TORONTO, ON – It has taken a while, but all of U SPORTS hockey is finally back in action. While the AUS kicked things off in early October and Canada west soon followed, the OUA only began their season this past weekend, bringing 19 new programs to the table.
With every U SPORTS Men’s Hockey team playing at least one game at this point, 49 Sports launches its weekly Wednesday column, featuring key takeaways from each of the three conferences.
Welcome to the first edition of the Wednesday Wraparound.
- UBC is off to a soaring start
The Canada West season is well underway, approaching the halfway point already, and no team is flying higher than the UBC Thunderbirds. While they were a flash in the pan in 2019-20, qualifying for the U CUP unexpectedly, Head Coach Sven Butenschon seems to be onto something, starting the season off 6-0-0 and ranking in the Top-3 in the latest U SPORTS weekly rankings.
It is no secret that Rylan Toth has been an elite goalie for the T-Birds through his Canada West carer, but he is on another level to start 2021-22, posting a .933 save percentage through five games. Although the T-Birds won’t necessarily rely on hot goaltending all season, defender Jonathan Smart is driving offence from the blue line and keeping the puck away from Toth. Rookie Chris Douglas has also gotten off to a quick start. Still, UBC will get a considerable boost when Liam Kindree returns to the lineup, likely in January, after sustaining an upper-body injury in the preseason.
- MRU Cougars still figuring it out
The Mount Royal Cougars came into the season with a top-notch recruiting class and a decent preseason performance while also bearing expectations to be a premier team from coast to coast. However, while the top of the roster has gotten off to a quick start, it has not translated t the success that they would hope for.
There might not be a better duo in U SPORTS right now than Riley Sawchuk and Nolan Yaremko, but even their combined 22 points haven’t been enough to force MRU into the “outstanding” conversation.
They sit second in the conference with just two losses, but their next few games are critical, after letting a 5-2 lead slip in the third period, en route to a 7-6 loss to their rival Calgary Dinos. The Cougars bounced back the day after with a 3-2 win, but they have to be more defensively sound than they have been late in games.
- MacEwan outperforming expectations and overshadowing expansion cousins
For any season, the MacEwan Griffins would be doing a good job considering the size of their school and hockey program, but for a first U SPORTS campaign, they are putting on an exceptional performance. While expansion cousins TWU sit winless at the bottom of the standings, the Griffins put themselves in the playoff mix early, sitting just behind Calgary and above powerhouse Alberta.
The key to their season has been relying on their WHL and U SPORTS commitments; something TWU did not add much of outside of Jadon and Talor Joseph, and ex Lethbridge Pronghorn Josh Borynec. RMC Paladins transfer Riley Brandt is thriving in Canada West after two OUA seasons, with his hard-checking style helping him to a team-leading six points in six games. Rookie goaltender James Taylor has also adjusted quickly to the U SPORTS level, posting a .904 save percentage in his four games.
The worrying thing going forward for the Griffins is how they will fare against stronger opposition. Their two wins came against Regina, not exactly the conference’s strongest team. Meanwhile, they dropped two games to Calgary, a team right in the middle. They have yet to play a traditional powerhouse in Saskatchewan and Alberta, but those games will give them a real gauge of where they are in the larger picture.
- Saskatchewan Huskies, Mike Babcock, slow out of the gate
With an essentially new group, and a brand new coach, things taking time should not be surprising in Saskatchewan, yet it is. With former NHL coach Mike Babcock leading the Huskies, and a roster flush with junior and former pro talent, the Huskies should be a lot better than they have been.
Rookie Travis Child is standing on his head in every game he plays for Saskatchewan, currently riding a hot .935 save percentage through two games. However, fellow rookie Roddy Ross is having a dismal start, despite picking up two wins with a .875 save percentage.
Former AHL player and local player Connor Hobbs has adjusted well but is not playing at the level the Huskies need right now. Fellow former pro-Vince Lochsiavo has been disappointing after racking up points in the AlpsHL last season, and overall the new guys just haven’t looked terrific.
Luckily for Saskatchewan, returnees Jared Dmytriw and Donovan Neauls have been good. Still, the team will need better performances all-round if they are to threaten to defend their conference title.
- The Windsor Lancers get off to a strong start
The OUA might have just started this past week, but the Windsor Lancers are off to a hot start. Led by Head Coach Kevin Hamlin, the Lancers added experienced players and pre-determined chemistry with those who had played together in the OHL.
Playing in the OUA Far West, the Lancers are taking on one of the OUA’s tightest divisions, and they got off to a fantastic start with wins against the Western Mustangs and Waterloo Warriors.
Anthony Stefano, who transferred to Windsor from Western, had three points in the first two games, but the standouts were Brady Pataki and Brady Hinz. Pataki scored twice in the 4-1 win over Western, while former Peterborough Pete, Hinz, got a goal and an assist in the opening two games.
The OUA Far West is a tough division to call, but the Lancers look good after Week 1.
- The dreaded trip to Thunder bay and a strong start from York
In the OUA West, making the playoffs could come down to how teams do on a trip up to Thunder Bay to play the Lakehead Thunderwolves. Most teams will play three games in three days after taking what is most likely the only flight of the season. Program depth will be tested with such a packed schedule on that one weekend, especially in the crease. The Lakehead Thunderwolves are a very beatable team, but the division could come down to what other teams do what they need to do in Thunder Bay.
The York Lions were the first to make the trip, and they got off to a hot start. Coming off a strong preseason, the Lions took on the most demanding trip of the year and showed that they are a much-improved team than 2019-20. Forward Braydon Buziak scored seven points in the three-game set, while Brendan Browne added four for himself. It’s a hot start offensively for a team that struggled in their last campaign.
