HALIFAX, NS – The first season back in AUS women’s hockey was made interesting by unexpected schedule changes, emerging contenders and some stellar individual performances.
Because of the chaos with COVID-19 over the holiday break, a truncated schedule led to the AUS awarding everyone a playoff berth in the form of single-knockout quarterfinal matchups. That led to triumph and disappointment for some, with more of the same in the tight AUS semifinal matchups. But when all was said and done, the UNB Reds steamrolled their way to an AUS championship and fourth-place finish at the U SPORTS championship in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
UNB will be really good again in 2022-23. Undoubtedly, so will traditional conference powers the Saint Mary’s Huskies and the StFX X-Women, the latter of which UNB beat in the final. A couple of other teams, as evident in last year’s playoffs, could be playing catch-up to the top three this year. The St. Thomas Tommies gave UNB a scare in the semis. And while the Moncton Aigles Bleues were on and off in success last winter, they have an upset factor to them. As 2022-23 is set to be the first full, non-COVID-interrupted season since 2018-19, anything and everything can happen over the gruelling AUS schedule.
Dal has a hill to climb. While ahead of last-place Mount Allison by a sizeable gap in the 2021-22 standings, they were out of sixth place by nine points. Then come playoffs, SMU made relatively easy work of the Tigers to end their season. The past three campaigns haven’t been kind to the team as they’ve missed the playoffs each year since 2017-18. Additionally, the Tigers are in the hunt for their first conference title. The first order of business for coach Troy Ryan’s team is to be competitive every game, starting with stealing a few more matchups. Dal suffered in that department last season; they went 0-2-5 (won-loss-overtime/shootout loss) in one-goal games in 2021-22.
The competitiveness starts with a budding offensive centrepiece in Olivia Eustace. Coming ninth in AUS scoring last season with 17 points, Eustace registered a point on 35 percent of her team’s goals. Brooklyn Paisley is hot out of the gate this season with four points in her first two games. Isabella Weist and Kennedy Whelan are also important scorers. Dal’s blueline is young, made up entirely of first and second-year players. Of returning defenders, Katie Cameron and Gaby Noordijk appeared in every game last season. There’s also a changing of the guard in net as longtime starter Taylor Beam has graduated. Dal has four goalies on the roster, but Grace Beer and last year’s backup Maggie Baxter are the frontrunners for the starting gig.
Moncton Aigles Bleues
Moncton had a promising second half of the season fizzle out as soon as it appeared. While they weren’t the league’s hottest group heading into playoffs, the Aigles Bleues won six of their final 10 games to avoid SMU and UNB in the first round. However, they drew an equally-talented StFX team who clobbered them 6-1 in Antigonish. Moncton was not necessarily bad in 2021-22. But it’s clear the team was lacking a lot, notably when it came to players in the lineup who can be difference-makers in big games. They lose one of those potential players this season in Janie Poitras, who was third in AUS goals last season. It’s slated to be a start-from-square-one season for coach Marc-André Côté and his team. Making the playoffs may not be an issue, but then what?
Moncton’s scoring was the second-worst in the AUS last year. In order to improve, players such as Erica Plourde and Lianne Desforges will be leaned upon. The pair of forwards were among the team leaders in scoring as rookies. Shani Rossignol is slated to be an important attacker, not only on the scoresheet but as an aggressive presence. Things for the Aigles Bleues improve when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net. Four defenders are in their third year or higher with the team: Pascale Lebeau, Catherine Longchamps, Émilie Lalancette and Cassandra Call. Longchamps is in year five. Another veteran, goaltender Audrey Berthiaume, might be the most anticipated returnee. The fourth-year stopper played all 21 of Moncton’s regular season games in 2021-22, a feat no other goalie in the conference achieved.
