The Bubble #5: While rugby and football approach playoff time, hockey returns over the long weekend in the AUS

HALIFAX, NS – There was no shortage of action in the AUS over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Yes, the soccer schedules may have been impacted, but we were treated to some crucial games in the football and rugby circuits. For the latter, the playoff picture is just about set as the final regular season games get underway this coming weekend. Football is almost into postseason time too as all teams have at least half their schedule played. 

Oh, and hockey is back too. As a matter of fact, the first meaningful drop of the puck in U SPORTS since the abbreviated national championships in March 2020 took place out east. From hot starts, low-scoring thrillers and an upset or two, there’s a lot to dissect from the conference’s busiest sport in the past week.

Hockey, and the imminent returns of swimming, volleyball and basketball, provide a breath of fresh air to distract us from the fact soccer, cross country and rugby are down to their final weeks. AUS football’s longevity will stretch until the end of November and potentially further, depending on the champion’s Mitchell Bowl performance. 

But this makes it a win-win for the fans: the first AUS championships are just around the corner and while those are happening, so will dozens of regular season games and competitions. My advice? Take it all in, because we’ll soon be into one of the busiest times of the season.

X-Men strong out of the gate in men’s hockey

You may have noticed on Twitter last week I voted for StFX to finish the first weekend 0-2 in 49’s weekly hockey pick ‘ems. 

Boy, was I wrong.

StFX’s Matthew Philip waits for a pass while Acadia’s Peyton Hoyt pursues him last Saturday in Antigonish, N.S. (Bryan Kennedy/StFX Athletics)

The X-Men didn’t just win two games but beat two of the conference’s better teams not named UNB on back-to-back nights. First travelling to SMU and beating the Huskies 5-4 on the strength of two third period goals 13 seconds apart, StFX hosted U CUP hosts Acadia the next day and beat them in a low-scoring 2-1 affair.

StFX, with much of the team new, has shown it is capable of winning in different ways in challenging conditions, like its back-to-back games featuring a three-hour road trip on opening weekend. With SMU’s offensive prowess, the X-Men went out and scored more than them. When they hosted the more defensive-minded Axemen the next night, StFX also beat them at their own game.

While there are a lot of positives from the team in week one, first-years Liam Hawel and Zack Trott have shown they’re just as experienced as the older guys in the conference. Combining for seven points on the weekend, each had a game-winning goal on the weekend and a power-play tally. It’s hard not to be excited about having the new core of your team led by AHL-experienced players (Hawel spent seven games with Laval last season and Trott two games with Toronto) for the next few years. Right now, they’re giving StFX a real shot at a U CUP appearance this spring.

Also: Would you be surprised if I told you the Dal Tigers have beat SMU in consecutive meetings? I was caught a bit off-guard after digging that up Saturday night, given the recent records of each side. 

Following the Tigers’ 4-3 upset of their downstreet foes at the Forum, Dal advanced to 1-1 on the season and SMU fell to 0-2. Despite the Huskies taking every other 2019-20 game on the Tigers, Dal got the last laugh, winning by an identical 4-3 score in overtime. 

That was on Feb. 8, 2020. We all know what happened between then and now and the two haven’t even met for exhibition play last winter or the preseason. If Dal wants to keep their flow going, they face their biggest challenge yet playing the red-hot X-Men this week. SMU has the mighty UNB Reds in their way on Friday. The two Haligonian teams don’t play one another though until Nov. 5 at the Dauphinee Centre.

UPEI women not first, but not last

UPEI’s Paige Outhouse (left, 44 in white) and Jolena Gillard. (Janessa Hogan/UPEI Panthers)

We didn’t really see the surprises on the women’s hockey side of things as we did with the men, but we still got some very good hockey in a busy eight-game opening week. Among those is my unofficial pick for game of the week, UPEI at UNB last Friday.

In week one, most of the league followed 49’s predictions for the 2021-22 season. UPEI was about five seconds from that. After building a two-goal lead in the second period, the Reds cut it down to one heading into the final period. And if it wasn’t for a nifty deke by UNB’s Payton Hargreaves in the final moments of the third period, it would have stayed that way. UNB dominated the overtime period but needed a shootout to complete the impressive comeback.

Each team played the next day and won, meaning the Reds were off to a 2-0 start and UPEI to a 1-0-1 record through two games, just a point behind UNB, StFX and SMU at the top of the standings. In particular, UPEI’s Jolena Gillard and Mireille Martin are off to fiery starts. They have six and four points respectively through two games, including two apiece in the UNB game. Gillard, the conference’s leading scorer right now, had points on all four goals in UPEI’s 4-1 victory over Mount Allison last Saturday.

With the Panthers being so close to topping UNB on their first night of the season, they’ve shown they can be in the conversation for AUS supremacy too. In a year that’s oh-so-important with the U SPORTS championships coming to Charlottetown in March, there are signs UPEI is equipped not only to push for an AUS title but to make noise nationally on home ice later this season. A first weekend like last weekend is a solid starting point. 

Also: SMU, also off to a 2-0 start, got a scare from Moncton Saturday night, as a close second to UPEI/UNB in terms of last week’s most exciting games. Moncton led the Huskies for more than half the game, following go-ahead goals midway through the first period and again late in the second. 

It took AUS title favourites SMU until almost nine minutes into the second period to tie the game again, with Keyera Nelson giving the home side their first lead of the game in the third period, with 3:21 on the clock. 

