment.
Saturday night’s contest at the War Memorial between the Crunch and the Philadelphia Phantoms would prove to be no exception. This time Syracuse would be faced with trying to regroup after seeing their two-goal lead evaporate in a span of eleven seconds thanks to a couple of ill-fated bounces of the famed War Memorial end boards.
Drawing from their past experiences, the Crunch never panicked. They would circle the wagons during the second intermission; score early in the third to regain the lead and hang on to down the Phantoms 5-3.
The Crunch, right from the drop of the first puck, were playing like a team on a mission. It was a perfect example of the term “playoff style hockey.” They started with Jeremy Reich’s hit along the boards against Mark Freer less than ten seconds in and continued with their tenacious play throughout the game’s opening minutes.
“Our game plan was to come out in the first five minutes and really try to bring it to them. We wanted to get the puck deep and finish our checks.” stated Crunch center Blake Bellefeuille. “We did that in the first period and that really picked up our team momentum.”
Bellefeuille’s play in the opening period would do more than pick up momentum; it would give the Crunch their first lead. On a well executed breakout by Syracuse, Kent McDonell would hit a streaking Bellefeuille with a pretty backhand pass that would spring the Boston College product for a break away on Phantom netminder Neil Little. He forgo making a move to fire a quick wrist shot that would bounce off Little and find the back of the net.
“We were setting up a controlled breakout and Kent made a great play. He saw me busting down my lane and he made a great play to chip it by their defense,” said Bellefeuille. “Lucky enough I put it past their goalie.”
Philadelphia would tally late in the first on the power play to send the game into the second period tied at one. That is when things would really heat up.
The Crunch would make it a 2-1 game off a great individual effort from defenseman Adam Borzecki. He would jump into the play at the blue line to intercept a Pavel Brendl clearing attempt and fire a shot on the Phantom net. Little made the initial save, but Borzecki would corral the rebound and slide it past the sprawling netminder to give Syracuse the lead.
Syracuse would build on their lead a little past the midway point of the second. Brad Moran, off a nifty drop pass from McDonell, fired what appeared to be a harmless slap shot form the blue line. Little must have picked it up late because he was slow to react and could not make the save. That gave the Crunch a comfortable two-goal lead, or at least they thought it did.
As they have done so many times in the past, the famed War Memorial end boards would come into play. The only problem was that those bounces usually benefit the home team, not tonight. The Phantoms would score twice, each time assisted by a fortuitous bounce from behind the Crunch net, in eleven seconds to erase Syracuse’s lead and even the score heading into the final period.
At that point it would have easy for the Crunch to hang their heads lamenting their misfortune, but that is just not in this team’s nature. They are a resilient bunch who are blessed with some strong leadership.
“Our team never got down. When something like that happens you have to stay up,” said Bellefeuille. “Our coaches kept us up and our captain kept us up.”
Not only did their captain talk the talk in the locker room between periods, he would walk the walk just 2:57 into the third. Captain Sean Pronger would take advantage of a bounce that would go the Crunch’s way to help Syracuse regain their lead. His slap shot from just inside the left wing circle would deflect off the stick of Philly defender David Harlock and flutter over the shoulder of Little for a 4-3 Crunch lead.
Nursing a one-goal lead in the third, the Crunch would play a little more conservative trying to protect the lead. “Our game plan all year when we get up a goal late in the third was one guy force with four guys back,” stated Crunch forward David Ling. “We played it to a “T” tonight and Labbe made some big stops.”
That he definitely did. He almost looked human throughout the game’s opening forty minutes, allowing three goals on thirteen shots, but in the latter stages of the contest he reminded us all why his jersey should come complete with a cape hanging off the back. Labbe would make save after save, preserving the Syracuse lead until Brad Moran’s empty net tally would clinch it with two seconds left in the game.
With the victory in a very important game one of the series, the Crunch will now focus on an even more critical game two Wednesday night at the War Memorial. “The first game was big,” said Ling. “Now the second game is bigger.”
