AUS MHKY Midseason Overview: Teams and players to watch as play resumes this week

Halifax, N.S. – With the World Junior Hockey Championships in the Maritimes now wrapped up, it’s time to turn our attention back to the other young hockey stars in the region.

Heading into the season’s second half, the 2022-23 AUS men’s hockey campaign has been comparable to the last. Ridiculously close standings. The StFX X-Men duo of Liam Hawel and Matthew Struthers dominating the scoring McDavid/Draisaitl-style. And through all the chaos, the UNB Reds train is running on all cylinders. As it always has. 

They’ve already clinched a freakin’ playoff spot, having lost just thrice in 18 games and once in their last 10. Like the other teams, UNB will play 12 more times until the playoffs in the 30-game schedule.

For now, UNB remains in a league of its own with a four-point spread in the standings and 21 fewer goals allowed than the next-best defensive team, the UPEI Panthers. Maybe the FISU effect closes the gap some as three Reds (Austen Keating, Brady Gilmour and Adam McCormick) and coach Gardiner MacDougall head to Lake Placid. 

UPEI is one of those teams on the Reds’ heels. Even with three Panthers at FISU (Kyle Maksimovich, TJ Shea and Matt Brassard), they shouldn’t be swayed too far off course, especially with captain Troy Lajeunesse still around. It’s the same with star goalie Jonah Capriotti, having his best AUS season yet. 

Two more teams have especially big losses to deal with over the next month: the SMU Huskies and StFX X-Men. X’s two offensive dynamos in Hawel and Struthers will be gone. It’s a bit of an opposite scenario for SMU, missing the core of its defensive setup in defenceman Justin MacPherson and goalie Matt Welsh. MacPherson, the latest product of the SMU AUS blueline factory, sits tied for second in conference d-man scoring. Welsh earned his FISU invite following a revitalizing offseason that saw him win back the Huskies’ starting job. Andrew Coxhead also made the team.

Three teams will have regular lineups (injuries and other situations notwithstanding): the Moncton Aigles Bleus, the Acadia Axemen and the Dalhousie Tigers. That’s good news for everybody: UdeM has already been toppling top teams in the AUS and now has the advantage of a full lineup in nearly every remaining game. Meanwhile, Acadia and Dal will look to claw their way back up the standings with, theoretically, more evenly-matched games against strong opponents.

Standings overview and playoff odds

The 2023 U CUP host UPEI Panthers sit second in the AUS standings after the winter break. (Janessa Hogan/UPEI Athletics)

UNB is into the playoffs as the first-placed team with 31 points. But other squads are close; four teams, in spots two through five, are within eight points of one another.

Remember, not every team will qualify this year, unlike last season which featured a play-in game between teams six and seven. It’s back to two quarterfinal byes, with quarters matchups between three and six, and between four and five.

The magic number to clinch a playoff berth is 29 points. That’s the maximum that last-place Dalhousie can achieve this season. With only one team missing out on playoffs, surpassing that Dal ceiling guarantees postseason play. That number is subject to change, decreasing by two points for every Dal regulation loss in the new year (or one for every OT/shootout loss).

As of Jan. 5, UPEI sits in second place with 13 wins and 27 points. They’re into the postseason if they win just three of their final 12 contests. SMU, in third with 22 points, is in with four more victories as things stand at the moment. 

For other teams (not an exhaustive list of clinching scenarios):

  • Moncton (21 points) clinches with five wins
  • StFX (17 points) clinches with six wins
  • Acadia (13 points) clinches with nine wins

Dal, as the odd team out, will be targeting Acadia. But the Tigers have a hill to climb with only five points in the first half. Dal hosts the Axemen and SMU in its first weekend back. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

As for quarterfinal byes, awarded to the regular season’s top two teams, the fight is just starting. The top five teams are in shooting range of 40-plus points, the total likely needed to seal a bye. Even UNB isn’t close to clinching a bye yet and will face a test of character with key personnel away at FISU. 

The first-place team would face the lowest-remaining seed following the AUS quarters in the semifinal round. The second-place seed would take on the quarterfinal victor with the most points.

Players to watch in the second half

Some different players are slated to steal the spotlight while FISU athletes are away. Here are a few I think will stand out.

Bradey Johnson (SMU Huskies)

Bradey Johnson (SMU) – Johnson has kept pace on a team full of offensive studs such as MacPherson and Coxhead. With 15 points, the second-year forward trails those teammates by two points and has matched his scoring from last year in seven fewer games. Johnson missed out on selections to both Canada’s FISU team and the U SPORTS all-star team that played the Canadian junior team last month, despite his improving performances. With that motivation, he’s primed to turn heads with more offensive responsibility at SMU for the time being.

Isaac Nurse (UNB) – Nurse has impressed despite being snakebitten for most of the first half of the season. He registered 71 shots, the third-most conference-wide before the holidays, yet only came up with five points. By comparison, everyone else with more than 61 shots registered at least 16 points. It is clear Nurse is eager to bury the puck, an attitude that scored him a spot on Team U SPORTS. Now with Reds scorers Keating and Gilmour at FISU, Nurse has a golden opportunity to go on a tear and lead first-place UNB deep into the season.

Jacob Dion (Moncton) – Dare I say, the frontrunner for AUS rookie of the year. Dion has been a big reason the Aigles Bleus have taken things up a notch on both sides of the puck this season. Competing with a heavy crop of returning Moncton blueliners for ice, the rookie had a roaring start to the season with 19 points, leading his fellow UdeM blueliners. He’s the highest-scoring d-man in the AUS outside FISU select Brassard of UPEI. Best of all for Dion, Moncton’s in arguably the best position of any team in the second half, as the winningest team with no one missing for FISU. It will become clear how big of a snub from Canada Dion is.

Zachary Paputsakis (Acadia) – Acadia’s rookie netminder had a respectable first half across the stat sheet, except in the win-loss column. Despite his .908 save percentage, good for fourth in the AUS, he’s yet to register a win in seven appearances. It may seem like he’s getting the bad part of the schedule as Axemen crease-mate Conor McCollum boasts a 5-7 record. But as we saw with Max Paddock last year, coach Darren Burns has belief in his younger goalies and Paputsakis should get plenty of playing time as Acadia fights to hang onto its playoff spot. If the Axemen start racking up some much-need wins with a full lineup throughout the second half, Paputsakis is sure to get a spike of confidence. Then, other teams should beware. 

Isaac Nurse (James West/UNB Athletics)

Stay tuned for the AUS women’s hockey midseason overview on the weekend.

Cover photo: UNB Reds (Barry McCluskey)

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