Acadia Axemen look to home advantage in tough University Cup test

HALIFAX, NS –  The Acadia Axemen are in a much different place than they were entering the 2020 University Cup. They aren’t the team that almost beat the UNB Reds in the AUS final that year. Instead, they have been practically the furthest thing from that in 2021-22, sliding from 40 points last season to 15 this season, tied for last place with the Moncton Aigles-Bleus.

A slew of departures from 2020, including top scorers Cristiano Digiacinto and Stephen Harper, didn’t help. Their roster didn’t improve over the season either, first losing defenceman Ross MacDougall to the Reds, followed by captain Garrett McFadden and 2020 conference MVP Logan Flodell to pro opportunities midseason. 

On a positive note, after falling to Moncton in the first round of the conference playoffs, this Axemen team can only go up. Despite losing integral players in Tyler Hinam, TJ Fergus, Maurizio Collela, McFadden and Flodell over the extended COVID break, they haven’t been all that bad in the latter part of the season. 

Keegan Stevenson (Peter Oleskovich)

While Acadia Athletics is hosting the tournament alongside Sea Atlantic Entertainment (SEA), they get to bring the games to their home rink at the Andrew H. McCain Arena in Wolfville instead of the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax, where the tournament was originally scheduled.  Being in that home environment, especially given the Olympic-sized ice, could make a massive difference.

None of the other teams at the tournament have Olympic-sized ice at their home rinks. 

Yes, the Axemen only won one of their five games back from the holidays — but if you compare a string of three one-goal losses in February and March (including against fellow U CUP teams UNB and StFX) to the eight games they lost by three or more goals in the fall, then there is visible progress.

Veteran centre and former Niagara Ice Dog Johnny Corneil has been very good since the break despite a bit of a slower start. The third-year forward has a team-leading eight goals. But, aside from Corneil, most of Acadia’s scoring muscle has come from their young guns. 

Freshmen Keegan Stevenson and Nick Deakin-Poot have broken out on the scoresheet, with five and four points respectively in their last five games. So has first-year Adam McMaster, quietly leading the team with 16 points. There’s also a rookie between the pipes former WHL netminder Max Paddock, who has looked legit upon taking the starting reigns this semester. 

Home advantage and a tough opening round test

There is promise in head coach Darren Burns’s lineup, one that has an underdog run in them. To do so, they have to get through Canada West titan the Alberta Golden Bears in the quarterfinals, a win that would easily be among their biggest in program history.

While they will have the home advantage with a classic AUS-arena vibe through a small, packed barn, Acadia will still be challenged to dethrone an Alberta team that ran rampant over the UBC Thunderbirds in the Canada West Final. However, in one-game matchups at the U CUP, there is always a chance that the home crowd could push the Axemen to at least the semifinal. 

Acadia host Alberta on Friday in the primetime matchup at 6:00 p.m. ET, streaming live on CBC Sports.

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