HALIFAX, NS – The road to the U CUP in Charlottetown begins tonight, featuring Charlottetown’s own.
The AUS men’s hockey playoffs get underway in Charlottetown and Antigonish this evening. The UPEI Panthers welcome the Moncton Aigles Bleus to the Island, while the Acadia Axemen head to StFX to play the X-Men. Awaiting them in the next round — set to begin a week from today — are the Saint Mary’s Huskies and, yet again in first place, the UNB Reds.
It’s a big playoffs again this year as the national championships return to the Maritimes. Along with the Panthers’ automatic berth as hosts, the two teams that make the conference championship will head to P.E.I. The quarterfinals will be best two games out of three contests, like the AUS final. The semis, however, will be best-of-five series.
(3) UPEI Panthers vs (6) Moncton Aigles Bleus
Despite a bit of a shaky finish to the regular season, the UPEI Panthers put up an impressive 2022-23 regular season. The last time they ranked this high (third place) in the AUS men’s hockey standings was way back in 1990-91 — when the league was split between a New Brunswick/PEI division and a Nova Scotia division (UPEI won their division). What a time to do it, the season they host the U CUP.
In doing so, they’ll have to overcome their recent slump, winning just three of their last 10 games. Also, captain Troy Laujenesse (fourth in AUS with 30 points) plus top-pairing defenders Matt Brassard and Conor McEachern have run into late-season injury troubles. But with stars like TJ Shea, Drake Pilon and Kyle Maksimovich playing the best hockey in their AUS careers right now, the Panthers are in a good spot.
It’s a much better spot than the Moncton Aigles Bleus, losers of every game in the new year besides one. In fact, they haven’t won consecutive games since mid-November. That’s nuts, given they went into the holiday break in contention for a quarterfinal bye. But soon, they dropped and just over the weekend, were lapped by surging Acadia for fifth place.
It didn’t help that two of their best players — offensive star Mika Cyr and veteran d-man Vincent Lanoue — missed virtually the entire second half of the season. Etienne Montpetit was overworked in goal (with a league-leading 25 starts), starting every game in the second half but one. On the bright side, Nathael Roy has impressed again this year with 24 points while rookie blueliner Jacob Dion has done well, posting three goals and 22 points. But the Aigles Bleus have some serious holes that they don’t look close to filling.
The only thing close about these teams has been their head-to-head record. The Panthers won the season series three games to one, but each game (besides one) was decided by two or fewer goals. Moncton took the first meeting 4-2 in the October season opener, but it’s been all UPEI since. In their last meeting last week, the Panthers steamrolled through with a commanding 4-2 win.
But yeah, that’s as close as it gets. UPEI is miles better offensively (102 goals for compared to UdeM’s 81) and defensively (85 goals allowed to Moncton’s 103). While the power play efficiencies aren’t terribly far apart, don’t be surprised if UPEI goes to town on Moncton’s 71.4 per cent penalty kill — last in the AUS by a wide margin. That will be up to UPEI to convert when the time comes, however; these teams drew the fewest penalties in the conference in 2022-23
Then, the lineups. The Panthers’ forwards are less depleted and hungrier than UdeM’s. Depending on UPEI’s blueline health with Brassard and McEachern, it could be even. But if the two are in, it’s not a contest. The series in net is one area where I could give Montpetit — a proven playoff performer — a break. But the fact of the matter is he stood on his head last year after just nine regular-season appearances, a stark contrast from the long and miserable second half he just endured this season. Jonah Capriotti has only played just four fewer than him in 2022-23, but he’s had the rest recently and, when he has played, has gotten the help. These are teams trending in two different directions this season and it will show in this matchup.
Prediction: UPEI wins series 2-0 – will play Saint Mary’s in semifinals
(4) StFX X-Men vs (5) Acadia Axemen
Same story as before: boy, can the StFX X-Men score. Liam Hawel and Matt Struthers continue to be the epitome of U SPORTS offensive might — registering 39 and 35 points respectively — but they weren’t alone. Second-year forward Jacob Hudson tied Struthers for second in AUS points with 35, taking the ropes as the two stars donned the maple leaf at the FISU Winter Games.
The only catch with StFX’s scoring is the scoring against. X hasn’t been great at preventing goals since former captain Santino Centorame and others left the team last year. Their 110 goals allowed are the most of any playoff team. Veteran goalie Joseph Raaymakers had an up-and-down second half but he’s a proven playoff goalie; he was arguably the best goaltender in the last U CUP besides tournament MVP Alexis Gravel of the UQTR Patriotes. If he can return to that form, X should be fine. But with talents such as Zack Trott and breakout defenceman Patrick Kyte filling the scoresheet, it’s clear that scoring wins the X-Men games.
Much like StFX’s 7-3 run to end the regular season, their Acadia Axemen opponents also finished the season strong. Passing Moncton for fifth place late, last year’s U CUP hosts have won three of their final five and six of their last 10 before the postseason. Their confidence has spiked since the holiday break, a far cry from the seemingly-lost team of last season and the playoff-bubble team in the fall.
The lowest-scoring team in the playoffs, the Axemen are by-committee with 10 players scoring 10-plus points this year. Five freshmen — led by Liam Kidney’s 19 points and Cole Nagy’s 18 — lead team scoring. They’ve been slightly better at preventing goals than StFX, allowing 99 over the season with the new goaltending tandem of Conor McCollum and Zachary Paputsakis. It’s also been a transition year at defence with only one blueliner, Morgan Nauss, in their third year or above.
The teams met five times in the regular season with X coming out on top in four of them. Acadia’s lone win was a nailbiting overtime finish on Nov. 30, where Merrick Rippon scored the winner. The last time they met, X won 4-2 and both Struthers and Kyte gathered three points apiece. Aside from that, the matchups weren’t very close.
Neither are things in terms of scoring. Acacia has penalty problems with 652 penalty minutes this season. Their penalty kill — running at a shaky 73.8 per cent efficiency — has to worry about a lethal 23.5 per cent X power play. The X-Men don’t have the same burden, as Acadia’s 11 per cent man advantage is by far the least effective in the AUS.
There’s one way Acadia can outlast StFX in the short series: cash in when they get the opportunity. The Axemen have struggled to create this year, but can and have found holes in StFX’s defence and capitalized. This might be trying to beat the X-Men at their own game, but only goal support can give them a shot against their opponent’s offence. With the way the lineups stack up — especially in net — that’s a tall order.
Prediction: StFX wins series 2-0 – will play UNB in semifinals