Scoring battles, goaltending performances, and the fight for the final playoff spot in AUS WHKY

Halifax, N.S. – It’s going to be a furious dash to the finish line in the second half of the AUS women’s hockey season. 

Just look at the playoff race. The Moncton Aigles Bleues and St. Thomas Tommies sit separated by just a point with 10 games to go in the 28-game schedule. Four teams, ranked two through five, are within six points of one another. Among them, with the StFX X-Women, Saint Mary’s Huskies and UPEI Panthers, is the Dalhousie Tigers. It’s a big feat given Dal’s minimal recent history in the playoffs, but Troy Ryan’s squad has been hanging in there with other winning teams in the conference.

All this is coming amid a scoring boom across the conference. It’s not only Maggy Burbidge and her 37 points in 17 games, although she is pushing history as she’s already tied for the 26th most points in a season in AUS history (the highest-scoring season ever belongs to Candice Ernst of StFX, who scored 57 points in 2005-06).

No one has scored 40 points in AUS women’s hockey since 2016-17. StFX’s Maggy Burbidge is three points from that benchmark. (StFX Athletics)

Six players have already eclipsed the 20-point plateau, through up to 18 games played. Comparatively, seven players achieved that through 21 games. It doesn’t seem like a huge shift, but it’s safe to say a few more will join that group over the next month and a half of play.

The story isn’t all in the point totals. The UNB Reds, the defending conference champs, seem to look better and better each game while scoring less per game. Much of that is thanks to netminder Kendra Woodland, the best goalie in the country. This season has further proven that with her absurd .963 save percentage in 13 appearances. 

Alongside defenders Jenna MacLean and Emma Giordano, plus the rest of a veteran-laden Reds team, UNB is set to cruise to another first-place regular season finish. However, the team is also one of three in the conference facing absences for a few weeks as personnel take part in the 2023 FISU World University Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. UNB will be without Woodland and MacLean (as well as coach Sarah Hilworth, an assistant coach with Team Canada) for much of January. X-Women Burbidge and Lea MacLeod, along with Husky and reigning AUS MVP Shae Demale, also head to FISU. 

UNB goalie Kendra Woodland is putting up a season for the ages in the Reds’ net. (SMU Huskies Athletics)

That leaves the three best teams through the season’s first half without some of their best players, going up against other full lineups in a close conference. On the bright side, those teams are very close to clinching playoff berths (or in UNB’s case, have already done so). But as the playing field evens ever so slightly for a few weeks, some lower teams have some much-needed shots to earn points toward playoff contention.

Standings Overview and Playoff Odds

With UNB in a playoff spot, five more postseason berths remain up for grabs. It shouldn’t be much longer until StFX and SMU clinch their places. UPEI and Dal are also sitting comfortably up the standings.

No matter the case, currently-slated playoff clubs have destiny in their own hands. They should stay clear of the last-place Mount Allison Mounties unless they go on an unlikely tear through the final 10 games. The competition to watch is between Moncton and STU, separated by a point for spot number six in the standings as of Jan. 9. 

With that said, the magic number for a playoff berth is 33 points, the most points that the Tommies (the best non-playoff team) can achieve this season. UNB has 34 points and is in. The next closest is StFX with 26 points. That means the X-Women need seven points (at least three wins and an overtime/shootout loss) in its final 11 games to clinch. That number will inevitably shift as the Tommies play more games.

As for other teams, here are their playoff-clinching outlooks. Again, STU losses would shrink the point gaps stated here.

  • SMU clinches with 11 points, a five-win + one overtime/shootout loss minimum
  • UPEI clinches with 13 points, a six-win + one overtime/shootout loss minimum
  • Dal clinches with 14 points, a seven-win minimum
  • Moncton clinches with 20 points, or 10 wins (the rest of their games)

STU can just as easily slip into the playoffs by out-slugging Moncton in the remainder of its games this season. Although the Aigles Bleues have the playoff berth now, the 2021-22 AUS semifinalist Tommies can return to the postseason with even one more win over Moncton in the season’s second half.

UNB and X are frontrunners for first-round byes, but it’s still too soon to call the race. As things stand, 43 points is about the benchmark to seal a top-two spot in the conference. The Reds are closest with their 34 points, but there is still more than a third of the schedule to play. The road is that much longer with MacLean and Woodland away at FISU.

Players to watch in the second half 

Chloe Vukosa (SMU Huskies Athletics)

The five AUS players selected for the FISU Canadian women’s squad are much fewer than the 11 selected from their male AUS counterparts. That means a lot of stars in the league will be sticking around during the Lake Placid games. Here are a few primed to stand out in the second half.

  • Chloe Vukosa (StFX) – 2022-23 has been a wild ride for the third-year X veteran. She came into the season with a career-high of just nine points. Her total through 17 games this season? 23. More responsibility and ice time from coach Ben Berthiaume is clearly one reason for her breakout season. There’s no denying Vukosa’s made the most of it, registering 69 shots this season (39 more than her previous career high). Her involvement surely forced some extra looks from the FISU team she ultimately missed out on. But with teammates Burbidge and MacLeod’s absences during the games, StFX’s offence should be just fine with Vukosa leading the way.
  • Erica Plourde (Moncton) – Thanks to Plourde, Christmas came early for the Aigles Bleues. Through November, the rookie went on a tear; she registered five straight multi-point games (for 12 points) to close out the first half. Perhaps uncoincidentally, UdeM won four of those games to put them into the final playoff berth. Plourde leads AUS rookie scoring and is tied for fifth in overall points. Moncton’s five-game win streak came to an end last weekend at the hands of SMU, also the end of a seven-game point streak for the young forward. The team has won just once this season in games where Plourde has gone pointless. Her production is life or death for her team.
  • Lauren Carter (UNB) – UNB’s Carter doesn’t put up Burbidge and Demale numbers. But her scoring is having as much of an impact. Just look at her eight goals this season: six of them were game-winning. No one else in the AUS has been remotely close to that level of clutchness; eight others are tied with three game-winners. The Reds usually don’t blow out teams, so Carter’s reliably on the scoresheet is invaluable for a team on a mission to repeat as AUS champions. The next challenge is to keep the scoring going deeper in the season, to help support her defence and goalies who have faced 86 shots on goal in two games to start the semester.
  • Ridleigh Hansen (SMU) With the offensive talents that SMU boasts, filling in key departures quickly on defence and in net was essential. Enter Ridleigh Hansen, who has impressed with a .920 save percentage and 1.79 goals-against average in 10 appearances. That’s good for third-best in the AUS for both categories. In essence, she has stepped perfectly into former SMU starter Dagny Hudspeth’s spot, who finished with similar stats last season. Hansen’s challenge is to take the Huskies back to postseason glory, as her team will likely go up against UNB or archrivals StFX before the finals. SMU missed the AUS final last season, a rarity over nearly the past decade.
Ridleigh Hansen (SMU Huskies Athletics)

COVER PHOTO: The first-place UNB Reds (SMU Huskies Athletics)

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