AUS: Much intrigue into playoff structure, while StFX hockey teams looking scary

HALIFAX, NS – Week one of the AUS’ 2022 return is in the books. But before we know it, we’ll be through with the season as we have very short seasons and playoffs on the way. 

For instance, women’s hockey playoffs will have less than three weeks to hold playoffs before nationals kick off at UPEI on March 24. The regular season there ends March 5, not accounting for possible reschedulings for COVID-related issues as we’ve seen in other sports. Women’s volleyball teams are equally pressed for time as their nationals in Calgary begin March 25. The men have an extra bit of time, with the U Cup starting March 31. 

But before diving into the implications of playoff formats, I want to discuss the UNB Reds/UPEI Panthers men’s hockey matchup last Saturday. Near the end of the first period, some UPEI players got into an exchange with UNB forward Isaac Nurse as they returned to their benches. 

As things appeared to be calming down, a Panther directed a gesture toward the UNB bench. Nurse, who is Black, immediately reacted to the gesture, as did at least three teammates and coach Gardiner MacDougall. This resulted in an extended pause in play as the teams spoke with each other and the officials as to what happened. 

The gesture was not caught on the AUStv broadcast, but I heard from a few people at the game it was similar to the “tough guy” gesture that Jacob Panetta directed at Jordan Subban in the ECHL last month. However, 49 Sports reported Saturday that both teams spoke after the game about the incident and concluded it was a misunderstanding. 

It’s a positive sign to see the teams kept open communication in discussing what happened and coming away from it as better people. But as we’ve learned with the Panetta incident and other recent occurrences of possible racial gestures in hockey, we cannot forget about the affected and how they feel. We aren’t sure to what degree Nurse was involved in the post-game discussions, but his input on what happened is, without doubt, the most important. 

It’s also a positive sign, as evident with the UNB bench immediately reacting to the gesture in Nurse’s defence, that players at all levels of the sport are aware of what needs to be done to foster hockey as a safer and more inclusive sport. Hockey at all levels has a ways to go to improve in providing this. But both the teams’ open communication post-game and Nurse’s Reds teammates having his back in this situation are hopeful signs that AUS athletes are recognizing how they can help build a better environment to play hockey in.

Playoff format intrigue

This winter’s AUS playoffs (aside from swimming, track and field and curling, which all had dates moved) are going to be different this year. And I mean really different. 

Not all the formats for the AUS hockey and volleyball playoffs are out yet, but we now know in basketball that each and every team will make at least one appearance in the four-day (instead of three-day) championships at Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre. Instead of the usual five-game tournaments for both the men and women, there will be seven matchups per division with four games on each of Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Any change like this, although just for this season, always takes getting used to. But as a fan of the first couple of rounds of NCAA March Madness (and I mean strictly the first couple of rounds), I’m a huge fan of this. Without byes for each division’s top two teams, an extra layer of drama is added instantly. That will hold true especially if a 1v8 or 2v7 game is really close. 

Yes, the fact everyone makes it in might affect the quality of remaining regular season basketball, but don’t we watch for how things turn out in playoffs anyway? It could be worth keeping an eye on how players’ workloads are handled these next few weeks, given the basketball regular season goes right up until the weekend before the championships. Certainly could be a storyline.

Women’s hockey and volleyball schedules are going to be cutting it tight, with a window of only about 14 days to complete playoffs. A shortened playoff schedule is an inevitability, even if it means shorter series (likely best-of-three). Keep in mind, all teams in each division are taking part too. I wouldn’t be surprised if a weekend-style tournament like basketball does is being discussed, although that’s only speculation. We will hear soon.

The men have a bit more time, so they’d be less likely to eliminate playoff series altogether. But they only have three full weeks to pull off at least three rounds of playoffs, so shorter series again seems like the most likely option. 

StFX threatening atop hockey leagues

StFX’s Josie Chisholm is mobbed by teammates after scoring the go-ahead goal versus SMU on Feb. 21 with 1:34 left in the game. (Nick Pearce)

Speaking of AUS hockey playoffs, one thing seems to be sure for both of them: StFX teams are going to be forces. As of Feb. 24, the X-Men and X-Women are a combined 5-0 in 2022, with each team looking better as time has gone on. Judging by that, there’s a lot to be excited about at X.

