Home Ice, Veterans Leading Crunch to AHL Finals

The Syracuse Crunch finished off the Providence Bruins in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals last weekend to advance to the 2017 Calder Cup Finals, where they will face the Grand Rapids Griffins in a rematch of the 2013 Final series.

The Crunch’s series-clinching win Saturday in Game 5 against the Bruins improved their postseason home record to a perfect 9-0 at Onondaga County War Memorial, commonly referred to as ‘The OnCenter’ by its local fans in central New York.


But what is it about this team on home ice during their postseason run?

Getting the last change — and getting favorable match ups after each stoppage in play — plays into Syracuse’s home success, but there’s more to it than that.

“Our crowd is just electric,” forward Yanni Gourde said after their Game 4 win. “The fans are great. They just get us going right away as soon as the puck drops. It’s pretty amazing to have that kind of crowd behind us since the beginning.”

The OnCenter’s ‘electric’ atmosphere was on full display in Syracuse’s 7-2 Game 4 win last Friday night.

The 5,916 fans in attendance were, like Gourde referred to, dialed in and energetic from the opening face-off, and the team fed off their fans’ energy — jumping out to a 1-0 lead within the opening four minutes of the contest and generating the first four shots on goal to start the game.

It was much of the same the following night in a much closer 3-1 Syracuse win to clinch the Eastern Conference championship. In all, the Crunch have outscored their opponents by a combined 22 goals in their nine home wins this postseason.

“I don’t think we are so different at home,” Syracuse head coach Benoit Groulx said. “Here, in this building, it seems our fans are so energetic and bring so much emotion to our team. As soon as we score one goal, they’re crazy. Our players feed off that. It’s nice to see. I like the fact that it’s so loud in this building – it’s intimidating for the other team.”

Veterans Leading the Way

While Groulx was quick to point out that the team’s younger players are playing just as well as the veterans after Friday’s blowout win over Providence, he re-emphasized the sentiment that the team wouldn’t have made it this far without the strong leadership across all positions.

“They’re leading the way, but I think it’s a team effort,” Groulx explained. “I think our vets have been outstanding for this team since day one. I’ve mentioned that many times.”

Perhaps the most important veteran addition to the Crunch roster came leading up to the NHL’s trading deadline when Tampa Bay traded Syracuse’s goaltender Adam Wilcox to the Florida Panthers in exchange for longtime AHL goaltender Mike McKenna.

In his 12th season at the pro level, McKenna began the year with the Panthers’ AHL affiliate Springfield Thunderbirds, picking up just nine wins in 26 appearances on a struggling team before being acquired by Tampa Bay.

With the Crunch, the veteran went 5-5 with a 2.87 goals-against average and .901 save percentage.

The playoffs, however, have been a different story for McKenna. He’s picked up his play to the tune of an 11-5 postseason record with improved goals-against (2.51 GAA) and save percentage (.912 SV%).


Cory Conacher leads the AHL in postseason scoring with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 16 games, and his goal in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals punched Syracuse’s ticket to the 2017 Calder Cup Championship.

After spending last season playing overseas, the undersized but speedy and skilled forward returned to North America for his 6th pro season, signing a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning last summer. Conacher was well traveled in the 2016-17 season, being called up and sent down throughout the year, totaling 11 NHL games and 56 AHL games in the regular season.

While in the AHL, Conacher has been dominant, averaging over a point per game with 60 points (17 goals, 43 assists) in 56 games and making those around him better players in the process.

“They’re showing the way. They’re calm,” Groulx said of his veteran players and their importance to the team’s run to the Finals. “Their composure [and] the confidence they have is very good for our team.”

And then there’s veteran offensive defenseman Matt Taormina, the 2016-17 Eddie Shore Award winner as the AHL’s best defenseman. The highly skilled blue-liner was an AHL All-Star this season like Conache and heads back to the Calder Cup Finals as the lone remaining member of Syracuse’s 2013 team that lost to Grand Rapids in the Finals four years ago.

Taormina’s 16 points lead all AHL defensemen in postseason scoring, and he’ll be looking to avenge the 2013 Finals’ loss this time around when the Crunch take on the Grand Rapids Griffins in Game 1 of the 2017 Calder Cup Finals Friday night in Michigan.