HALIFAX, NS – A pack is starting to emerge at the top of the AUS women’s hockey standings and as you will notice, they earn the best grades in 49 Sports’ midseason rankings.
14 games into each teams’ 24-game schedule, we’ve seen parity for most teams within competition between close teams in the standings. We’ve seen a major upset or two but otherwise, playoff frontrunners have all but emerged with 10 games left in the schedule. With nationals within the conference at UPEI this coming spring, the incentive to win the 2021-22 title is that much more enticing.
The Tigers have been holding steady in the playoff race to begin the back half of the season, only a point back of Moncton for the sixth seed. An offensive resurgence (fourth in the AUS with 39 goals) has helped as well. But defensive woes and coming out on the wrong side of many tight games has been in the way of any further successes.
Their October was bad. Really bad. They lost seven of their first eight games of the season (after losing all four preseason matchups), winning once with a blowout over the lowly Mount Allison Mounties. In November, they have come away with two wins but as a much more competitive squad. Since Oct. 15, all but one of their 10 losses in that span were by two goals or less. Seven of them were by one goal.
Taylor Beam has been reliable as usual for Dal, while rookie Olivia Eustace’s 13 points in 15 games have led the spark on the attack. Now, they must find a way to get on the correct side of the scoreboard.
Moncton Aigles Bleues
Moncton’s first half of the season has been up and down. They sit in a playoff spot and have beaten a couple of strong teams this season. Still, they’ve appeared to be running on near-empty lately. They don’t shine in any exact area; their offence and defence have been lower tier. But every now and then, they’ve taken a close game.
Moncton’s best quality is their fight. I mentioned they’ve won mostly close games. The fact of the matter is they haven’t really taken part in a blowout, win or lose, at all in 2021. They lost games to StFX 6-3 and 4-0, lost to SMU 4-1 and beat Mount A 5-2. Every other game has been within two goals. They’ve been convincing enough to keep matchups close against good teams but have also been pushed around by less successful ones.
Moncton’s attack lives and dies with Janie Poitras, as the fifth year has seven more points than her next closest teammate. In Moncton wins, goalie Audrey Berthiaume has looked like one of the best in her position in the league. By establishing consistency and perhaps secondary scoring, the Aigles Bleues are capable of rising further up in the standings.
Mount Allison Mounties
Having finished nowhere but last in the conference since 2016, 2021-22 does not look any better for the Mounties. They’ve been scapegoated in almost every way. They’ve scored the least and allowed the most. Their power play and penalty kill efficiencies are last by country miles. All around, they cannot keep up with the rest of the AUS.
One high point of the season was when they beat the national number one-ranked team from Saint Mary’s 3-2. Get this: that was the only time SMU lost in regulation this season. So only the Lord knows how that happened outside goaltender Kaitlin Evelyn choosing to play on another planet that night. Outside that, Mount A hasn’t only been getting beat but pounded. Of their 14 games played, they’ve lost 10 by more than three goals, six of them by five or more.
They must win at least half of their final 10 games to have a fighting chance at playoffs, plus have Moncton or Dal win almost never. So it isn’t looking good now. The Mounties have to think beyond this season into next or the one after as their players continue to rack up AUS experience.
Saint Mary’s Huskies
The top team in Canada has ridden a near-perfect season into the holiday break. Statistically, they’re almost the exact opposite of Mount A (the only team that beat them in 60 minutes, which I still can’t believe). They’re the second-best team in both goals for and against. Also, their power play scores on almost every fourth opportunity, a special teams unit restrained by the fewest opportunities in the league.
After a lacklustre 3-3 preseason, SMU hasn’t looked back. As of Nov. 26, they’ve won nine straight, undefeated in November. Of their six wins this month, they’ve outscored the opposition 24-7, an almost four-to-one ratio each game.
Of course, AUS leading scorer Shae Demale has been a key cog in SMU’s success. I try not to endorse the plus-minus stat too much but defenders Maddy McCleary and Caleigh Meraw are two of the top three players in that, so they must be doing a few things right on both sides of the puck. After barely missing out on nationals in 2021, it’s now an expectation for this team to book their travels to P.E.I. in late March.
As the defending conference champs, expectations are reasonably high for the X-Women. They’ve done well to live up to them thus far. They score like nobody’s business, with a league-leading 55 goals. An agitating team with an AUS-high 239 PIMs, they’ve used that edge to their advantage by generating the most power play opportunities of anyone by a sizeable amount.
However, the gap between league leaders Saint Mary’s and UNB has been spreading with each passing game. A strong October has translated into a near-.500 November. They’re winless versus the Huskies and have split two games with the other team they’re chasing in the Reds. While they rolled along in the season’s first month with many convincing wins, their recent play makes you feel like they have more in the tank.
Forwards Maggy Burbridge and Lea MacLeod have played like all-stars, while Lauren Dabrowski is the frontrunner for defender of the year. In 2019-20, the season’s second half leading to their title was their best. Will we see that again this time around?
St. Thomas Tommies
The Tommies are the definition of a middle-of-the-pack team. They’ve split their fourteen games this season, winning five of their last 10. They’ve only scored two more goals than they’ve allowed. But some fantastic goaltending and impressive discipline (a league-low 86 penalty minutes) have made them the division’s ultimate by-committee squad.
STU has had no issues proving its dominance over the lower teams, but it has yet to jump to the next level over rivals like UPEI and UNB. Their most recent five games have been interesting. Outside a 4-1 loss to SMU, the Tommies have allowed just four goals, with shutouts in each of their last two. Goalie Caroline Pietrowski is quite possibly the AUS’s best at her position right now.
Thanks to that discipline, STU is running an unmatched 95 per cent penalty kill efficiency. I believe they are a better team now than in game one. Next, they need to solve the four teams above them.
UNB is on a different level compared to before the COVID break. Traditionally a middle-of-the-pack club, they’ve more or less joined StFX and SMU to form a “big three” in the AUS. The Reds are a hard team to score on, with their 23 goals allowed being the league’s lowest. They may be the conference’s most consistent as well, winning with the same style and frequency now compared to early October.
Against those other two top teams, they have a winning record. UNB and StFX have won one each in two matchups. The Reds have not lost to the powerhouse Huskies, winning in overtime in their only meeting thus far in 2021-22 back in mid-October. A more defensive-minded team, UNB has done well maintaining a well-oiled power play at a 23.1 per cent efficiency.
The offence is balanced, led by top scorers Ashley Stratton, Frederike Cyr, Payton Hargreaves and Jenna MacLean. The latter and Emma Giordano are two of the conference’s best blueliners. Along with a strong season from goalie Kendra Woodland, almost everything is going right for this team.
All in all, the 2022 U SPORTS championship hosts are playing like a team capable of succeeding in that tournament. To me, they haven’t played at the level the “big three” have but the Panthers are the clear number four at the season’s midway point. With a record of 8-4-2, the Panthers have a goal differential of just one.
They’ve won all but two of their games by one goal and lost all but one game by the same difference. With the number of close matchups they’ve been in, the differential isn’t much of a surprise but somewhat impressive. They’ve had wins and losses versus the Reds and X-Women, which hint at a pair of good potential playoff matchups. Special teams have been average, but not bad considering UPEI’s served the second-most minutes in the penalty box this season.
Jolena Gillard’s early-season success has given her some MVP attention, while Camille Scherger has been stellar in goal despite playing just seven matches. Just three points back of UNB and five of SMU, UPEI’s in perhaps the best position to flip the league upside-down after the break.