Let’s look at their most recent games. The women, in only their second game since the break, had to take on the Saint Mary’s Huskies in their first road trip of the winter. Worse yet for them, they were down by two after 40 minutes of play. 

That didn’t phase them. It especially didn’t mean a thing for the X-Women’s Josie Chisholm, who picked up points on all four X goals, including the three third-period goals that led her team to a 4-3 comeback over the top team in the AUS. Most importantly, she was the one who buried the game-winner in the game’s final two minutes.

It’s easy to forget after two years StFX is the defending AUS champion, despite the attention SMU has garnered for their strong season. Part of that has to do with the squad’s team-first approach. They likely don’t have any of the league’s brightest individual stars or MVP frontrunners such as SMU’s Shae Demale or UPEI’s Jolena Gillard. Chisholm, despite dominating the other night, is only ninth on X in scoring. None of their top three scorers—Maggy Burbidge, Lauren Dabrowski or Tyra Meropoulis—registered a point Monday, indicating how well things are run by committee in Antigonish.

Additionally, the X-Women have some of the AUS’s deepest defence corps, led by Chisholm, Dabrowski, and Ella VandeSompel, who all have at least 10 points on the year. No other team has that many defenders scoring in double digits. In net, Jamie Johnson has had one of the best starts to the new season of any stopper in the conference, going 2-0 and allowing just four goals in wins over the Huskies and UPEI. StFX has seemed to spread itself from the pack this week, keeping in mind they’ve only played twice in the new year so far.

Their male counterparts have looked just as sharp, scoring 17 goals in three convincing wins over SMU, the Acadia Axemen and Dalhousie Tigers. In the process, they’ve closed the gap between them and an 18-2 UNB team to only five points. A team that looked streaky just before the break, the X-Men themselves are close to distancing themselves for good from the pack, now 10 points up from third-place Dal. 

Wednesday could have been an indication of just how wide that gap was. There was no impressive comeback-style effort from X or anything. From the get-go, they displayed their sheer firepower. Outshooting Dal 12-1 in the first period (where they went up 4-0 after 20) and 37-23 in the game, the X-Men were in control in a 7-3 thrashing. Dal may have succeeded in their strategy of shutting down Liam Hawel, Matthew Philip and Matthew Struthers. What they couldn’t prepare for were three-point nights from William Bower, Ethan Crossman and Declan Smith. Their secondary scoring can certainly make noise too.

Notably, over the break, StFX did well retaining their stars while almost every other team lost players to pro opportunities. One would think players such as Hawel and Struthers would have fielded calls over the break given their seasons and prior AHL experience. Instead, they have put up five and three points, respectively, in the team’s first three matchups of 2022. Led by them, the X-Men haven’t deviated from their high-scoring identity, but have looked more consistent and defensively responsible compared to last November.

COVID situation moving forward

As expected, the continuing spread of COVID-19 has been ever-present in the form of postponements. UNB’s women’s basketball team and Moncton’s women’s volleyball team have experienced outbreaks that have prevented them from fielding rosters for at least a game. On Thursday, Dal’s men’s basketball games at UPEI on the weekend were postponed with COVID issues within the Tigers club. 

There are no indications yet that team-to-team spread has occurred, but that remains a concern along with how tight of a timeframe the AUS has to get all games in before playoffs and nationals. Another concern with playoffs is what might happen at a tournament-style championship such as the basketball championship has COVID cases. Will all teams have to stop? By that time, could testing be discontinued depending on provincial policies? 

As I mentioned last week, it’s a different time now in the conference as we now expect COVID activity to impact play. But for matters both in and outside sports, we could see a lot of change over the next month in our approach to cases. As many provinces announce full-on reopenings by mid-March, it isn’t 100 per cent clear whether isolation rules will continue for positive cases. Perhaps by the time nationals arrive, those are forgotten. 

The point is that there is so much to consider, as the virus situation changes every day. Thankfully, athletes have for the most part remained in good health with vaccination guidelines in place. Let’s hope things stay that way and the AUS is able to wrap up the season smoothly. 

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