WOLFVILLE, ON – We’ve seen it all in the 2022 U CUP Men’s Hockey Championship quarterfinals. High and low-scoring games. The dominance of a national superpower. The fall of another, in one of the larger upsets in recent championship history.
Heading into the semifinals, featuring two teams from the OUA and one each from Canada West and the AUS, there’s much to make of the first bit of the tournament. An overall different venue than U SPORTS is used to hosting at, COVID-19-related factors are still ever-present in how the U CUP has played out.
Small venue, big ice, big shift
Most of Canada’s larger rinks are built to North American standards, a 200-foot long sheet that is 85 feet wide.
The Andrew H. McCain Arena is 200 by 100 feet, or “international-sized” ice. For a prominent tournament such as the U CUP, this is a shift for teams that aren’t used to playing on the big ice.
There have been signs of its impact on the tournament so far. It’s been a low-scoring championship to this point. Larger ice often yields the argument that offences have more room to make plays.
That’s true to an extent. But international ice, as we’ve seen so far this weekend, often leads to a slowdown in play with that extra east-west space for play to move. Defences also have more space to operate. The extended width can place attackers further from the net more often, notably on power plays. Defenders on the breakout also have more breathing room clearing the puck or starting the breakout, both of which have happened at an efficient pace this tournament.
It also impacts things physically. Consider game one between the Brock Badgers and StFX X-Men. Sure, things got rough around the net. But hits became less frequent and took place more in open-ice compared to how Brock and (especially) StFX have played this year: north-south and with grit. The first 10 minutes of that game was tough to describe, other than a culture shock for each side.
Alberta shows why they’re the top-ranked program in Canada
It’s not a secret to say the Alberta Golden Bears are one of the country’s top teams, maybe even the best.
They may have proved that point true to the fullest extent in their 7-0 win over the host Acadia Axemen on Thursday night. It’s too soon to say a team is “going to win this tournament.” But Alberta was the most convincing team in the quarterfinals and it wasn’t even close.
Sure, they played the lowest-ranked team in the U CUP, as a club that finished last in the AUS and hasn’t played in three weeks. Acadia played well, for portions of the first and second periods anyway. They were arguably better than Alberta early on.
But who emerged from the first frame up 3-0? The Golden Bears.
It was almost like they were trying things out in their quarterfinal, starting with a wide-open first period with an emphasis on finding space on offence. They did something somewhat opposite in the middle frame. Alberta didn’t sit back but played a tightened-up system to perfection as Acadia pressed.
The third period? Coach Ian Herbers told them to just fire away, by the looks of it.
“We’ve got the skill and the character in our dressing room that can break games,” Herbers said after Thursday’s win. “On a dime, things can be going the other way and in the back of the net. That’s not just one line. We have four lines that can do that, then six guys on the back end.”
Although the Axemen weren’t fully “out of it” after a good second, Alberta changed that with two goals in the third’s opening minutes.
There are many remarkable things about that win. Here’s one. They had seven different goal scorers against Acadia, with 13 players getting on the scoresheet. That’s everyone from regular season leading scorer Gary Haden to Josh Paterson, who was quieter in 2021-22 with nine points in 28 games.
They didn’t have one leading scorer with several points but four scores with two points apiece, including Joel Lakusta. Further down Alberta’s scoring chart, he had just seven points this year. Burman is so good in net too. It’s not talked about enough, but he’s playing his best hockey at the right time of the season.
There’s tons of talk about depth scoring on other teams such as the UNB Reds. But the Golden Bears are depth, dominating on both sides of the puck without any one player standing out. In a team sport, that isn’t at all a bad thing.
OUA teams show single-knockout conditioning
Not counting the AUS final, the only conference to hold single-elimination playoff rounds has been the OUA. The one-game format is a one-time thing because of the COVID breaks. The conference usually runs best-of-three playoff rounds with the exception of a one-game final.
But in a single-elimination U CUP, the three OUA teams came to Acadia better prepared in that sense than AUS or CanWest teams who stuck with their best-of-three formats.
“It helped us to prepare all year,” UQTR Patriotes coach Marc-Etienne Hubert said about whether single-elimination OUA playoff games are paying off now. “Guys are used to this challenge and physically, we are ready to compete.”
The most prominent example, clearly, is the Ryerson Rams and their upset of UNB. Distinct styles from each time in that U CUP quarterfinal were evident from the first Rams goal 17 seconds into the game.
The game, and overarching idea of the OUA advantage, is this: UNB played their first elimination game of the season on Friday, never trailing in an AUS series. They had already clinched a U CUP berth before the conference final.
Every Ryerson game, on the other hand, has been an elimination game except their OUA West Division final against Brock.
The OUA playoffs, overall and game-by-game, are a sprint. While UNB ( took more of the marathon approach on Thursday, the Rams had the speed and the lightning-quick impact from puck drop.
That was clear to a lesser degree in the StFX/Brock game. The Badgers played a lot of crash-and-bang in the offensive end much like Ryerson in the first period Thursday, just without the early goal. But few expected Brock to keep up with an X team who contended for the AUS title and have been at their best lately. It took well into the third period for StFX to pull away.
UQTR was the better team by far against UBC on Friday night. It took them a bit longer to seal the win as they, like CanWest teams all year, had a Rylan Toth problem. As overtime games do, this game could have gone either way. But it would have been a much different outcome without the spring in UQTR’s step early on.
While this type of thing doesn’t happen in the playoffs every year, Ryerson’s playoff run and the single-elimination experience of other OUA teams appear to have opened up a whole new method of approaching playoff hockey. Thanks to that, OUA squads will be battle-tested for seasons to come.