Mount Allison Mounties
Following the pandemic break, things went from bad to really, really bad for Mount Allison. They weren’t great the season before COVID-19; the Mounties won just three times in 2019-20. In 2021-22? One win in 21 games, resulting in their fifth consecutive last-place finish. Oddly enough, their lone win was over SMU, who was at the time ranked first in the country. But that wasn’t near enough to make up for their shortcomings in remaining games, leading to a minus-69 goal differential that was an astounding 48 goals below the next-lowest team. In coach Lucrece O’Neal’s third season behind the bench, she will have the benefit of a veteran-heavy team that has more or less stuck together through her tenure.
With just 19 goals last year, Mount A struggled to put the puck in the net. Three players tied for the team scoring lead with five points: Mollie Grabe, Lauren Steele and Tallon Stephenson. All three return this year. The latter two are fourth-year forwards, of which the Mounties have six. Three seniors, Rory Aiken, Mya Chisholm and Ashlee Hodge-Hirschfield, return to the blueline. They’re joined by rookies Noelle Mason and Megan Breum. The Mounties should have some interesting competition in goal. While senior Bianca Zak tended the twine through most of 2021-22, Kaitlyn Evelyn and Hanna Pagdato should all get shots in net as the season goes on.
Saint Francis Xavier X-Women
For much of last season, no one could touch X. By far, they had the most lethal offence in the AUS, scoring 89 times through the season. Up until the final against UNB, StFX was on a roll. They went 8-2 in their final 10 regular season games. After dispatching Moncton, a highly-anticipated series against SMU quickly swung in favour of the X-Women, winning the semifinal in a sweep. Outstanding UNB defence and goaltending finally put a stop to X’s tear but with their top players returning in 2022-23, StFX will again be a title contender. Coach Ben Berthiaume’s team will pursue its second AUS banner in three seasons.
StFX had four players eclipse the 20-point plateau in 2021-22, the most of any team. Those players were Maggy Burbidge, Lauren Dabrowski, Lea MacLeod and Tyra Meropoulis, the lone player not returning from this group. Burbidge tied for third in AUS goals, while MacLeod led the conference with 18 assists. AUS rookie of the year Abby Lewis scored 19 points. Dabrowski is one of the best blueliners in the conference, winning the defensive scoring race by five points. Only one blueliner in the conference, Dabrowski, scored more than four goals. She had nine. With running mates Ella VandeSompel and Josie Chisholm, the X blueline will be tough to face yet again. Amaya Giraudier and Jamie Johnson split starts last year, with Johnson taking over come playoffs. However, Giraudier had better regular season numbers. Her .926 save percentage trailed just UNB’s Kenra Woodland’s .937.
Saint Mary’s Huskies
SMU was unstoppable through most of last season. They lost just once in regulation before the holiday break, spending much of the fall at or near the top of the U SPORTS rankings. Even finishing the season with a below-their-standards 7-3 record in their final 10 games was better than all teams but StFX. As fate had it, that X-Women team stopped the Huskies cold in their tracks in the conference semifinal to end an otherwise brilliant year. In 2022-23, SMU will be a younger team compared to the rest of their AUS rivals. Coach Chris Larade’s team loses out on 2021-22 stars such as goalie Dagny Hudspeth but otherwise, the Huskies hang onto their core which will bring fire and experience.
Leading the charge is reigning AUS MVP Shae Demale. She buried a league-leading 25 points in 2021-22, her third consecutive 20-point season. Not to be outdone, Demale’s frequent linemates Miranda Hatt and Mary McDonald enter their fourth years after each posting 17 points last season. Kara MacLean leads a capable secondary scoring unit. SMU’s defence remains intact for the most part. The blueline is anchored by Caleigh Meraw and Maddy Corbett, one of the conference’s most frightening shooters. Meraw and Eve LeBlanc are the two seniors on defence. In Hudspeth’s place, Ashley Imlach has a shot to step up from the backup role. On the other hand, rookie Sophie Scully has drawn attention early in the season between the pipes.
