AUS returns with stellar goaltending, modified playoffs and optimism

HALIFAX, NS – From scheduling announcements to the return of games in New Brunswick, AUS action is back. 

The conference, along with the rest of U SPORTS, is turning a new page this month: living and playing with COVID. Across the country, virus activity hasn’t yet subsided to the point where one can expect near-zero exposure risk. That leaves questions around how teams will deal with cases and how protocols work, which has been well documented in the pros. 

With that in mind, we’re going to see a unique season if it hasn’t been one already. It sure looks like we’re getting play-in tournaments in hockey, basketball and volleyball playoffs, the details of which we could know more by this week. As the conference stated last week, all teams in these leagues will be granted playoff berths of some sort in a “modified playoff format.”

Those would be the two biggest questions: what happens with positive cases on a team and what could modified playoff berths look like?

The management of COVID cases in the AUS lies with their health, wellness and safety committee led by doctors Sonja McVeigh and David Cudmore, who work respectively at Dalhousie and StFX among other duties. 

The committee “has a plan in place,” said AUS executive director Phil Currie, but most of the specs, such as testing regimens, definitions of close contacts or who has to isolate when a case appears, remain internal information for the time being. If (or, and I hope I’m wrong, when) cases appear on a team, that kind of info will become clear. Right now, each Atlantic province requires at least a seven-day isolation period for any positive cases or close contacts.

For playoffs, Currie wouldn’t comment further on modified playoff formats but said most schools were in favour of the idea given the shorter regular season schedule.

“Some teams may not get to play each other or there might be point differences. But it also gives student-athletes more opportunity to play, which is probably the biggest thing,” he said. Currie, most of all and like the student-athletes, has been overjoyed with the return to play and getting back on course for the championships.

Hockey teams will be playing either six or seven games before the playoffs. Basketball teams will play between seven and eight games, while volleyball teams will play between five and seven times before the postseason.

A final note on last week’s news: fans. Currie confirmed the conference won’t be interfering with any teams’ capacity decisions and will allow schools to set their own capacity limits given they’re within provincial health limits. We’ve seen updates all week from schools regarding capacity policies.

In addition, he said the AUS itself is willing to allow in as many fans as possible into events such as the AUS basketball championships at Scotiabank Centre from March 18-20, hosted by the conference. Nova Scotia’s reopening plan states 50 per cent capacity would be allowed for that tournament by then, given all goes well. At the Scotiabank Centre, north of 5,000 fans would then be able to attend. If that’s the case, things will be essentially back to normal on that front; 4836 fans attended the 2019-20 men’s final between Dal and StFX. 

Holy moly, look at those goalies

Hockey returned over the weekend with three matchups, all of which were low-scoring and for the most part tight. While the Moncton Aigles Bleues women’s team had no issues dispatching the Mount Allison Mounties, the men couldn’t pull out the win against their cross-province rivals UNB, falling 3-2 in a shootout. 

But thanks to Etienne Montpetit’s performance in goal, they got as close as they possibly could to upsetting the Reds.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t tune in Saturday night to this game, but Montpetit’s 53 saves on 55 shots speaks for itself. UNB’s attack and possession was a hop, skip and a jump ahead of Moncton’s effort. 

It was on the game summary at least. The Reds outshot Moncton by at least 11 each period except in overtime. And as I raved about on Twitter, UNB’s faceoff stats were out of this world. With an insane 68.4 per cent faceoff success rate, no wonder they could control so much of the play. 

After allowing an early goal to Ryan Roth, scoring in his UNB debut, Montpetit shut and locked the door, before throwing the key in the trash. But with such a workload, he couldn’t be perfect as James Phelan beat Montpetit in the third. 

He continued his outstanding play before running into some rough luck in the shootout. Sam Dove-McFalls’s shootout winner was Montpetit’s toughest break of the game at the wrong time. But at the end of the day, he was the most important factor helping the last-place Aigles Bleus steal a point in Fredericton. 

The night before’s matchup was just as exciting in net. In arguably the biggest rivalry in AUS hockey, the women’s UNB squad and the St. Thomas Tommies battled for supremacy of “The Hill.” But as shown in overtime and the shootout, the game-within-the-game to watch was between netminders Kendra Woodland for UNB and STU’s Caroline Pietrowski. 

With 37 saves Friday, Caroline Pietrowski kept her impressive season going by helping STU to a 4-3 win over their UNB rivals. She now leads the league in wins, tied with SMU’s Dagny Hudspeth. (STU Athletics)

I maintain the two are the best stoppers in the league right now. Woodland has put up some of the best numbers in the conference this season while being one of the busiest goalies. Only UPEI’s Camille Scherger has a better save percentage, but Woodland has faced over 120 shots more than her. 

The only busier netminders than Woodland are Moncton’s Audrey Berthiaume and Pietrowski. The latter is the only goalie to stop over 400 pucks in the conference this season, while finding a way to lead the conference in wins (tied with SMU’s Dagny Hudspeth) and have the fifth-best goals-against average. Friday wasn’t any different for Pietrowski, who stopped 37 shots compared to Woodland’s 25. 

The most exciting of their stops came in overtime, a ping-pong match with each team generating prime scoring chances up the ice. After a sprawling stop from Woodland, UNB sprung a 2-on-1 the other way that required Pietrowski to come up with a stretching save with the right pad to force the shootout. It was, deservingly, awarded the AUS play of the week.

The duel kept going through six shootout rounds too, until Ekaterina Pelowich fired a rocket over Woodland’s shoulder, securing the 4-3 STU win. This game was full of milestones, from veteran defender Jana Headrick’s 100th (!) U SPORTS game to Ashley Stratton’s 60th career point with UNB, making her the program’s all-time leading scorer (she added two more, so that total is now 62 points). But the performances in net are what ended up stealing the show.

Defence was the highlight of week one of AUS hockey’s return, but with teams such as the StFX men and SMU women back on the ice next week, will scoring open up? Or will the goalies find a way to shine again?

We’ll know soon enough as play in five leagues, including basketball and volleyball competition, tips off again Friday. Be sure to catch that action on AUStv

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