TORONTO, ON – The first-semester chapter of the U SPORTS Men’s Hockey season is quickly approaching its end, with only a handful of games remaining in the OUA calendar. While the Wednesday Wraparound took a backseat for the soccer championship and planning for the now-cancelled FISU Winter Universiade, we welcome you back into what should be a weekly column throughout the second semester season.
Before you get to wrapping up presents, let’s wrap up this first part, and in some cases first half of the U SPORTS Men’s Hockey season.
The UBC Thunderbirds belong
When the UBC Thunderbirds stormed out to a 6-0-0 start with wins against Trinity Western, Manitoba and MacEwan, there was still some doubt of how strong the team actually was. Yes, they qualified for the 2020 U CUP, but that was a near miracle back then, and beating three non-giants in Canada West was no proof that they had indeed taken the next step.
While the T-Birds dropped two tight games to Alberta, their first losses of the season, a double win weekend against Saskatchewan cemented them as one of the top teams in the conference, and for the time being, the top team.
In their first of a two-game series against the Huskies, the T-Birds walked the Huskies off the ice with a dominant 4-1 win, but the second game of the set stood out. Trailing 3-0 after the first period to a defensively sound Huskies team, the Thunderbirds dought back to win 6-3, toppling the #2 ranked team twice in as many nights.
Liam Kindree returned to the lineup for the T-Birds in the first Saskatchewan game, playing his first Canada West minutes after picking up a late injury in preseason; however, it was Carson Miller and Scott Atkinson who stole the offensive spotlight with a goal and four assists each through two games.
“There were some question marks for our group because we had a softer schedule; we didn’t get the preseason tests a lot of other teams did. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a statement; there’s still lots to prove,” said UBC Head Coach Sven Butenschon. “It’s a short season, so every weekend’s almost a statement game. 20 games, it’s a sprint, you got to get greedy when it comes to getting points.”
UBC has been in games all year, and that is in no small part the leadership behind the bench and on the ice. While Butenschon’s “absorb early and drive late” approach to games is working, his captain, Tyler Sandhu, is leading by example, tied for the team lead in points with 12 points in 10 games.
UBC will have four of their final ten games against a struggling Trinity Western team, and that should give them a significant boost to hold onto the #1 seed in the conference come playoff time.
Manitoba showing they can compete
The Manitoba Bisons will squeak their way into the playoffs, but only if Brett Davis drags them there. After this weekend, the former Manitoba Moose amateur tryout player leads the team with 15 points, with a hat trick and three assists in two games against the high-ranked Alberta Golden Bears.
Manitoba has played to their expected level this season, on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Still, some positives show that they could be better than the Regina Cougars, who currently hold the sixth and final playoff spot.
While the Bisons dropped two against Regina, they have had the toughest schedule in the conference, already facing UBC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Calgary twice. However, with their upcoming schedule much lighter with TWU and MacEwan and a double-header against Regina, there is ample time and an excellent opportunity for Davis and the Bisons to make up ground.
Trinity Western Spartans off the mark
The transition to Canada West hockey has not been as smooth as the Trinity Western Spartans wanted. After Kolby Johnson scored in the opening game against the now powerhouse UBC Thunderbirds, things looked okay for the Langley school.
After that opening game, it took another nine to pick up their first points and win. While bouncing from George Preston Arena and the Langley Events Centre for home games has not helped the Spartans, they have simply not been good enough on the ice.
Opponents have outplayed the Spartans in every area but goaltending, and they boast a staggering struggling -44 goal differential. Things have not gone smoothly, but a 44 save performance from former Nipissing Laker Talor Joseph in their first-ever 6-5 win over MacEwan will indeed levy the spirits heading into the winter break.
Kyle Bollers leading a storming Rams team
The Ryerson Rams got off to a slower start to the season than they wanted, but after rattling off five wins in their last six games, they have launched themselves to the upper end of the division with Brock and into the U SPORTS Top 10.
Defence and goaltending have not been a problem for the Rams this season, rather their inability to score in some of the games’ bigger moments. However, they seem to have figured things out since their opening loss to Brock, relying on a hot line of rookies Kyle Bollers, Elijah Roberts and Chris Playfair.
Bollers has a flair for the heroics, scoring third period and overtime winners in the Rams last two wins against Toronto and Brock. “I’ve never been that happy,” he told 49 Sports after scoring a late third-period goal to put the Rams up 2-1 against Toronto.
A ferocious player during his OHL days in Saginaw and coming off a 2019-20 season as the OJHL’s leading-scorer, it should not be a surprise that he has started hot, but it is. Many players from the OJHL don’t thrive in their rookie seasons, but Bollers sits eighth in OUA, scoring with 9 points and second in goals with 2.
The winter break has been known to push players back a level after quick starts, and that could be more evident in 2021-22 with the very abbreviated fall season. However, Bollers has gotten off to a top start and is the main factor that has pushed the Rams back into U CUP conversations.
Toronto gets a win at the right time
The Toronto Varsity Blues were struggling, and it was getting late. While the season has a long time to go, the string was getting short for Toronto, who were dropping points at nearly every opportunity, while Brock, Ryerson, York and even Lakehead leaped miles above them. It would be an understatement to say it wasn’t going well for the first place OUA West finishers from 2019-20.