St. Thomas Tommies
This looks like it will be a big season for St. Thomas. They’ve risen into the upper echelons of the AUS in the past six seasons, taking the banner in 2018-19. And as we saw last year, they were just outside the conference’s Big Three of UNB, SMU and StFX. STU, after dispatching UPEI inthe AUS quarterfinals, gave the eventual champs from UNB a very hard time in the semis. The Reds were forced to pull out some late-game heroics as the Tommies pushed a low-action, low-danger game on their Fredericton rivals. It’s not the final result that coach Peter Murphy wanted, but it sure as heck is a step in the right direction as STU looks to work its way back to contender status this season.
The Tommies aren’t acclaimed for their scoring, burying the third-fewest goals of any team last year. It’s sunk them at times too. But their top scorers from 2021-22, Aislynn Byers and Emma Wilson, will be back to help shift that trend. The top of the forwards’ lineup lost a few players this offseason, giving players such as Ekaterina Pelowich and Trinity Webber chances to step up. Byers, who finished third in AUS defensive scoring in 2021-22, is the centrepiece of a top-notch Tommies blueline. She’s joined by senior Brooke Stanford and the puck-moving Olivia Stock. Caroline Pietrowski is the undisputed number one in net for the Tommies and their best player. She tied UNB’s Kendra Woodland for the most wins in the conference last season with 11.
How much better can it get for the UNB Reds? They’re coming off their first AUS championship in program history. They followed that with a spirited performance at nationals despite finishing just off the podium in fourth place. As the calendar flips to 2022-23, the Reds have virtually their entire team back for another run at the banner and even a national title. Quietly over the past three seasons, coach Sarah Hilworth has built the AUS’s most complete team. It’s a lineup featuring reliable contributions from all forward lines, the deepest defence and the best netminder in the AUS. Plus for the most part, this group has been together for the better part of at least the last two seasons (plus the COVID-cancelled year). 12 (!) seniors are on the UNB roster. No team in the conference is more difficult to play.
The forward unit remains star-studded, led by the leading scorer in program history Ashley Stratton. Her 20 points last season were the fifth-best in the league. Payton Hargreaves was stellar as a rookie, while Frederike Cyr, Tamina Kehler and Lillian George are a few more in the seemingly-endless list of scorers in the Reds’ lineup. Jenna MacLean and Emma Giordano are major drivers of play from the blueline, who don’t sacrifice anything in their own end. Talli Warren and Marley Van Den Oetelaar are coming off strong seasons. Then, of course, there’s Kendra Woodland in net. Putting together a playoff performance for the ages last spring, Woodland returns for a fourth season of AUS play. She’s never finished a season with a save percentage lower than .935, while starting at least 15 games every year.
The 2021-22 season, a well-anticipated one at UPEI, didn’t end the way they wanted it to. Winning 13 games on the year and at times playing like an AUS contender, UPEI was upset at home in the quarterfinals by St. Thomas. At the U SPORTS nationals that UPEI hosted at MacLauchlan Arena, the team’s rhythm was off, being outscored 11-2 in three games. Now, the Panthers start a new chapter. Longtime coach Bruce Donaldson has retired while former Manitoba Bisons coach Sean Fisher takes over. 2021-22’s AUS goal-scoring leader Jolena Gillard has graduated. Key defender Sydney Lyndon and starter Camille Scherger have also departed. For UPEI to compete for the banner in 2022-23, they have a lot of adversity to overcome.
Central in that effort will be Taylor Gillis, who quietly finished fifth in AUS goals and game winning goals last year, with 11 and three. Elsewhere on forward, Mirelle Martin and Lexie Murphy experienced breakthrough seasons in 2021-22 and will step into even larger roles for 2022-23. Gillis and Kelly Clements make up the fourth-year forwards group. On defence, aside from fifth-year Ally Clements, the group is very young. Alyssa Nolan, Avery Penner, Stephanie Leger and Elizabeth Beiersdorfer are all second-year skaters who make up the rest of the returning defence group. Goalie Shaylin McFarlane had most of the backup reps last year, but Sarah Forsythe and newcomer Anya Epp are all good bets to play at some point.
Regular Season Predictions
4) St. Thomas
8) Mount Allison