Chirping the Bench: If I Could Turn Back Time...

ALLOKAGO:
I have to be honest with you all: I have nothing new to say about our current team that I haven't already said. There just comes a point in a 21-win season when you run out of words. If you'd like to read about last night's win, you can do so here. If you'd like to read about Friday's loss, you can do so here. Both are links to the game stories posted on the Crunch's Official Site. Instead, I'm going to tell you all about the nearly miraculous season that almost didn't happen, because understanding this season is pretty vital to understanding a Crunch fan.

Intrigued?

Every sports team in history has The Year.  The Year can be hard to define. Sometimes it is The Year a team won a championship. Sometimes it is The Year a player did something incredible. Sometimes it is The Year a coach dragged a mediocre team to greatness.

And sometimes it is The Year a team had an incredible group of guys, the stuff Hallmark Channel Movies are made of, a group of guys who did something nobody ever expected. That something usually goes on to define a fanbase, to give that fanbase an identity. The Year for us was 2007-08.

Eventually, if you're around us long enough, we will start babbling almost incoherently about 2008, Zenon Konopka, Jon Mirasty, Karl Goehring, Dan Smith, Mark Rycroft, Trevor Frischmon, and their merry band of slightly-more-than mortal men. Some of you may have gotten bits and pieces from a recent Lindsay Kramer article on Konopka. Others may have gleaned some knowledge of it from my ramblings on the Chairman. But since I need a dose of Happy Times today, I'm going to talk about it in its entirety...or at least the entirety I remember.

The funny thing about how Crunch fans hold that 2007-08 season up on a pedestal is that what was so fantastic about it really had no business happening. That season started out like every season in the last five years has: with a great team on paper not really doing as well as we all had hoped.

By the end of February, captain Zenon Konopka and assistant Captain (don't ask about the capitalization thing...long story) Dan Smith were having several players-only meetings a month, just trying to figure out what was going on with the team. The team was up and down in terms of effort output. We didn't see .500 until well into the second half of the season. Trades were being made and players were coming and going almost too fast to keep up:

  • Geoff Platt was traded to your fine organization for Clay Wilson and Aaron Rome (thanks, by the way...)
  •  David Cullen was claimed off of waivers
  •  Brett Motherwell and send-down Duvie Wescott, defensemen, were brought in to help
  • Goaltenders were floating around at an alarming rate (we dressed five that year, thanks to LeClaire's injury train). Karl Goehring, a goaltender who had been with the Crunch before and held the all-time wins record, was signed in December to a PTO, mostly because he wasn't doing anything and we needed a fill-in.
  • Middle weight enforcer Jeff Szwez bailed for Europe after coach Ross Yates arbitrarily started to bench him all the time.
  • Steven Goertzen was sent to San Antonio for forward Nate DiCasmirro.
  • Gilbert Brule would spend some time going back and forth before being assigned permanently to the Crunch, with quite the hefty paycheck coming from CBJ in the process.
  • Center Derick Brassard also racked up quite a few frequent flyer miles, as did left wing Joakim Lindstrom.

By March 4th, the Crunch's record was 30-26-2-5. We were in 4th place in our division, but the playoffs were looking almost unattainable. The teams ahead of us and behind us kept winning. The Crunch was a tough team--pre-game and in-game fights were becoming the norm, with Konopka's grizzled mug, Jon Mirasty's hard head and pests like Tom Sestito leading the way. However, as many have noted, fighting doesn't get you into the playoffs. We all knew there was a significant chance we'd be facing an early summer.

Then, March 8th happened. The Crunch was facing a crazy good Baby Pens team. On a night when the team was honoring one of the better teams in Syracuse hockey history, the Blazers, no one really expected us to win. And they were right, sort of. The Crunch lost an incredibly close 1-1 game in a shootout.

It would be the last loss that team would face that season.

Seriously.

