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Syracuse Crunch go to school for Game 5 win; “There is no university of hockey”

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – For six days the Syracuse Crunch sat on a crushing Game 4 loss where a three-goal, third period lead with a chance to advance ended with an overtime loss.

That loss forced a series-deciding fifth game on Friday night on the road. Win or go home.

With nearly a week to shake off Saturday’s disappointing loss, the Syracuse Crunch went out and took the game to the Americans. Now the Crunch are taking their game to the second round.

Cole Koepke scored twice, Felix Robert had a goal and three points and Alex Barre-Boulet notched a pair of assists. Waltteri Merela scored for the third consecutive game and notched his second game-winning goal of the series to lead Syracuse to a 5-2 victory on Friday.

Brandon Halverson stopped 16 shots as the Crunch won the series 3-2.

Syracuse will open play in the North Division Finals in Cleveland (Columbus affiliate) on Thursday in a best-of-five series.

Crunch head coach Joel Bouchard, in his first season with the team, used the days off between games to help build his team back up to look forward to the opportunity in front of them.

“There is no university of hockey, that’s the reality,” Bouchard said earlier in the week. “You can’t sit on the bench and learn how to be in the playoffs, you can’t learn playoff hockey by watching it on TV. You can get better at it, you can look at it but you’re not going to know what it is. So that’s why for us to be in a series, in the first round and three weeks into playoff mindset, it’s good growth. We’re going after the game, right, we have a Game 7 on the line, what a great experience for everybody, coaches included, to go through it.”

On Friday, the Crunch got through it.

It helped that Syracuse scored early in the game when Declan Carlile put one past Devon Levi from the left point 2:28 into the game, a play that happened so quickly it prompted a review before confirming the goal. The play was a perfectly drawn-up off the offensive zone faceoff win and around the horn to Carlile for the one-timer.

Syracuse took a two-goal lead seven minutes later on the first of Koepke’s goals on the night. With contact around the net, Koepke threw a puck toward goal that zipped past a fallen Levi. The Rochester goaltender immediately looked toward the official pleading for an interference goal, but none was coming. Gabriel Fortier took out Levi in the crease, but the Crunch forward was knocked off his skates by Americans’ defenseman Joey Cecconi into the contact.

Rochester thought they’d cut the deficit in half with 3:13 remaining in the first period, but the goal was waived off immediately. After a lengthy review, it was correctly ruled a kick into the net.

But just over a minute later, Rochester did get on the board on goal by Jeremy Davies at 17:33 to make it a 2-1 game after the first period.

The Crunch regained the two-goal lead in the second period at 8:35 on Merela’s third goal of the series. Merela, who started the season with the Lightning, and Robert raced up ice on a 2-on-1 where Merela snapped a quick one-timer up high off a prefect feed to make it 3-1.

But just like Game 4, the Americans were not going to go away quietly.

With Max Groshev in the box for slashing, the Rochester power play went to work once again. Michael Mersch was at the top of the crease to redirect a pass from Jiri Kulich to make it a 3-2 game at 10:33, answering the Merela goal 1:58 later.

The Crunch resolve was tested holding a one-goal lead on the road in an elimination game.

But Syracuse was efficient, Halverson was strong when called upon and Syracuse finally broke Rochester’s will on another 2-on-1 break. This time, it was Barre-Boulet with a saucer pass over to Koepke who was perfectly opened up to deliver the one-timer over a lunging Levi with 5:10 left in the game.

Robert would put the game out of reach with 3:11 left in the period with an empty net goal to make it 5-2.

“I think we really won the game this week,” Bouchard told the team after the game. “This is something we can all learn from. We learned. We talked about, we move forward and we got better every day. Like I told everybody, I don’t know what the end result is going to be because that’s a really good team on the other side, it was a battle all year and that series was a battle. But I felt going into today, all of our boxes were checked for anything they were throwing at us. And you guys handled that really well. That first round is tough to win. Now we have some baggage, we got this, this is us now. Now we’re going to take some break and we’re going to get right back at it.”

The Crunch entered Friday with a five-game losing streak in games they could advance, including four to Rochester. Syracuse advances to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2018.

Syracuse faced Cleveland four times during the regular season with the teams splitting the four games, though the last meeting came January 13 at Syracuse, a 3-2 Crunch win in a shootout.

Here are the recaps:

October 20 at Cleveland, 5-0
October 21 at Cleveland, 2-4
December 22 at Syracuse, 3-4 (OT)
January 13 at Syracuse 3-2, (SO).

Here is the full second schedule for the North Division Finals in a best-of-five series:

Game 1 — Thursday, May 16, 7 p.m. – Cleveland, OH
Game 2 — Saturday, May 18, 1 p.m. – Cleveland, OH
Game 3 — Wednesday, May 22, 7 p.m. – Syracuse, N.Y.
Game 4 — Friday, May 24, 7 p.m. – Syracuse, N.Y. (if necessary)
Game 5 — Sunday, May 26, 3 p.m. – Cleveland, OH (if necessary)

All games available on AHL.tv with a subscription or heard on ESPN Syracuse radio.

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