AUS MHKY: UNB, StFX heavily favoured as AUS men’s hockey playoffs get underway

AUS men’s hockey may be the most balanced, evenly-matched league in Atlantic Canada and arguably U SPORTS. Yet in playoffs, results for all but one team are anything but fair.

That’s right, it’s time to break out the white towels and put away the shaving razors, it’s postseason time! The beard won’t have much time to grow very long though, as the conference has adopted a modified format in order to finish the season in time. 

In the men’s circuit, there will only be up to 15 games or as few as 10. Those will consist of a play-in game, two best-of-three quarterfinals and semifinals each, and a winner-take-all final. Keep in mind both finals qualifiers will make the U CUP at Acadia at the end of the month, making best-of-three semifinals more of a necessity than a finals series. Should the host Axemen make a run to the championship, a third place game will be added to decide the third team to make it from out east.

The season to this point has been one of a kind. Yes, the UNB Reds are still the team to beat. Everywhere else, the StFX X-Men have reemerged as a contender. The Dalhousie Tigers have climbed to third in the standings after nearly 20 years in the basement. Many were surprised by Acadia and the Saint Mary’s Huskies’ slides down the standings at the same time, despite respectable finished to the regular season.

Let’s not forget the impact that the migration of several stars from the AUS to pro opportunities, including Acadia’s Garrett McFadden, Dal’s Derek Gentile, SMU’s Mitchell Balmas and UPEI’s Owen Headrick, has had (and is still having) on the competitive landscape.

A lot of moving parts, right? Why don’t I try to do the improbable and predict the entire playoffs then? We’ll take a look at each team while we walk through each playoff round, beginning with Wednesday’s playoff opener at the home of the 2022 national championships.

Play-in game: (7) Moncton Aigles Bleues at (6) Acadia Axemen

This season, a play-in game decides who will take on the third-place team, Dalhousie, in the quarterfinals. It’s a showdown of squads coming off regressions from 2019-20. Last season, Acadia came within a game of winning the league, while Moncton came within two of making the cancelled 2020 U CUP. 

Now, each only has a single game to save their AUS seasons. 

Acadia doesn’t, theoretically, have anything to lose. They could make nationals and go three weeks without playing, while the best teams in the country condition themselves for the ups and downs of the postseason while competing for conference titles. I should also mention here that Acadia went 0-7-1 against the AUS’s two best teams, UNB and StFX, this season. What I’m trying to say is there’s a ton on the line for this Axemen team.

Can they do it? They did win their season series with the Aigles Bleus 3-1. Cancelled games late this season and only one win (over Moncton) is all they’ve had since Christmas, but there’s reason to be optimistic. They took the Reds to a shootout and only lost by one to the X-Men. It’s clear the “want” to extend their AUS season is there. 

The play of Johnny Corneil and Keegan Stevenson down the stretch has been a huge boost to this team. So has that of newly-christened starter Max Paddock, who put up a .929 save percentage in four games since the break.

In the past month, Moncton hasn’t been good, but not necessarily bad. They forced UNB and StFX to shootout decisions (despite losing) and beat third place Dal, who they will meet if they defeat Acadia Wednesday. 

Last weekend was a big one for them, especially for Nathael Roy. In the new year, he’s quietly snuck into third place in the scoring race, only behind StFX’s Liam Hawel and Matthew Struthers. Despite going winless in the return to play, Etienne Montpetit should get the nod in goal. In four losses, he still managed a .919 save percentage.

Quarterfinal #1: Dalhousie Tigers vs Play-in Winner

The Tigers are an interesting case. There’s no disputing they’re a new team this year, but it hasn’t come without ups and downs. They’ve beaten everyone besides UNB at some point this season, including tight wins over equal teams as of late. But that streakiness has shown at points including last weekend, only scoring once in two games on their New Brunswick road trip, as Dal continues to cope with the departures of leading scorers Gentile and Barret Kirwin.

But there’s still promise in this young team sprinkled with motivated veterans, especially when it comes to a three-game series. Picking up the scoring has been rookie Shaun Miller and second-year Cameron Thompson, while Connor Welsh and first-year Christian Huntley have thrived on the blueline since the break. In net, Reilly Pickard is slated to get the nod as he’s played at an MVP calibre throughout 2021-22.

Quarterfinal #2: UPEI Panthers vs SMU Huskies

This is a series where both sides will really come out flying. Neither team played last weekend (although they were supposed to last Friday) as the Panthers dealt with COVID cases on the team. However, it souls like both sides will be raring to go by game one this weekend. 

The Panthers have had a less-than-ideal return to play, but being scheduled against the league’s top three teams back-to-back-to-back, followed by losing two games with their COVID outbreak, doesn’t help by any means. They are also in the process of turning the page on Headrick’s departure on defence. 

But UPEI is more than Headrick, as a number of players have been having career seasons in green and white. Troy Lajeunesse has been scoring on a point-per-game basis since the resumption of play, smashing his career-best by 10 points. Newly-minted captain TJ Shea has had a breakthrough year, while top-liner Kyle Maksimovich is having another great season. Second-year Matt Brassard has been chipping in extra offence on the blueline lately. In goal, Jonah Capriotti has arguably been a top three goalie in the AUS this season. At times, he’s looked like the best. UPEI can depend on some solid play from their rookie stopper.

