Connor Welsh is in his fourth year with the Dalhousie Tigers. Shaun Miller is in his first.
On Friday night, they had three things in common: they both play for Dal, they both scored, and they have both earned their first career AUS playoff wins, following the Tigers’ 4-3 advantage over the Moncton Aigles Bleus. The veteran-rookie combo wasn’t only present. They made the difference.
You only need to look at the first eight minutes of the second period. After Welsh sniped one past Etienne Montpetit’s glove five minutes in, Miller got his hands on a Welsh point shot soon thereafter. That would be the game-winning goal.
“The puck was moved to the top of the point and I made sure I established a net-front presence. Welsh put a great shot on net and I was just able to deflect it off the ice into the net,” Miller said of the deciding goal. “I’m not sure what it hit, if it was off the goalie’s glove or another player’s skate. But it found its way to the back of the net.”
It wasn’t just Miller and Welsh earning the big wins in game one of the conference’s best-of-three quarterfinal. It’s the Dalhousie men’s hockey program as a whole. The last time the Tigers won an AUS playoff game was 17 seasons ago (or 18 years ago) in their run to the AUS finals in 2004, where they fell to the StFX X-Men.
Welsh has been with the program for a while and agrees it’s been a long time coming.
“We’ve been battling for this for a while,” the veteran blueliner said. “This is my fourth year with the team and we’ve never been able to make the playoffs. To get that win out of the way is a great feeling but there’s a lot of work to be done. We’re not completely satisfied just yet.”
UdeM, coming off a play-in game victory over the Acadia Axemen on Wednesday, had the feet under them to start the game. They would get on the board first, when Gabriel Vanier deflected the puck under an unsuspecting Reilly Pickard in net.
But Dal, late in the first frame, made Moncton pay for successive turnovers. First, it was Logan O’Neil jumping on a turnover in the Moncton slot and beating Montpetit. Next, Matt Green was the beneficiary of a loose puck in the crease, slamming one home in the period’s final minute.
Before heading to the dressing rooms, Moncton would respond seconds later on a juicy rebound. The Tigers knew they had a big second stanza coming up and they delivered with those next two goals.
“Campbell Pickard got the puck on the half-wall and I just saw an open hole through the middle of the ice, so I called for it. He made a great pass and luckily my shot found the back of the net,” Welsh said of his early second-period marker. He also credited an Evan MacKinnon pass starting the sequence leading to Miller’s goal.
As Nathael Roy made Dal pay later in the second with a power-play goal, it made for a tense final period. But, perhaps as much as the first part of the start of the second period, the Tigers wouldn’t let up an inch.
Out of everyone on the team, coach Chris Donnelly has been there the longest, now in his ninth season behind the Tigers bench. Now, at last, he has his first AUS playoff win.
“Everyone feels good. We had a character win shorthanded with 15 skaters,” he said. “The guys had tremendous character.”
The home team wasn’t in the greatest spot ever coming into this one. They’ve had a shaky last few regular season games, including a New Brunswick road trip where they were outscored 8-1 in two games. It also didn’t help that offensive muscle Cameron Thompson missed the game, or that captain Dillon Boucher was suspended by the conference for at least two games after a questionable hit in Moncton last week.
“We’ve been playing shorthanded the last three weeks, so we should be in shape by now,” Donnelly said. “We have experience at it so it’s no big deal. We just need to win races to pucks and play solid in our own end. That’s what we did.”
Those attributes are what helped stifle the Moncton attack late in the third period, forcing the visitors to take untimely penalties and lose possession time. The Aigles Bleus couldn’t find an inch either in the final minute, even with the extra attacker.
As a result, Dal closed out the postseason win at home, in front of nearly 1000 spectators at the Halifax Forum. The official attendance on the game summary lists an attendance of 420 people, but it was clear Friday night that was an underestimate.
“A lot of us have played major junior hockey in front of a lot of fans, then we come to this league and there’s not usually a lot of fans. But every time they show up, it makes our experience that much better,” Miller said, moments after he and the rest of the team saluted the hundreds on their feet during the final buzzer. “They might not understand how much it actually does affect the game, but for us, it’s a big confidence booster and it makes us excited to play.”
AUS Playoffs Roundup
MHKY Saint Mary’s 6 UPEI 5 (2OT)
Eleven goals. Double overtime. A tying goal with milliseconds left on the MacLauchlan Arena scoreboard. Need I say more?
In a game of the year candidate (a shoo-in winner for the fans of scoring out there), Logan DeNoble beat Jonah Capriotti in the UPEI Panthers goal with a missile over his blocker to seal a Saint Mary’s Huskies win eight minutes into double overtime. By a 6-5 score, SMU is now within a win of a 14th consecutive conference semifinals appearance.
In the Huskies’ winning effort, Andrew Coxhead scored a hat trick and added an assist, all within the game’s first half. By that point, SMU led 4-2. But with a pair of late goals in the middle from Kyle Maksimovich and Darian Pilon, the Panthers brought it even after 40.
Although SMU had the go-ahead goal from Justin MacPherson early in the third, UPEI peppered SMU’s Justin Sumarah with 19 shots in the final 20 minutes of regulation, part of the 44 he faced all game. But it wasn’t until the 19th of those 19 shots, with three seconds left in regulation, that Kaleb Pearson cruised in on the partial break and buried the tying goal.
The first overtime period was just 10 minutes, so it took almost 19 minutes of sudden-death time for DeNoble to send the series to SMU. Game two goes Sunday night at the Dauphinee Centre, at 7 pm local time.
WHKY StFX 3 Saint Mary’s 2 (OT)
Over in the women’s bracket, the first game of the SMU Huskies and StFX X-Women semifinal series was also treated to overtime. On the strength of a third-period comeback effort, Anna Maccara scored 2:21 into the overtime period to keep her impressive playoffs going and seal game one for StFX.
The Huskies came out buzzing at home as Ellen Laurence had her team’s first two goals, coming in the first period and early in the second. However, the visiting X-Women were in control, outshooting SMU 28-18 through two periods but unable to solve Dagny Hudspeth in net.
That would change 21 seconds into the third when Lauren Dabrowski and Emerson Elliott set up Kamdyn Switzer to cut the lead in half. StFx tied it with about five minutes to play, with Hannah MacDonald forcing overtime with the goal.
Jamie Johnson came up with 27 saves in the win. Now, StFX can secure a fifth straight AUS finals appearance at the Keating Centre in Antigonish on Saturday night.
WHKY UNB 2 St. Thomas 1
As the Battle of Fredericton got underway for game one of the AUS semifinals, it was a low-scoring war of attrition. That of course didn’t come as much of a surprise with UNB’s Kendra Woodland in one net and St. Thomas’s Caroline Pietrowski in the other. But it was the Reds’ heroics from both veterans and youth that gave them the edge and a 1-0 series lead on Friday night.
Rookie Payton Hargreaves scored the go-ahead goal and eventual game-winner just two minutes into the third period, UNB’s second in an eventual 2-1 victory. Neither side gave each other much space in the final third of the match, only registering five shots a side.
Woodland, however, impressed with 23 saves in game one. Fellow UNB veteran Ashley Stratton was crucial in the game, scoring the first goal late in the first period. The Tommies responded late in the next period on the power play, where Erin Arsenault scored to make it a brand new game.
With that, UNB is a win away from their first AUS final appearance in over 20 years, which they can secure Saturday night with a win at the Grant-Harvey Centre.