Through their first five games, Toronto had only picked up two points from a single win against Lakehead, which is on paper the weakest team in the division. Things weren’t necessarily going wrong for the whole game, but the Varsity Blues managed to drop points each night.
Against Ryerson, the game in which Bollers ended, goaltender Alex Bishop stopped 42 shots, one short of an OUA career-high. The issue has been scoring, as top scorers from 2019-20 have either left or, in the case of David Thomson and Joey Manchurek, have had slow starts to the year. On nights where they got goals, their defence failed them, dropping games 6-4 and 5-4.
The slow start could not have been easy on anyone, and some team members appeared lost on the ice amid their slump. However, their final game before the break changed things. Suddenly the Varsity Blues connected on passes and cashed in on their offensive opportunities en route to a 5-2 win over a strong York team.
With recent promising play from Kyle Potts, Alex Bishop, and Danny Katic, Head Coach Ryan Medel looks to be figuring out his Varsity Blues six games into the season. While the momentum lost from the winter break could have been a drawback, the group will be able to get some players back from injury come January when they hope to hit the reset button and drive towards the U CUP.
Jonathan Yantsis unable to improve at Winter Universiade
Queen’s Gaels rookie forward Jonathan Yantsis has gotten off to a dream start in his OUA career, leading the league with 4 goals and 16 points, but his chance to improve over the break was taken away on Monday.
One of the few OUA players named to Team Canada for the Lucerne 2021 Winter Universiade, Yantsis would have had the chance to push his game to another level over the break before returning to the OUA, where he has already thrived. Unfortunately, with the games cancelled, he will no longer get that chance, putting him in a similar boat as other rookies who have not maintained their hot scoring past new year.
Yantsis is a highly talented offensive player who has shown well at the OUA level so far. However, the Universiade would have given him a chance to test himself against better players, as he likely will have to later this season.
The Queen’s Gaels are a strong team but are not as strong as they appear. The softest division in the conference is the OUA East, and they are handling it well, despite the schedule potentially setting themselves up for challenges down the road.
If Yantsis were able to play against top players worldwide, he would have to elevate his game to a level that would win in the OUA postseason, but that is now something he will have to navigate if he is to continue leading the Gaels into the playoffs.
Dalhousie having a season to remember
It has been a while since the Dalhousie Tigers put together a competitive AUS season, yet in 2021-21, they are right in the mix for home advantage in the playoffs’ opening round. Sitting tied on 15 points with Saint Mery’s and UPEI, the Tigers are not dominating but are very competitive.
The Tigers have been able to grab points from the teams right around them in the standings and even have managed to grab points off second-place StFX, and even push the UNB Reds to some very close matchups. So far, the only team to trouble the Tigers in their vicinity is UPEI.
Rookie forward Derik Gentile has led a lot of Dalhousie’s success, with 20 points in 16 appearances; however, as he has slowed down, others have stepped up. Former Owen Sounds Attack forward Barrett Kirwin has picked up his play in recent games, giving the Tigers another offensive threat. While those two are significant contributors, the Tigers score by committee, with 15 players scoring at least one goal this season.
The Tigers have a top-three powerplay and penalty kill in the AUS. and picked up a massive upset 4-2 win over the StFX X-Men on Nov. 24. The AUS is halfway through the season, and the Dal Tigers look right on pace to make a playoff run.
Acadia’s dreadful season with a great powerplay
The Acadia Axemen are scoring on the powerplay. With the top-ranked unit in the conference, the 2022 U CUP hosts are ticking along at 27% on the man advantage. Still, they sit second-last in the standings.
Acadia won just two games of eight in November, as they continued to slide down the AUS standings in a year that they hoped could pair an AUS title with a U CUP Championship. While there’s less pressure having an automatic berth to nationals, it has been a poor season in Wolfville.
The Axemen have been porous defensively, allowing over four goals a game for the last eight of the previous nine games and only outsourcing their problems once in the span. While they have not allowed the most shots in the conference, they have allowed the most goals, 65 in 17 games.
Their top scoring forward is Adam McMaster, who has 12 points in 17 games and ranked 28th in AUS scoring. Most of the offence has come from Garett McFadden, a holdover from the more prosperous days of Acadia hockey. Still, a blueliner leading the scoring is never a promising sign.
Acadia will be at the U CUP in Halifax come mid-March, but the question remains whether they can turn the ship around to qualify for the AUS playoffs come February.
UPEI Panthers setting themselves up for 2022-23
The UPEI Panthers season has gone swiftly this year. Sitting fourth in the AUS on 15 points, the Panthers have gotten good play from veterans and rookies as they look towards hosting the U CUP in Charlottetown next season.
Tied for the conference’s second-best defence, the Forbes MacPherson-led anthers are getting the most out of a defence core led by Owen Headrick, who had been named to Team Canada for the Winter Universiade. Sophomore Matt Brassard has also played a significant role in the thriving Panthers defence.
While they let a lead slip in the second period against StFX to lose 8-3, the Panthers have been a much tighter team than that anomaly. A 9-1 win over StFX earlier in November stands out as their top offensive output, but only by a few goals as the Panthers often score 4-5 goals a game.
With top-scoring players Troy Lajeunesse, TJ Shea, Kaleb Pearson and Kyle Maskiomovich set to return in 2022-23, the Panthers are setting themselves up nicely to take an underdog shot at the 2023 U CUP.