The Bubble #6: Looking at fall playoff races, hockey happenings and more

HALIFAX, NS – Oh my. There’s a lot to keep track of now isn’t there?

Following the opening meet in AUS swimming last Saturday, we are now up to six active sports in the conference. Although soccer and rugby are within weeks of finishing, basketball and volleyball get underway at the end of next week.

That means for the only time in the 2021-22 AUS calendar, the weekend of Oct. 30 will feature eight sports going at once.

Among the highlights of the weekend will be the rugby championship game and the cross country championships, where we will learn the first two champions of the season. The rugby playoffs are set to begin this Saturday when UPEI travels to StFX to compete for a date with Acadia on Halloween. 

Meanwhile, cross country teams ran their final race before the AUS championships last week in Fredericton alongside some RSEQ teams. Although Laval dominated each race, the StFX women were the highest finishing team yet again. Meanwhile, the defending men’s champion from Dal men won their first team race of the season.

Alongside those two sports, basketball and volleyball, the final regular season weekend of soccer and the second-last for football will run not this weekend but next. We’ll be treated to a heavy helping of hockey and finally, the second swim meet of the year.

But we still have over another week until then. Meanwhile, there’s a lot to keep an eye on in the days leading up to the first championships. Let’s take a look at where we stand in some leagues as we approach the end of October.

Pack forming in middle of men’s hockey standings

UPEI men’s hockey Panthers (Janessa Hogan/UPEI Athletics)

If there are two words to describe most AUS competition this year, they are parity and uncertainty. You can’t tell exactly who will win in most given games and as a result, we have been treated to some surprises and occasionally upsets.

But the men’s hockey division might be the tightest we’ve seen yet. 

Following Wednesday’s games, most teams have played five games, or 17 per cent of their seasons. Over half of them sit within a point of each other. Those four teams, UPEI, SMU, Acadia and Dal, sit three or four points behind UNB and StFX, who are tied for first right now. While UPEI is alone in third with five points, the other three are knotted at four.

So how did things get this close? Unpredictable games. Take the example of UPEI, who came within an overtime goal of beating the Reds, before defeating the X-Men days later. The day after that though, the Panthers fell to the underdog Tigers.

That same Dal team beat SMU on opening weekend. The Huskies, as recent as this week, took down UPEI. So yeah, a lot has happened. 

My point is every night in this league is a new night. As teams begin to learn more about themselves after a season off, we’re still yet to see many different events and storylines that will come to the surface this season.

Dalhousie men’s hockey Tigers (Trevor MacMillan/Dalhousie Tigers)

Also: A big player behind the season’s variating early results is possibly within the structure of the schedule itself. Much of each team’s games in a season are on back-to-back nights, Friday and Saturday, and almost never are they both home games; instead, they would be a home/away split or both on the road. Getting back into the grind of the schedule through both travel and recovery periods appears to still be a work in progress for many of the teams.

Only once has a team won both of its back-to-back games: StFX on opening weekend. It wasn’t an easy schedule either. After travelling to Halifax and beating SMU 5-4, they came home and fought out a 2-1 win over the Axemen. Between the teams, there have been eight instances where a squad has played on consecutive nights with only one perfect result. Even pre-COVID it was a challenge, but teams with extra rest sure seem to be at an advantage so far this fall. 

UNB securing spot as legitimate title contender

UNB women’s hockey Reds (James West/UNB Athletics)

The women’s competition has been just as close through four games a team. The top four teams are all within a point of one another. The top six are all only separated by three points. Again, we can expect close standings so early into the season but it’s a treat to see teams in positions where one unexpected result can flip things upside down. Did I mention I’m a proud member of Team Chaos?

At the top of the pack in the division through three weeks is the UNB Reds. Their expectations have always been high. After all, we did project them to contend for first in our season previews. And although they haven’t been the team to beat since being reinstated as an AUS varsity team in 2018, they’ve seemed to always be right there.

Now, Sarah Hilworth’s team is as entrenched as ever in the conference’s upper echelon, highlighted by two impressive games against the league’s traditional powerhouses SMU and StFX. After downing the Huskies in overtime 4-3, the X-Women beat UNB 3-2 in a shootout 24 hours later. Both were on the road, by the way.

They may not have won both, but UNB has shown it can be consistent and competitive on any given night. Rookies, especially forward Payton Hargreaves and defender Emma Giordano, have led the team’s way in scoring. Getting plenty of reps against fellow New Brunswick teams last winter, especially against cross-campus rivals STU, has appeared to pay significant dividends in preparing the younger group for their official rookie seasons in the AUS. And it’s prepared the team as a whole to play as well as they have been.

Three spots remain in women’s soccer playoff race

Two weeks are all that’s left of the 2021 AUS soccer regular season and teams are down to their final few games. Whether or not those final few games will be a team’s final ones until next season will be decided this weekend or next.

We know the answer already for five teams. Cape Breton (who already qualified as the AUS championship’s host), Acadia and Memorial have all clinched playoff spots and will likely be the teams battling it out for the semifinal byes. Saint Mary’s and Moncton’s fates have already been chosen too, as they have been eliminated from AUS title contention. They will play their final games on Oct. 29 and 30. 

