AUS WHKY Quarterfinals Preview: Who moves on to UNB or StFX?

Halifax, N.S. – Playoff season is upon us — the first “normal” postseason since 2020.

The AUS women’s hockey playoffs begin tonight in Halifax and Charlottetown. In the Nova Scotian capital, the Saint Mary’s Huskies welcome the Moncton Aigles Bleues to the Dauphinee Centre. Meanwhile, the Dalhousie Tigers cross the Confederation Bridge to visit the UPEI Panthers in Charlottetown. The quarterfinal victors take on either the defending AUS champion UNB Reds or the StFX X-Women. The matchups will depend on where advancing teams rank.

This year, the women’s division playoffs will mirror that of the men. The quarterfinals are best two-of-three series’, while the semifinals are best three-of-five. In the AUS final, the team to win two games will take home the banner. But before then, let’s take a look at what to expect over the next week of quarterfinal action.

(3) Saint Mary’s Huskies vs. (6) Moncton Aigles Bleues

(SMU Huskies)

SMU comes into the quarterfinals as arguably the hottest team in the league, having won their last five games. They were shaky to begin the second half of the season by losing three of their first five back from the holiday break. But since team MVP (and reigning conference MVP) Shae Demale returned from the FISU Winter Games, the Huskies have just lost once. She’s set career highs in goals (19) and points (34) as her SMU career nears a close. Star forwards Ellen Laurence and Kara MacLean also gathered their first 20-point seasons in the AUS, with Eve LeBlanc contributing 13 from the blue line.

Moncton didn’t have an awful second half but come in with the weakest record in its last 10 games compared to the other postseason clubs. Aside from a 2-0 win over St. Thomas last week — the one that clinched them a playoff spot — the Aigles Bleues lost their last five (three of them by five-plus goals). Their defence has been comparable to those of Dal and UPEI this year, but the scoring has dried up since the holidays. As leading scorer Erica Plourde (28 points) wraps up a strong sophomore season, she’s gathered just one point in her last six. Shani Rossignol also surpassed the 20-point mark.

Despite SMU sweeping Moncton in head-to-head meetings this year, they haven’t been that far apart. Two of the final scores were 2-1 and 3-1. They also have similar special teams; the Huskies have a 19.4 per cent power play efficiency (second-best in AUS) while Moncton’s at 18 per cent (fourth). They’re also two clean-playing teams — they sit at the bottom of the league in penalty minutes. UdeM is the only squad to gather fewer than 200 PIMs this year.

While the numbers don’t show the sides too far apart, I don’t expect an insanely close series. SMU outscored Moncton 10-2 in their two most recent meetings. The Huskies are superior offensively (outscored UdeM by 17 this year) and defensively (allowed 14 fewer goals). 

And — perhaps more importantly — the Huskies are better at every position. The game-breakers of Demale and Laurence upfront rival anyone in the conference. The defence corps is ridiculously deep, featuring LeBlanc, Caleigh Meraw and Maddy McCleary. While SMU’s goaltending has been good this season (with impressive rookie seasons from two stoppers), Moncton’s struggles between the pipes this season is their biggest hurdle this week. 

Not to mention, the Huskies face bitter rivals StFX in the next round should they advance. Talk about a huge motivation.

Prediction: SMU advances in two gamesface StFX in semifinals

(4) UPEI Panthers vs. (5) Dalhousie Tigers

(Janessa Hogan)

In a transition year for the Panthers, they’ve exceeded expectations and, arguably, have outperformed their U CUP-hosting selves last year. Loss of leading scorer Jolena Gillard? Not to fear, as Taylor Gillis and McKinley Nelson stepped up to the plate with twin 24-point efforts. Same in net; with last year’s starter Camille Scherger out, Shaylin McFarlane and Sarah Forsythe became much to thank for the Panthers’ fourth-place AUS finish. They won six of their first seven games back from the break and, after a rough stretch, have won three of their last five. The last 10 games of their schedule were packed with matchups against top teams SMU, StFX and UNB, contributing to their slowing down. But they did steal one off of X in a shootout. 

The new faces in this year’s playoffs are those of the Dalhousie Tigers. Their season — or the second half anyway — has been hot and cold with little in between. The Tigers dropped their first four back from the holiday break, then responded by going on a five-game tear. Their record sits pretty even though now, as they come into the playoffs on a two-game skid after tough matchups at UNB and X. The team was led by Brooklyn Paisley with 23 points and Olivia Eustace (last year’s leading scorer) with 19. But much of the team’s revival — earning a playoff spot for the first time since 2018 — is thanks to rookie goaltender Grace Beer. Despite facing 513 shots — the second-most in the AUS — she boasts the conference’s fourth-best save percentage at .923. 

The two sides, as expected in a fourth-versus-fifth matchup, are tight. Finishing just five points apart, they have comparable defensive games (65 goals against UPEI opposed to Dal’s 66). Both come in the middle of the pack in major stats such as shots, penalty kill efficiency and goals per game. Interestingly, the lower-ranking Tigers have better special teams despite their standing; Dal has the AUS’s third-best power play right now (at 18.3 per cent), a good margin over UPEI’s 15.7. 

The head-to-head matchups have been a treat to watch all year. All of their meetings were decided by a goal, with three going into overtime. UPEI ultimately took three of them, two in extra time. The last time they met, Beer stopped 25 shots, but Tiah Scichilone’s goal was the difference as the Panthers emerged 1-0. 

One fact stands out to me though: in every game where Beer has faced the Panthers (three occasions this year), she’s held them to two or fewer goals. She has their number. Forsythe has also been sharp in the Panthers’ net, without the impressive save percentage numbers like Beer. 

The matter then becomes whether Dal can keep up with UPEI’s scoring ability — the Panthers have found the back of the net 21 more times than Dal in 2022-23. It’s a concern; Dal hasn’t scored beyond three goals in a game since Oct. 28. But UPEI hasn’t been that high up there either; since the new year, they’ve only been able to score four or more against the Mount Allison Mounties and no one else. The results have been more mixed against comparable teams.

Maybe I’m nitpicking, but UPEI going against perhaps the AUS’s best goalie outside of UNB or StFX this round isn’t ideal. Dal has proven they can stick around and has been a surprising team throughout the season — their first full season since COVID-19 with Troy Ryan behind the bench. I have a feeling the biggest surprises are still to come.

Prediction: Dalhousie advances in three gamesface UNB in semifinals

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