Philadelphia at Syracuse - Boxscore ------------------------------------ Philadelphia 1 2 0 --3 Syracuse 1 2 2 --5 ------------------------------------ FIRST PERIOD -- Scoring: 1, Syracuse, Blake Bellefeuille 1 (Kent Mcdonell, Jamie Heward), 6:02. 2, Philadelphia, Mark Freer 2 (power play) (Greg Koehler, John Slaney), 11:34. Penalties: Y Sarault, Phi (charging), 6:00; J Reich, Syr (holding), 10:22; D Ling, Syr (kneeing), 11:17; M Watt, Phi (high sticking), 18:26. SECOND PERIOD -- Scoring: 3, Syracuse, Adam Borzecki 1 (Unassisted), 2:23. 4, Syracuse, Brad Moran 1 (Kent Mcdonell, Jamie Heward), 13:43. 5, Philadelphia, Kristian Kudroc 1 (Mark Greig, Greg Koehler), 15:05. 6, Philadelphia, Pavel Brendl 5 (Dan Peters, Kristian Kudroc), 15:16. Penalties: D Walser, Syr (interference), 5:36; G Koehler, Phi (cross checking), 10:17; K Kudroc, Phi (holding stick), 19:31. THIRD PERIOD -- Scoring: 7, Syracuse, Sean Pronger 1 (Andrej Nedorost, Paul Traynor), 2:57. 8, Syracuse, Brad Moran 2 (empty net) (Unassisted), 19:59. Penalties: M Watt, Phi (roughing), 9:00; S Pronger, Syr (cross checking), 9:00; J Vandermeer, Phi ( misconduct), 19:19. Shots on goal: --------------------------------------- Philadelphia 5 8 11 --24 Syracuse 10 13 9 --32 --------------------------------------- Power-play Conversions: Philadelphia - 1 of 3, Syracuse - 0 of 4. Goalies : Philadelphia, Neil Little (31 shots, 27 saves; record: 2-1-0). Syracuse, Jean-Francois Labbe (24 shots, 21 saves; record: 1-0-0). A: 4,108. Referees: Eric Furlatt. Linesmen: Mike Emanatian, Steve Lemay. INDIVIDUAL PLAYER STATISTICS PHILADELPH SYRACUSE G A +/- Shots G A +/- Shots D Harlock 0 0 -2 0 J Heward 0 2 +3 3 I Forbes 0 0 even 1 S Pronger 1 0 +3 1 M Greig 0 1 -1 3 C Nielsen 0 0 +2 1 K Kudroc 1 1 +1 3 D Walser 0 0 +1 5 J Skalde 0 0 -1 2 A Nedorost 0 1 +1 1 Y Sarault 0 0 -1 0 D Scoville 0 0 +1 1 G Lefebvre 0 0 -1 0 D Westcott 0 0 -1 1 M Watt 0 0 -1 2 D Ling 0 0 even 3 G Koehler 0 2 -2 0 A Borzecki 1 0 +2 4 J Slaney 0 1 -4 1 M Darche 0 0 even 1 K Law 0 0 -2 1 B Bellefeuille 1 0 -1 2 M Lephart 0 0 even 1 P Traynor 0 1 +1 1 P Brendl 1 0 -1 4 K McDonell 0 2 +1 2 P Vandermeer 0 0 even 1 J Reich 0 0 even 0 D Peters 0 1 +1 1 B Moran 2 0 +2 5 J Vandermeer 0 0 -1 1 J Schill 0 0 even 1 E Betournay 0 0 even 0 M Freer 1 0 -1 3
***Three Stars of the Game***
1. Sean Pronger: The captain lead by example and notched the game-winner early in the third period. He was also a game high +3 on the night.
2. Brad Moran: Moran’s goal in the second gave the Crunch a 3-1 lead. He also clinched the contest with an empty-net tally at the 19:58 mark of the third.
3. Blake Bellefeuille: He opened the scoring in the contest and was a physical presence all night long, especially on the penalty kill.
Scratches for last night were Tyler Sloan (healthy), Martin Spanhel (ribs), and Martin Paroulek (leg). In the playoffs, teams can now dress 18 players and two goaltenders, one more skater than in the regular season. Last evening Coach Gary Agnew decided to dress eight defensemen, with Andrei Syrubko receiving very limited ice time and Dan Watson, I believe, never left the Crunch bench. Blake Bellefeuille, who was assisted off the ice at the 6:02 mark of the third period and never returned, was only suffering from cramps and should be fine for Wednesday’s contest.
After the game, the Crunch announced that Columbus has recalled forwards Chris Nielsen and David Ling. Both are expected to play in Columbus’s season-ender on Sunday against Chicago and return by Wednesday’s game two against the Phantoms.