With the Huskies off to a perfect start, it’s a frustrating one for the Aigles-Bleues. There are positive takeaways though. They lost to St. Thomas the night before the SMU game 1-0, another one-goal loss. Audrey Berthiaume put up 24 saves to keep that as close as possible. She made 34 more stops 24 hours later in Halifax and although they lost again by a single goal, Berthiaume’s performances gave Moncton a chance in each game. Only StFX’s Amaya Giraudier, who played just one game this season, a 12-save shutout, is ahead of the Moncton stopper in save percentage. 

As UdeM faces a tough UPEI squad this week, they have the security in goal to help keep games against the stronger teams close. 

Quiet but notable week on the pitch

StFX’s Kyle Cordeiro protects the ball from SMU’s Ben Kloppenburg last week at Huskies Stadium, where the hosts pulled out a 1-0 victory. (SMU Sports Information)

There weren’t many soccer games as mentioned, but one result stands above the rest in the men’s circuit over the past week: Saint Mary’s defeating the conference-leading X-Men 1-0. 

Sean Freeman’s goal in the 27th needed was all the Huskies needed in a masterful performance that was required to take down the StFX. SMU’s control of the game, including 15 shots and six corners on the evening, kept the StFX scoring threat low, especially later on. The defeated’s 13 fouls on the night also gave SMU some more breathing room. 

Now, the Huskies sit just two points behind the X-Men for the AUS lead, further reinforcing the story of their impressive 2021 season so far. From the rise of Freeman and Ahmed Ibrahim at forward, Adam Dunsworth and Woody Bain stepping up at fullback, or keeper Jensen Brown’s impressive numbers in goal, the skies are blue at SMU through two-thirds of the season. While they are chased by teams like Robie Street rivals Dal (who beat Acadia the same night), SMU’s workload doesn’t lighten up as they travel to UNB this weekend.

Two distinct groups: playoff teams and non-playoff teams

Mounties fullback Hailey Frampton gets her foot on the ball in last week’s match versus UdeM. (Mount Allison Mounties)

Alike the men, the women only had three matches of their own last week, with none on the weekend, but the results were enough to establish the narrative for the final three weeks of the regular season. 

The two biggest results in that respect included the Mount A win over Moncton (which I partially spoiled in last week’s column) and StFX’s victory over SMU, which snapped their three-game losing skid. Mount A and StFX jumped to 13 and 15 points, respectively, effectively spreading the gap between the fifth-placed Mounties (and Dal Tigers) and seventh-placed UPEI to seven points. By comparison, the fifth-placed teams are only five points behind first-placed Memorial.

It’s too early to say but if things stay this spread out next week, we will have some teams clinch playoff berths and be eliminated from championship contention in the coming days. No one has done either yet but combined results between games can certainly lead to that. As for the top two berths (quarterfinal byes), Acadia and CBU are now tied for the second spot following a nail-biting 1-0 Axewomen win over Dal. Unlike most of the playoff race, that will be a contest that will come down to the final game.

StFX alone at the top of AUS football as season reaches midway point

StFX receiver Isaac Fagnan celebrates after scoring the X-Men touchdown last Friday in Sackville, N.B. (Luke Dyment)

Last week, undefeated teams StFX and Mount A met for the battle of the first-placed teams. After a down-to-the-wire final minute, the X-Men came out alone on top.

The storyline was the league’s top offence versus the top defence, with the offensive side barely coming out on top 21-19. To the Mounties’ credit, they held StFX to just a single touchdown the entire game, the second Mount A has allowed all season. To compare, StFX scored at least three majors in each of its other two games. 

But the X-Men defence stole much of the show aside from a five-minute stretch in the second quarter. They held Mount A to one first down in its first four second-half drives and weren’t scored on until the Mounties successfully pulled off a trick play, involving a lateral pass from quarterback Julian Wyntink to receiver Drew Besco who then went deep for an Adam Shambemiradam score, to move within two of the lead. But StFX ran out the clock despite almost losing possession on a fumble with 30 seconds left.

With that, StFX can clinch a playoff berth in their next game. There are likely a few scenarios, but the simplest path right now appears to be a StFX win in their next game at Bishop’s, coupled with any two of Acadia, Bishop’s or SMU losing this weekend or next. If that doesn’t happen in the next couple of games, we could see StFX or Mount A clinch in similar scenarios later on. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Final week of regular season rugby ahead

(Janessa Hogan/UPEI Panthers)

It’s crunch time in AUS rugby. One regular season weekend, but we know almost everything about how the playoff picture will shape out.

Acadia will advance straight to the final as the first-place team. SMU’s season will end following their game at UPEI on Saturday, as only the top three teams make the playoffs following a summer rule change. And the Panthers and the X-Women will meet in the conference semifinal next week.

One thing is left to (officially) decide: where that semifinal will be played.

As it turns out, the stakes of where the game will be could be significant. StFX and UPEI split their meetings this year. UPEI’s opening day upset of the X-Women was on home turf, while StFX returned the favour in Antigonish nearly two weeks ago. 

Heading into the final games this week, StFX is who can control that destiny. However, first-place Acadia is the team they need to win or tie in order to clinch home field. UPEI is the favourite in its match against SMU Saturday. Should they tie in points, StFX scored more total points head-to-head against UPEI and have a better point differential on the season: plus-134 compared to UPEI’s minus-19. It isn’t official yet, but it looks like StFX will host next week’s semifinal.

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