Chirping the Bench: The "Progress!" Week That Was.

[UPDATE: Nick Bonino has been called up to the Ducks.  He's played on a successful line with Deschamps and Palmieri, which Magics talks about below.  Also, if you haven't checked out Chairman How's lately, they're sporting a new black and orange color scheme.  It's nice, much prettier than this.]

MAGICS:
When we last met, I told you that the Crunch seemed like they were headed in the right direction. With another weekend in the books, I'm happy to report that this was a pretty good week for the team. Lots to talk about this week, so let's get right into it after the jump:

The Crunch had a three game week this week, starting Wednesday night in Hamilton. These two teams are no strangers to each other, having been former North divisional rivals until the Crunch shifted conferences last season.

(Not that this has anything to do with anything, but that was a god-awful division for travel. It was reasonable having Syracuse, Rochester, Hamilton and Toronto in the North, considering it's a 4 hour ride from here to T.O. However, those teams shared the division with Cleveland, Grand Rapids and Winnipeg. Having said that, let's get back to what you opened this for...)

The Hamilton game was a typical Crunch affair this season: get woefully outshot, somehow manage to gain a lead, then blow it when it mattered most. It was especially painful here, as the Crunch found themselves with a comfortable 3-1 lead with eight minutes to play in the third period. Then, just like that, the Dogs put three past Timo Pielmeier in a five minute span to take a late lead. Your New Hockey Jesus Kyle Palmieri (trademark pending) tied it back up with 2:42 remaining, but a defensive misfire allowed Yanick Weber to put home the game winner with 40 seconds left in the third and sent the Crunch home empty handed.

Yes, it was a tough loss to take, but there were some silver linings to be found. To a man, nobody was happy with the result. 

Joe DiPenta's response was the right answer. For a fanbase that was subjected to the same worn out cliches of "We just have to keep working hard," "We're just not getting the bounces" and my personal favorite, "We're squeezing too hard," for the last few seasons of the Columbus Era, that kind of honesty is, quite frankly, refreshing to hear. More specifically, the problems were readily apparent to everybody: not enough shots, too many mental lapses at the wrong time and an absence of scoring after the first line. If anything was going to change, these deficiencies needed to be addressed in a hurry, especially with the champs coming to town on Friday night.

Nobody was expecting much for Friday night's game against Hershey. Hershey is always dangerous, no matter what happens in the off season. There's a reason they've won more Calder Cups than any other team...they go out and get the best talent they can find and let them do their thing. If I recall, I believe they hung eight spots on the board against the Crunch on the way to setting all-time records for points last season.

So, what happened in a game that everyone in attendance figured to be a blowout in the making? The Crunch outshot, outhit, outhustled and outplayed Hershey all night long and stole a point from the champs.

In every respect, the Crunch were the better team Friday night. They outshot the Bears by a 2 to 1 margin at one point, en route to a season high 40 shots for the evening. J.P. Levasseur made the most of his opportunity to start in place of Pielmeier, handcuffing Hershey's top line all night. A brief mental lapse in the third and a horrible Mat Clark turnover in overtime were the sole impediments to an improbable Crunch victory.

We'll return to this in a moment.

Saturday's matchup with Albany was a big one in the standings. Coming into the evening, the Devils were sitting on ten points for the final playoff spot in the division, with the Crunch just one point behind them. I was worried about the boys coming out flat after the previous night's huge effort, but a physical, fight-filled first period seemed to indicate that these guys were fired up to kick ass, take names and score goals. A pair of Nick Bonino goals (his first two of the season) and yet another from Palmieri pushed the Crunch past the Devils by a 3-2 final. Of note here: the Bonino-Palmieri-Deschamps line each registered at least one point to continue their scoring streaks. I believe Bonino and Palmieri are currently at six games, and Deschamps is sitting at five. The three have combined for 25 points thus far. This, my friends, is a well-oiled machine.

Other good news coming out of this game -- the Crunch outshot Albany, putting 31 shots on Mike McKenna, chipped in a power play goal, and ran the PK total up to 26 for 27 at home this season.

So, what does this all mean? Well, it's pretty simple. This is a team that is rapidly finding its identity, and it happens to be a pretty exciting team to watch. This is one of, if not the most purely talented Syracuse teams in history, and this week was a massive step forward in their evolution. Are there things that still need to be improved upon? Absolutely -- I think these guys can be more physical than they've been playing, especially in their own zone, and it'd be nice to get some more secondary and tertiary scoring threats. However, these guys are turning into a very good and incredibly fun team in a hurry. Keep in mind that every Crunch loss thus far has been by one goal. Were it not for a couple of lousy turnovers or bad lapses in play, this team could very easily be undefeated right now.

That has not gone unnoticed in the stands; I know I am not the only person who left the War Memorial Friday night thinking "It's nice to have gotten the one point, but it really deserved to be two." I can't tell you how much of a sea change that is for Crunch fans. After a too-long period of accepting and withering inside a culture of mediocrity and lowered expectations, to be able to legitimately expect a win -- or at least a competitive game -- every night is at once foreign and wonderful. I've seen enough of these cats to tell you that, win or lose, they're going to bring everything they have every night and aren't going to be mailing it in at any point. That's worth the price of a season ticket right there.

Alright, let's wrap this baby up with your three stars of the week:

THIRD STAR -- Timo Pielmeier. Took a beating in The Hammer on Wednesday night, but rebounded nicely after a night off to shut the door on Albany. Also the inspiration for a reprehensibly obscene Photoshop project for The Chairman's that was unanimously damned by the rest of the staff when I presented it to them. In what was meant to be an expression of how well he has played this season, my site partner Alex summed it up best with her critique:

That's...somehow worse than I imagined it was going to be.

If you're wondering what it was, I really don't want to tell you. Just know that there was more than a little Jim Beam involved in the thought process, and my goal was to do something that would have made Larry Flynt proud. Let's keep it moving.

SECOND STAR -- Luca Sbisa. Eight points in five games for the Crunch, and one half of the top defensive pairing. Do me a favor, all of you...if anybody of importance asks you how Sbisa's doing down here, lie and say that he sucks out loud and needs a full season in the A? Help me spread this misinformation campaign to your coast. At the rate he's going, I truly don't expect the kid to be here past Thanksgiving. That leaves us with...

FIRST STAR -- Kyle Palmieri. In three games this week, Palmieri racked up five goals and an assist, including his first professional hat trick in Hamilton. He then pulled the bus back to Syracuse with his teeth, Jack LaLane style, knocked out a shark with one punch, singlehandedly built an orphanage and solved the economic crisis. What did you do this week?

That's it for me, see you in seven!

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