The Moncton Aigles Bleus wouldn’t be in the playoffs in a “normal” season.
They finished seventh, dead last, in the AUS men’s hockey standings in a COVID-crippled schedule. They won just once in their final nine regular-season games and were being counted out of a close conference playoff picture.
But two weeks, three wins and a couple of Etienne Montpetit clinics later, Moncton is two wins from a finals appearance and a U Cup berth.
A dominant third period sealed the quarterfinal series in Moncton’s favour at the Halifax Forum Tuesday night. After the Dalhousie Tigers played some of their best hockey of the season late in the second frame, Edouard St. Laurent happened in the third.
Streaking down the left wing two-and-a-half minutes into play, St. Laurent stuffed a shot in close between Tigers goalie Reilly Pickard’s arm and body. The puck fell in behind him and kept rolling. Although a Dalhousie defenceman got there quick, the referee signalled that the puck fully crossed the line, giving UdeM a 4-3 lead early in the final period.
Then, as Dalhousie went to the powerplay with under ten minutes to play, the puck skipped over Tiger Connor Welsh’s stick where Moncton’s Maxime Boudreau picked it up. St. Laurent joined Boudreau on the 2-on-0 breakaway, where the former would redirect the pass with ease over Pickard’s shoulder. That, the fifth Aigles Bleus goal, would be the winner.
“Those came from some lucky bounces,” St. Laurent said. “But we just need to work hard and when we do, those [bounces] will come like that.”
It seemed like the story was heading in a different direction for a bit. Down 3-1 in the second, the Tigers worked it back to 3-3 before the second intermission. Then, despite UdeM’s two goals, Dalhousie fired their most shots of the game in the final period with 18. But aside from a clean setup to Chandler Yakimowicz with three minutes left, Montpetit stopped each and every one.
“In that case, we knew we had to stay calm,” Montpetit said of the team heading into the third period after Dalhousie’s pushback. “We died some good things in the third. I think we showed some character. We’re pretty happy about that.”
In the same way a shorthanded Moncton goal clinched the win, it would also open their scoring. After Brett Crossley scored first for the Tigers, Dalhousie would lose the puck behind their net shortly after on a power play. All alone in front was Olivier-Luc Hache to tie the game.
To make things even more clutch for the visitors, they put a push on in the period’s final minute. While Pickard in the Tigers net fought with a tough rebound, Nathael Roy was right there to clean up. With the number three scorer in the AUS’s late marker, UdeM led after one.
William Basque converted on a wraparound pass from Samuel Guilbault early in the second to make it 3-1. By this time, Moncton controlled the momentum. But an innocent-looking Welsh wrister two minutes later was redirected by Shaun Miller to cut the lead to one.
With nine to play in the period, Dalhousie pulled the rare move of building confidence on their penalty kill. With a number of blocked shots, fans were on their feet as Miller left the penalty box. As the rookie forward stepped back on the ice, he fired a pass to Matt Green at the Moncton blueline, who strolled in and beat Montpetit blocker-side. Tie game. 3-3 after two.
“It was just staying focused on the plan and focused on the system,” Moncton coach Judes Vallee said of that critical juncture in the contest after 40 minutes. “It was very important to put a lot of pressure on their defence. They worked pretty hard and it was awesome for us.”
That Moncton plan paid off too in the third, with both goals coming off turnovers generated from pressure on Tigers defencemen.
“We had a big start tonight so we had that jump, especially in the second period. It was a big team win tonight,” Vallee said.
Coming up short by one was a crusher on the Dalhousie side, given the season that has been. Their playoff win last week was their first since 2004, while their third place finish in the standings was their highest since 2003. Logan Johnston said the loss came down to a few bounces going Moncton’s way, but he was proud to be part of the team this year.
“It’s special. We have a special group of guys in there with a lot of character,” the second-year forward said. “I think our leaders did an exceptional job of rallying around everybody. Our goalies Reilly [Pickard] and Connor [Hicks] did awesome jobs to keep us in games. Obviously, it wasn’t the result we wanted, but I’m proud of everyone in that room.”
The game marked the finish of an excellent series for Montpetit. Despite Dal beating him for four goals in each of the two games in Halifax, he now has a .921 save percentage through four playoff games, the most games played of anyone this postseason. Only Justin Sumarah of the Saint Mary’s Huskies has a better percentage at .929, but has played just two games.
“The second stretch of this season was not very good for us, but this series we did really good,” Montpetit said of his team’s, and his own, turnarounds. “But earlier in the season, the boys showed some character so I was confident we would bounce back in the third. And that’s what they did.”
Moncton has pulled off two underdog victories in the playoffs now, both with their win over Dalhousie and in the play-in game versus U Cup hosts the Acadia Axemen. They have two nights of rest now, but the playoffs don’t get any easier with the UNB Reds waiting for them in the semifinals.
But the incentive of playing for a spot in nationals, plus the prospect of playing for New Brunswick bragging rights, is present. St. Laurent wants both of those bad.
“With us, it’s not all ‘Oh, it’s UNB.’ It’s about working hard and playing our game,” he said. “I think we can win against them.”
WHKY AUS Final Game One: UNB 3 StFX 2 (OT)
The UNB Reds had a dream start in their first final since their AUS return in 2018. Now, they sit a win away from a berth in the U SPORTS women’s hockey nationals next week at UPEI.
It took multiple cracks at the StFX X-Women goalie Jamie Johnson in overtime, but Ashley Stratton hit Tamina Kehler with the pass, who put it bar-down, to seal the game 7:19 into the extra period. With the game one win, the Reds lead the series 1-0 heading into their next game at StFX on Thursday night.
The first part of UNB’s game was carried by their leaders on offence. Jenna MacLean and Stratton scored 2:17 apart in the middle of the first frame, where they would head into the intermission with a 2-0 lead.
However, StFX struck back fast in the second. Or, in particular, Abby Lewis did. Lewis beat UNB’s Kendra Woodland twice in just under five minutes apart to knot it at two.
But, speaking of UNB’s strength late in the game, Woodland shut the door after that second Lewis tally. Facing 13 shots in each of the second and third periods, she stopped 35 on the night. Even crazier, the third-year stopper has boosted her save percentage in these playoffs to .941.
With two points on the night, Stratton now leads playoff scoring with six points. Kehler also added an assist, while Alayna Wagstaff would contribute two helpers, including the overtime winner.
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