StFX, UNB going back to U CUP after wins to clinch conference semis

HALIFAX, NS- Matthew Struthers had seven shots on Justin Sumarah Sunday night. At points, much like his StFX X-Men teammates, he looked to be getting frustrated with the otherworldly play of the Saint Mary’s Huskies stopper.

Early in the third period is when things seemed to come to a head. Down 2-1 to SMU, StFX leaned on blast after blast at Sumarah, to no avail. They hit two goal posts seconds apart at the period’s midway point. Surely, one would get through at some point. Right? 

The one that did began on a regular-looking one-on-one rush, but Struthers snapped one up high that just sneakedt by Sumarah’s shoulder into the very top of the net. Just like that, X got what they were looking for.

“[Sumarah] was playing with a lot of confidence. He’s a good goalie,” Struthers said on finding a way to bury one on the Huskies netminder. “We kept shooting at him. We knew it was going to be an ugly one to finish.”

Not all overtime goals are pretty. Just look at Matthew Philip’s game one winner. But early in the extra frame, Struthers had a couple of nice looks at the net but had no luck beating Sumarah, who had only allowed four goals in the series (two where he wasn’t screened). 

Struthers stretched it out for a long shift, to nearly halfway through overtime. Throwing it at the net, he turned to the bench for a change. Except the puck went in.

On what he admitted wasn’t a shot he was trying to score with, it was the one that sent his team to the conference finals and the U CUP men’s hockey championships at Acadia in less than two weeks.

“I was gassed at the end of my shift and I threw it on there,” Struthers said of the game-winner. 

He didn’t appear too tired after the puck went in, immediately turning to the SMU bleachers and grabbing the X on his sweater in triumph. The surprise of the shot, he said, riled the guys up. And after all, that was the series winner.

“It’s getting pucks on net. It’s nothing crazy,” X-Men coach Brad Peddle said on what’s been winning his team overtime games these playoffs. “On a night like this when we have 50-plus shots and it won’t go in, you keep holding onto the fact that one of them has to go in at some time.”

Pucks were flying at the SMU net since the drop of the puck in period one. They would collect 52 total shots by game’s end, but StFX outshot SMU 21-6 in the game’s first 20 minutes. That’s not accounting for the attempts fired high, wide, or off a SMU player. 

However, the Huskies were the only side to score in the first. Off a Cedric Ralph rush and rolling backhand shot, StFX stopper Joseph Raaymakers lost the puck in the craziness. By that time, the puck bounced out to Walter Flower in the slot, who could not miss the open net.

SMU pressed some to begin the next period. Instead, one of StFX’s first chances of the second involved a William Thompson shot hitting Liam Hawel, which went in. With the AUS MVP’s second of the series, X was finally on the board.

“We just don’t change anything,” said Peddle about how X keeps their heads in it when it seems no pucks will go in. 

But, evidently, their scoring began and ended with garbage goals.

“We just stay focused on what we’re doing. We thought we were getting lots of pucks at him and we were hoping we’d be able to break him. And that’s what happened,” Peddle said. “He had a heck of a game and a heck of a series for him, no question. But we found a way.”

It was nearly a garbage goal that restored the SMU lead, when a shot hit Dawson Theede from the point and went in. But Theede bumped Raaymakers on the play while standing in the crease. It took at least two minutes of discussion amongst the officials, but the goal was overturned.

Instead, Bradey Johnson scored a much nicer goal minutes later to restore the Huskies’ lead. The X defensive coverage was ugly, but Johnson’s finish on Raaymakers was nice, as SMU was up one after 40 minutes.

“We’re a team full of first and second-year guys. The majority of our team is rookies, so I like where our team is headed,” SMU interim head coach Tyler Naugler said. Part of the team’s offseason will be reviewing Naugler’s interim tag. He’s presented a strong case to take the job for good, given the Huskies’ play in the 2021-22 season’s second half. “We play in the toughest division in the country and we missed a trip to nationals by two shots. So I like our chances.”

Despite struggling with penalties, SMU had a perfect penalty kill up until the Struthers goal tying the game in the third. The first power-play goal conceded by the Huskies since early in game two of the UPEI Panthers series, the Struthers goal marked the end of the tenth of ten SMU penalty kills in the last two games. 

The power plays helped, in part, to inflate X’s shot totals on Sunday.

“I think I played good but with the boys in front of me, I could see everything clearly,” Sumarah said of his career-high 49 saves. He made two more stops than his 47 saves in his win over the UNB Reds on Feb. 26. “They’re really good at boxing everything out.”

“Anytime you have a goaltender that plays the way he did tonight and down the stretch for us, it’s rewarding,” Naugler said of Sumarah’s play. “Everyone on our team has a job to do and he did an exceptional job at his.”

Naugler added playing an experienced team such as X will benefit the team as soon as next year, with newfound playoff experience. But for now, the X-Men will return to the U CUP for the sixth time in seven seasons. 

This will be the first time with X’s new roster that they will take the national stage. Having players such as William Thompson, William Bower (each played at one U CUP) and captain Santino Centrorame (played two U CUPs) will make StFX just as prepared as anyone.

Peddle has been to seven U CUPs with the program, but is still on a mission for his first national title.

“We haven’t even thought that far ahead yet,” he said post-game. Until then, StFX still has the AUS championship game to play. It’s scheduled for Friday night at 7 p.m. local, at UNB. “We’re looking at the AUS championship before nationals.”

Struthers is a bit different. He said his mind has been on nationals since September.

“Our main goal has been to get to nationals, so that’s check one for us,” he said. “We’re really excited and we’ll see what happens the next two weeks.”

UNB face tough test but are back in the U CUP

It’s been a dream return to the lineup for Brady Gilmour. Out since Nov. 27 with injury, he returned in game one versus the Moncton Aigles Bleus. Now, he might be the reason the Reds needed only two games to book their ticket to the AUS final and U CUP.

(UNB Athletics)

With 4:35 left in regulation, Gilmour took a pass and shot from a similar spot from where he scored the go-ahead goal on Friday at home. Instead of a pure snipe like last time, Gilmour got a fortunate bounce off a UdeM defender for the power-play goal. That’s all UNB would need, clinching a win and their semifinal series. 

The Reds struck early, just nine minutes in. Sam Dove-McFalls buried his first of the playoffs past Etienne Montpetit. It was the only goal that one of the AUS postseason’s best players would allow Sunday. That’s because he had to leave the game after two periods and 22 saves. All-rookie team goalie Emile Samson had to enter in relief, posting 11 saves and coming just short of the win.

Six minutes after Samson entered, however, Olivier-Luc Hache made it interesting, beating Rylan Parenteau in the UNB net for the first time in four-and-a-half periods of play to tie it. Moncton registered plenty of chances in the period too as they posted ten shots. But that’s the only time they would beat the Reds netminder. 

With the victory, the Reds are a win away from their fourth consecutive AUS title. For that, they have to get through X on Friday at home. Just as impressively, this will be UNB’s seventh straight season at the nationals and their 10th time in the last 11. They will pursue their fourth national championship in six seasons in Wolfville starting March 31.

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