Chirping the Bench: The "Baby Steps" Week That Was.

Timo Pielmeier

MAGICS:
Welcome to the second edition of your weekly Crunch recap! This one is actually somewhat on time, thanks to a  reduction (relatively speaking) in ETOH consumption this weekend. We've got loads to talk about this week, so let's get right into the fun stuff after the jump: Pour another drink in my glass, indeed...

The Crunch had a pair of games this weekend, opening up with a road trip to scenic Glens Falls to face the Adirondack Phantoms on Friday night and returning home for a date with the Binghamton Senators Saturday night. The Good Guys were handed their third consecutive one-goal loss against the Phantoms but rebounded with the first victory of the Syracuse-Anaheim era the following night.

Overall, this was a far better effort all around when compared to last weekend. As I noted over at The Chairman's, it wasn't perfect, but it was a good step forward. When comparing the two weekends, I would like to think that this one was a better representation of what the Crunch have to work with, and offers a more accurate assessment of this team's potential. Given the improvements that were visible on the ice, this is most definitely a good thing for all of us. In no particular order, let's break this baby down:

1. The comfortable defense

As you may or may not have heard, Scott Niedermayer was in Syracuse all week to work with the Crunch defensive corps. This, I think, was a brilliant move on Anaheim's part, and one that deserves a ton of credit. It's not that the defense was horrible in the Lake Erie games; in fact, they were pretty solid. Instead, this was more of a fine-tuning, an opportunity to sit under Niedermayer's learning tree and pick up a few pointers from a Hall of Fame lock. To me, the results were immediately apparent: Uncle Joe and his crew looked extremely at ease in the defensive zone, seldom panicked and made the smart play to clear the puck for the vast majority of both games this weekend. There were a couple of miscues, namely allowing a pair of goals in less than 30 seconds against the Phantoms on Friday and coming out a bit flat for the third against Bingo on Saturday, but the rest of the weekend was a solid, solid effort. A great call by the Ducks to bring Niedermayer in, and a wonderful sign of good faith for Crunch fans everywhere to show that the Anaheim brass wants to put a winner in Syracuse.

2. Timo's big night

Saturday night's game quickly turned into the Timo Pielmeier Show. There's no other way to put it -- Timo won that game for the Crunch. The Sens put the pressure on him, and he answered the bell every time, making a couple of highlight reel saves along the way. In a town that has been historically toughest on its goalies, the young German received three separate standing ovations during the game and earned number one star honors for his performance. Were it not for a blown goal call with a minute left in the third, Pielmeier would have earned a well deserved shutout. He was there when his team needed him, and his confidence absolutely took a strong step forward with the win. His play has been consistently strong thus far through the young season: were it not for last weekend's offensive woes, he could be sitting on three wins at the moment. With the strong Crunch defense playing well in front of him, the Timo Show may well be in for a long run on State and Montogmery Streets this season.

3. The return of Nasty

After sitting out a three game suspension to begin the season, the Crunch lineup was bolstered by the return of one Jon Mirasty Saturday night. Whether you're a fan of the rough stuff or not, there is no denying that Mirasty gives this team -- and this crowd -- an extra dimension of intimidation. Having Jon Mirasty on the bench makes everybody a few inches taller and a few pounds heavier, since any liberties taken by the opposition will not go unpunished. Furthermore, the crowd came alive for the scrap, and I'm not exactly sure how Spencer held on for dear life in this one:

(Jon Mirasty vs Tim Spencer 10 16 2010, via crunchsite)

Later in the evening, John Kurtz got in on the act, lighting up Corey Kowick right off the draw:

(John Kurtz vs. Corey Kowick 10 16 2010, via crunchsite)

Now, you may or may not be a fan of the rough stuff. Whatever your opinion on it, understand that this town LOVES hard hitting, physical hockey. With a small, antiquated rink and substandard nonexistent few creature comforts, we rely on being loud and rabid in the stands to create a nice home ice advantage for our guys. It's a testament to us as fans that opposing players will freely and routinely list the War Memorial as one of the loudest and hardest buildings to play in around the league. The Nasty Show, for all of its trappings and Gong Show mentality sometimes, is an enormous advantage for this team forty nights each season. There's a reason he was the lone holdover from the Columbus era.