For the next month and a half, the Crunch became unbeatable. We won at home. We won away. We won facing the best. We won facing the worst. We won fifteen games to end that season, a stretch that started in OT on Sunday, March 9th, and went all the way down to a 7-1 romp over the Hamilton Bulldogs on April 13th. We won despite several more call ups and injuries:

  • Alexandre Picard was recalled and sent down so much his head was probably spinning
  • Clay Wilson also rode the recall train
  • Right wing Adam Pineault was recalled
  • News came down that Aaron Rome, recalled earlier, would have had to pass waivers to get back in time for the playoffs. CBJ elected not to risk it.
  • Forward Tom Sestito was also called up
  • Zenon Konopka was recalled. What was interesting about it was that Z's heart was clearly with us. He was recalled on a Tuesday when CBJ didn't play until Thursday. He actually asked if CBJ would leave him in Syracuse for the Wednesday Crunch game and then allow him to get to Detroit, where CBJ was playing, Thursday morning. CBJ said no. So, he stayed holed in his hotel room, watching the Crunch's Wednesday night game he couldn't play in on the computer and having heart attacks and cheering right along with the fans. That'd be why many can't let this guy go.

Clearly, you get the picture. Although the Crunch got a few college guys and younger prospects in the middle of all this, fans really didn't see how the winning streak could continue in the face of all these call ups. Yet, it did. By the end of the 2007-08 regular season, the Crunch was sitting pretty in second place in the North, one small, tiny, yet extremely important point ahead of 3rd place Manitoba. Our final record was 46-26-2-6.

But, as they say, the story was not over. The Crunch faced that Manitoba team the first round and won it on April 28th, 2008, in OT, with a biscuit stuffed in by Trevor Frishmon. (And, no, I didn't have to look any of that up) The Crunch won all four games of the best-of-7-series in OT. I have never, ever, heard the War Memorial as loud as I have that April night.

Well, that's not exactly true. A week and a half later, the Crunch was facing the Toronto Marlies in the second round. Going into May 7th, the Crunch had a 2-1 lead in the series. The team was at home, yet it was obvious they were tired. The hectic pace of the last few months was catching up to them. The Crunch had a 2-1 lead going into the second period, but allowed Toronto to score three unanswered goals during the second period. A two-goal hole going into the third wasn't exactly the best scenario for the Crunch, but with the crowd behind them, the team wasn't about to give up without a fight.

The Crunch started to take control back at the 12:18 mark, but then suffered through five agonizing minutes of shot after shot after shot not going into the net. Finally, the Crunch realized they had one last chance when they were granted a power play with less than 4 minutes remaining in the 4-3 game.

I had never seen a puck practically willed into the net by hockey fans, but I saw it that night. At the 18:22 mark of the third period, Brassard scored the tying goal. The place went insane. But, we knew we weren't out of the woods yet. Could a team who had 5 games of their previous round go to OT survive another sudden death session?

The answer was yes.

At the 9:44 mark of the first OT, Lindstrom scored to win the game for Syracuse. I think they probably heard us in China.

Unfortunately, that is where the story ends. Although nobody thought it was possible for that team to blow a 3-1 series lead, they...uh...did. The Year ended rather anti-climatically, almost with a soft, sad whimper. Dan Smith once said that season would have been his favorite Syracuse memory if it wasn't for the way it ended, because that team should have gone further.

And maybe that's the problem. Maybe we can't let go because it just shouldn't have ended that way. But it did. In a way, many things ended with that year. We lost CBJ's cooperation after that year. We lost Konopka. We would also lose other players the next season who helped make that run a success--Rycroft, Goehring, Brule, DiCasmirro, Rome, Methot, Westcott, Motherwell. With the affiliation switch, the only player left was Jon Mirasty. Now, he's gone, too.

It was The Year for us, and we've never managed to get a feeling like that back.

Sucks you all inherited that, doesn't it?

I leave you with this: one of the best Crunch compilations I've ever seen, with bits and pieces from that Blazers tribute game all the way through the first round of the playoffs. Come enjoy with me what was!

 

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