Head Coach Russ Herrington also relied on a trio of goaltenders, including third goaltender Dalton Ewing, who made his first game of his OUA career. Former OHL netminders Cole Ceci and Brendan Bonello picked up wins in the first two games, while Ewing earned the loss in the trip’s final game as the Lions fell 4-3 in OT.
York is not as good as Toronto or Ryerson, but that point dropped could be the difference that keeps them out of the playoff picture come the final buzzer in Game #20. It’s a long way away, but not picking up three wins in Thunder Bay could be costly.
- The one where… everybody won
U SPORTS hockey is not elementary school sports day, but in the OUA Far East division, you might think it was after opening weekend. With each team playing two games, every program won once, with teams only ranking higher than each other on loser points.
I thought McGill would be a lot stronger out of the gates, but they have yet to hit their pace under Dave Urquhart. The Redbirds won the first game of the OUA season in a shootout against Concordia but were outplayed by a very young uOttawa team in their second game.
Despite top-players suffering injuries in the preseason, the Gee-Gees had an opening week to be proud of with a big win over McGill, paired with a tight OT loss to their Capital City foes in Carleton. Once Patrick Grandmaitres’s uOttawa team gets more talent back, they will be up to speed a lot faster than expected.
It’s a complex division to predict each week, and with sources telling 49 Sports that veteran defenceman Andrew Jarvis could return to Carleton’s lineup, the Ravens could also get an extra boost.
- Game of the weekend and UQTR’s adjustments
The game of the weekend came as the only OUA game on Sunday, as the Carleton Ravens and UQTR Patriotes battled to a 6-5 UQTR win in OT. After a 31 point rookie season in 2019-20, Julien Tessier showed his importance in the win against Carleton, opening the scoring with his first goal of the season and later winning the game in OT.
The interesting thing to watch with UQTR is not their offensive talent but their goaltending. It’s the first season in the last five that they are without former FISU Team Canada goaltender Sebastien Auger, who posted an above .910 save percentage in four of his five seasons. In net, this season is Tristan Cote-Cazenave, who stopped 62 shots in two games, including 37 saves in five goals against Carleton. He is a rookie but is off to a good start, and the question is how long he can maintain that level.
- SMU and StFX end game early due to emergency
On Saturday, Nov.6, with the StFX X-Men leading the SMU Huskies 7-5 with just over a minute remaining in the third period, SMU’s Denis Busby got caught up in a puck battle defending an empty net and suffered a significant injury, before he quickly rushed off the ice.
Players on both teams called for immediate medical attention, and after a roughly 10-minute pause in the action, both teams and the officials decided that the game would end 7-5.
49 Sports sends its well wishes to Busby, and his family, as well as the Saint Mary’s athletics community.
- StFX’s Hawel leading U SPORTS Rookie of the Year hopes
The StFX X-Men are already 11 games into their season, and no player has performed better than rookie forward Liam Hawel. The former Kitchener Ranger and Montreal Canadiens prospect has scored 10 times and added another 10 assists, for 20 points, nearly over a point-per-game.
While he had pro aspirations, StFX’s recruitment of Hawel looks to be the best across the country, as he not only leads rookie scoring but overall scoring in the AUS. He has found that success on just 38 shots, which is outside of the Top-5 in the AUS in that category.
Although Hawel is racking up the points, fellow rookie Derek Gentile has been on his tail with a lesser Dalhousie Tigers team. With 16 points through 10 games, Gentile could also force himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation.
- UNB is good but can be beaten in 2021-22
The UNB Reds are the class of U SPORTS and are also still the defending U CUP Champions from the 2019 title. Still, they have not looked unbeatable in 2021. Head Coach Gardiner MacDougall told 49 Sports before the season that he expected the AUS to feature a lot more parity than year’s past, and he has been spot on.
Perfect through their first seven games, the Reds fell for their first and so far only time on Oct. 30, losing to StFX 4-3. However, even with just the one loss, things have not been all bright for the Reds, who have four wins by just one goal.
2020 recruit and former Hamilton Bulldog Isaak Nurse has gotten off to a quick start in his first AUS season, as has Nicolas Guay and Austen Keating. While Guay and Keating boast team-leading 11 and 12 points, respectively, neither feature in the AUS Top-9 scorers.
Lacking superb offensive performances so far, the Reds have relied on their goaltenders, where Rylan Paraneteau and Griffen Outhouse are putting together a memorable season. The tandem has split the starts so far, with Parenteau, a fourth-year goaltender boasting a conference-leading .954 save percentage, and Outhouse a .917. The team’s save percentage is .934.
With top-notch goaltending and a blue line anchored by veterans such as Sam Dove-McFalls, the Reds defence is leaps and bounds better than any other AUS team and has been crucial to their success this season. Opponents have scored 15 times against UNB, with the next best defensive team, UPEI, conceding 26 goals.
- Acadia needs to right the ship
Hosting the 2022 U CUP, the Acadia Axemen will have a chance to win a national championship this season, and they’re automatically in the tournament. Whether they will qualify for the AUS Playoffs, however, is another question.
The season has not begun in the way that Acadia would have hoped, sitting second-last, only ahead of Moncton, with a record of 4-7-1. While things looked like they were improving just over a week ago, coming off wins against UPEI and SMU, the downturn resumed, with losses to a solid StFX team and a Dalhousie program that is thriving.
Despite boasting the second-best powerplay in the AUS, the Axemen are folding in their back end. They can score, averaging 2.82 goals per game, but are not performing well in their end, failing to close tight games.
The U SPORTS National Tournament hosts Carleton missed out on the OUA Final and a proper qualification spot in men’s soccer. However, midway through the AUS MHKY season, it looks like Acadia could find themselves in the same spot.