On the SMU side, they too had to move on from their captain in Balmas. The Huskies, however, have had a better return to play, much in thanks to rookie netminder Justin Sumarah’s Hamburglar-style emergence and brilliance down the stretch. Allowing just four goals in three 2022 games, coupled with an insane .960 save percentage, SMU will undoubtedly ride the hot goalie into the postseason.

The Huskies have brought more than just goaltending lately, however. They’ve found ways to win high and low-scoring games (given the tiny sample size post-holidays). Their group on offence is just as good as any with new captain Keith Getson, Andrew Coxhead and rookie Cedric Ralph leading the way. They also have a fascinating D corps consisting of Sam Dunn and co-leading scorer (not accounting for Balmas) Justin MacPherson. After a frightening injury in the fall, SMU also has two-way gem Dennis Busby back in the lineup.

Semifinal #1: UNB Reds vs lowest-seeded quarterfinal winner

There was a massive incentive for finishing third in the conference as Dal has, besides earning a quarterfinal date with the lowest remaining team. That incentive was to avoid running into the UNB Reds in the semifinals.

As always, they’re the favourites to win the AUS and, by many measures, the country. I’ve rung that bell all season and it still stands true today, despite some adversity down the stretch. Of their five wins in 2022, they’ve won just once by more than one goal. Three of those wins also came in shootouts which, of course, they won’t have in playoffs.

But at the same time, that can’t be considered too much of a negative, as the team is showing they can win in many ways. They can do that because they have it all. There’s a UNB presence in every major stat, led by rookie Austen Keating and captain Sam Dove-McFalls in the scoring, apiece with 24 and 20 points this season. Dove-McFalls also has 10 goals this year, good for eighth in the league. 

Overall, the Reds have a balanced attack with 13 players scoring double-digit points. Among them are defencemen Kade Landry (15), Adam McCormick (12) and Joe Gatenby (10). Ross MacDougall, with eight points, has also upped his play since the break.

UNB has unmatched depth. On top of that, however, we can’t forget Rylan Parenteau and the ridiculously good season he’s having. He’s only the second AUS goalie to finish the season with a save percentage above .930 since 2002, with .938 (!). With Parenteau in goal, the Reds are able to compete with anyone, at any position, in any role. 

Semifinal #2: StFX X-Men vs highest-seeded quarterfinal winner

Even if one quarterfinal winner doesn’t draw UNB, they still have to deal with the league’s best offence in StFX. The X-Men’s 102 goals were 12 more than the next closest team, while they were just one of two teams to finish with a positive goal differential with +23 (UNB is at +52). This team may have suffered a dip in 2019-20 but will look to return to their first final in just two seasons. Possibly, they earn their first championship since 2017.

What’s StFX’s biggest weapon? Retention. While most other teams lost players to pro opportunities and dealt with the following juggling of lineups, the X-Men didn’t have to worry about that one bit. As a result, they earned points in all six games following the break. They even earned more points than UNB, who also played six games, in that span. Yeah, safe to say they’re red-hot, while the semifinal bye will only help.

I’ve raved about their Big Three on offence: Hawel, Struthers and Matthew Philip, who are all in the top five in AUS scoring. Hawel, leading the league in goals and assists, is the MVP favourite. Struthers is right behind him in the scoring race. Philip, meanwhile, has established himself as a clutch presence as his five game-winning goals lead the conference. If that isn’t enough offence for you, Zach Trott also cracks the top 10 scoring.

Defence is a bit of a question mark, as their goals-against total is comparable to lower-ranked teams. Santino Centorame has put together a good season on the blueline, as he sits third in defencemen scoring. William Thompson, although more of a stay-at-home d-man, has stood out in key roles. The challenge for them will be to tighten up and help Joseph Raaymakers in net, who leads the league in wins despite facing the second-most shots in the conference this season.


Play-in: Acadia def. Moncton

While Moncton has been on shaky ground lately, a number of things are coming together for Acadia as they round a corner in their season. They have home ice and they are the national hosts. So they may be pushing harder than anyone in these playoffs to get into shape for nationals. 

Quarterfinals: Acadia def. Dalhousie 2-1

          SMU def. UPEI 2-1

The Tigers have had the edge on Acadia all season, but now more than ever is the time for the Axemen to get back at them. It’s going to be tight, but Acadia also has the leadership group with playoff experience that presents an edge despite not having home-ice advantage. Dal is also dipping at the wrong time in the season, so they don’t have much time to find their groove again.

In the other series, SMU is the hottest team in the AUS outside of the top two squads. They have the edge on defence and scoring, while also having the goalie-on-a-roll with Sumarah. UPEI also has some question marks coming off a COVID outbreak. This, again, will be a good series though.

Semifinals: UNB def. Acadia 2-0

       StFX def. SMU 2-1

In both series here, to me, the top two teams are too strong for everyone else. The gap has spread between the rest of the league and UNB and StFX, who have combined for just two losses in 12 games in the new year. I can see SMU stealing a game of StFX on the strength of a defensive dogfight, but no more than that.

Final: UNB def. StFX

This is a one-game series with no real implications outside of the AUS banner, so who knows. The Reds have the recent experience, as well as the defensive and goaltending edges. They say defence wins championships but given the scare the X-Men gave UNB last week, we know that anything is possible.

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