The CBU Capers and Acadia Axewomen will be two teams chasing the top seed in the AUS standings over the next couple of weeks (CBU Athletics)

That leaves five teams still pushing for a playoff spot. The team in the most comfortable position is Mount Allison after a memorable season that saw them perform at their strongest in nearly a decade. In fact, they’re into the championships if they win one of their next three games or UNB fails to win both of its last two. Interestingly enough, the teams meet in Fredericton on the second-last day of the season and will attract a lot of eyes if the teams stretch the playoff race beyond this weekend.

Besides the two New Brunswick teams who remain in contention, StFX, Dal and UPEI are still alive. Dal has the most games in hand with four, but two each against tough opponents from CBU and an equally desperate team for points in the X-Women. 

UPEI, though, is a longshot. They must win their final three games (including MUN and Acadia) and have Dal or StFX lose all of their final games (UPEI can spare one Tigers draw but no more). Not an easy path at all. 

The road to the playoffs is much simpler for the X-Women and Tigers: a win and they’re in. UNB is alike UPEI, whereas they need to win out and have one of Mount A, StFX or Dal drop all of their final matches (UNB can spare one draw from StFX and two from Dal). The odds are overwhelmingly in the favour of teams sitting in playoff spots now. But hey, it ain’t over ‘till it’s over.

Men’s soccer playoff picture

While the X-Men are all but locked into a playoff spot, Memorial will be among the teams fighting for the final spots (Kendra Vigneau/STFX Sports Information)

There are fewer fixed variables on the men’s side. No one has officially clinched a playoff spot besides CBU’s automatic berth, while Acadia and Moncton have been eliminated from championship contention. 

For everyone else, well, let’s see if we can sort this out.

The two near-shoo-ins for playoff berths are StFX and SMU. The X-Men clinch with one more point, which they have three games to do. SMU needs two points with only two games to accomplish that. Although they haven’t officially booked their tickets to Sydney, a lot has to go wrong for that not to happen. 

UNB would have been in a similar situation with a win over Moncton last week, but the Aigles Bleus kept the race interesting by upsetting their rivals down the number two highway. Interestingly, the two meet again this Saturday. If UNB wins that game by three goals and have UPEI lose to Memorial Friday, they’re in. Overall, UNB needs to win one of its final two games, have UPEI fail to win out and have Moncton come up with fewer than two more wins in order to clinch.

Dalhousie, Memorial, Moncton and UPEI are all within two points of each other in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth spots in the standings. With all sitting with at least three matches left, there’s a good chance none of them clinch until the final day of the season. But all of them except Moncton play twice this weekend, including a Sea-Hawks/Panthers showdown in Charlottetown. For now, they’re on a relatively level playing field and the standings could spike in any direction by Sunday.

Football Axemen and Huskies fight for final playoff berth

Reece Martin of the Mount Allison Mounties football team. Mount A secured a playoff berth with a 24-14 win over SMU on Oct. 16 (Mount Allison Mounties)

On the topic of playoff pictures, let’s check out the situation in football, shall we?

Three teams, StFX, Mount A and Bishop’s, have secured playoff spots. The other two, Acadia and SMU, can secure the fourth and final spot but it won’t be easy for either team.

Acadia has the advantage. The Axemen hold the tiebreaker over the Huskies based on head-to-head points scored (they split their two meetings this season, one of them a SMU win due to one of Acadia’s forfeited games) and have a game in hand. If they win, they’re in. But, they have to usurp either the X-Men or the Mounties to do so. 

SMU’s path requires them to defeat StFX in their final game on Oct. 30. There is no way around that. Even if they pull that off, the Huskies would still need help from StFX and Mount A to beat Acadia. 

After Mounties and Gaiters victories last week, the X-Men travelling to Lennoxville, Que. to face Bishop’s is this weekend’s only game. There is still something on the line even though they’re now into the playoffs. StFX can grab a stranglehold on the coveted number one seed in the conference with a win, as their schedule through the final two games of the season (hosting SMU and Acadia) isn’t as difficult. 

A Bishop’s win, on the other hand, could flip that around and force a three-way tie at the top of the standings. The last time the two met, we were treated to an AUS game-of-the-year candidate. Something tells me this one will be good too.

Dal teams, Acadia and MUN individuals highlight first swim meet of season

2021 Jack Scholz Invitational swim meet at Acadia (MUN Athletics/Acadia Athletics)

The 2021-22 AUS swim season kicked off at Acadia last weekend with the Jack Scholz Invitational meet. After one weekend of competition, it looks like another slugfest between Dal and Acadia will decide who takes the conference titles this winter.

Acadia led the way with 15 individual wins, led by three wins apiece for Kali Lancaster, Gordon Shortt and Dean Sangster in their respective events. But it was Dal who came out on top in team standings, winning both the men’s and women’s competitions with 665 and 575 points, respectively.

But it wasn’t Dal who came second in individual race wins behind Acadia. Rather, it was Memorial, who caught lots of attention with some notable performances over the weekend. That included Kate Williams’s four race wins, the most of anyone over the weekend, and Matty Whelan, who finished with four wins of his own, two of them coming in team relays. The AUS awarded the two Sea-Hawks with athlete of the week honours.

Williams and Whelan are two key pieces in pushing MUN into the Dal-Acadia dogfight that has dominated the AUS swimming scene since 2001. Recently, MUN has hung around Mount Allison and UNB in the lower end of the results table, but with the Sea-Hawks capturing second in the women’s team event and third by a mile in the men’s tally, it may not be long until the St. John’s program makes it a three-horse race for the AUS title.

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