4. Size matters

One of the bigger difference between the two weekends was that the Crunch forwards have begun to exploit their size advantage over opposing players. The Lake Erie games were remarkable for a lack of this: to be totally honest, it seemed as if the Lake Erie losses were caused in large part by the Crunch forwards acting as if the puck was a Fabergé egg. With the War Memorial's small ice surface, that's usually not going to work. Historically, the most successful Crunch teams were those that generated most of their offense from within ten feet of the net. With the collection of large bodies on the roster this season, this shouldn't be an issue, and sure enough, the vast majority of the Crunch's scoring opportunities against Bingo came on shots from in close, banging it out in the corners and digging the puck out from behind the net. This absolutely needs to continue, and it seems like it will.

Now, there were a couple of things that need rapid improvement. The most pressing of these (a problem the Crunch and Ducks share, I'm told) is generating more shots on goal. The Crunch have yet to put a double digit shot total on net in any single period this season, and have yet to crack 25 in any one game. Obviously, this is alarming. Yes, it was enough to beat the Sens and enough to stay within a goal of Lake Erie and Adirondack, but the truth of the matter is that all three teams, quite honestly, suck. I doubt that any of them will be in the playoff picture when it's all said and done, and Binghamton is just flat out awful, there's no other way to put it. A fifteen shot effort against the Hersheys and Scrantons of the league is going to be ugly. Next Friday's opponent, the Norfolk Admirals, threw 56 shots on Worcester last Saturday night, and put seven of those in. The Crunch simply must pump up those totals to keep pace in the division.

The other red flag from the weekend were the few defensive miscues in both games. As I said before, there weren't many, but the ones we saw were a little alarming. The Crunch were in the driver's seat against the Phantoms, but giving up a pair of goals in 35 seconds with less than ten minutes to play was nothing but a defensive collapse. Saturday night was much better, but coming out flat for the third period led to a very nervous twenty minutes in the stands. Of course, that's going to happen from time to time; the trick is to make it happen as seldom as possible. With the defensive depth on the roster, I'd like to think that this is going to continue to improve as we move forward.

This weekend will see the Crunch with a pair of games. The aforementioned Norfolk Admirals come to town Friday night, and the Crunch hit the road to face the Hartford Wolfpack (soon to be the Connecticut Whale) on Saturday. Norfolk should be the stiffest test yet this season, as the Ads are quietly turning into the East's sleeper playoff team. With a tandem of Cedric Desjardins and the future Mr. Wrap Around Curl, Dustin Tokarski, Norfolk may have the best 1-2 punch between the pipes in the AHL. The presence of Crunch killers Mike Angelidis, Stefano Giliati and Pierre-Cedric Labrie will certainly cause a busy night for Uncle Joe's defensive corps, and Mirasty will undoubtedly look to do the do with Mitch Fritz.

Hartford, of course, features the services of one Wade Redden, who is currently tied for the team scoring lead with former Leaf prospect (and pain in the ass Marlie) Kris Newbury. No offense to the Pack, but this is a game that the Crunch really should win. The absence of much in the way of defense after Redden should favor the Crunch's firmly established top line of Bonino-Palmieri-Deschamps. Even though this is a Syracuse-favored matchup on paper, I am curious to see how the Crunch react after what I fully expect to be a difficult night at home against Norfolk. It should be a good early season mental test for this team in a weekend that will serve as the season's first true litmus test.

There you have it, your weekly look back and look ahead. I tried to come up with something witty to put in here to close this out, but I got nothin'. We'll see you in seven!

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