AUS WHKY Semifinals Preview: Four teams claw for two spots at nationals

Halifax, N.S. – Four teams. Two spots at the 2023 U SPORTS Women’s Hockey Championship at the Université de Montréal. One time to rock — now.

The AUS women’s hockey semifinals get underway in Fredericton and Antigonish tonight. In the New Brunsiwck capital, the defending AUS champion UNB Reds welcome last year’s U SPORTS championship host, the UPEI Panthers. One province east, the StFX X-Women and Saint Mary’s Huskies renew perhaps the conference’s most bitter rivalry, as the sides square off for the unofficial Nova Scotia title. Since the top two AUS teams qualify for nationals, a semifinal victory will gurantee the winner a spot in the U SPORTS dance next month, as well as a chance to snag the AUS banner.

For the first time, the women’s hockey division will play a best-of-five series structure in the conference semifinals, having always played best-of-three series through the postseason. With the semifinals already worth a lot on these teams’ calendars, expect these series to be extra competitive as one more win will be necessary to seal the deal this time around.

UNB Reds (1) vs UPEI Panthers (4)

(Janessa Hogan)

Aside from a back-and-forth game two, the UPEI Panthers were relatively dominant in their quarterfinal against the Dalhousie Tigers. In their two games at home — both wins — the Panthers outscored Dal 4-0 and outshot them 61-28. The series also became the coming-out party for UPEI’s top rookie defenders in Orianna MacNeil and Rachel Richards, as well as sophomore Ashely McCutcheon. Sarah Forsythe also solidified her place as a stud playoff starter.

Their prize? The defending AUS champions and last year’s fourth-place team at U SPORTS nationals, the UNB Reds. Speaking of defensive battles, no team handles their own end of the ice like UNB. That contingent is led by the best goalie in the country, FISU Winter Games star and newly-minted AUS MVP Kendra Woodland, who will be fresh off a break of almost two weeks. Her .960 regular season save percentage is a number no one has come close to since the AUS sanctioned women’s hockey in 1997, based on available records.

That’s only the first of UPEI’s worries. UNB’s Jenna MacLean and Marley Van Den Oetelaar, plus their own rookie defence talent in Mackenzie Keenan, quickly match up with the youthful blueline of the Panthers. And while Taylor Gillis and McKinley Nelson have put their team on their backs for scoring, they now have to contend with proven playoff performers Ashley Stratton, Lillian George and nearly the rest of the forward group that played for a national medal last season for the Reds. 

The season series has been pretty tight between the two sides, although UNB has emerged victorious in three of four instances. UPEI’s Nov. 23 win was thanks to a 26-save Forsythe shutout and a pair of goals from captain and AUS defensive player of the year Lexie Murphy. But UNB won the ensuing two games. In their final meeting of the regular season, Woodland did Woodland things in net, stopping 34 shots in a 2-1 victory for the Reds.

Thanks to events like that, UNB has allowed a ridiculously few 34 goals in 28 games this year (compared to UPEI’s 65). That’s paid off in other departments such as the penalty kill, an AUS-best 91.7 per cent — 10 percentage points above UPEI’s. UNB’s scoring did well too, tied for the conference’s second-best offence alongside the SMU Huskies. But UPEI’s 74 tallies aren’t far behind. Shot totals (UNB had 836 this year and UPEI 817) and power play efficiencies (15.7 per cent for UPEI, 12.1 for UNB) are also comparable.

UPEI has won games in different ways this year, including in battles of attrition against Dal last series. But that won’t take them far against UNB — a team literally built on that philosophy. Nearly the Reds’ entire championship team is back for another kick at the can this season and playing better than ever — once a first-time AUS powerhouse last season, they are now the team to beat. The Panthers might get a win out of a big defensive performance from Forsythe or others. But outscoring playoff-mode Woodland and the Reds three times in a week? That’s a difficult mountain to climb.

Prediction: UNB defeats UPEI three game to one, advance to AUS final and U SPORTS championships

StFX X-Women (2) vs Saint Mary’s Huskies (3)

(SMU Huskies Athletics)

After the Moncton Aigles Bleues gave SMU a scare in the first round — who star forward Shae Demale bailed out in double overtime of game three — it’s once again time for the best rivalry in AUS women’s hockey: the Huskies and the StFX X-Women.

These teams have met almost every season over the past decade — and most times, X has come out on top. StFX swept SMU in the conference semis just last year, as they did in the 2019-20 AUS final and 2018-19 semis. In fact, SMU hasn’t beaten X in a playoff game since March 6, 2018 — the deciding game in the Huskies’ last conference championship. 

Even with a dominating display from Demale (who leads playoff scoring heading into round two) in the quarterfinals, they face a new beast in StFX. Powered by the hyper-scoring Maggy Burbidge and FISU Winter Games teammate Lea MacLeod, plus two-way blueline master Lauren Dabrowski, the X-Women are as talented as ever. Coming off their week-and-a-half break, they enter the playoffs with wins in six of their last seven games — the games following the return of FISU talents Burbidge and MacLeod. Burbidge had goals in five of those games. 

In more ways than not, the teams are close. Separated by few points, they’ve allowed similar levels of goals in 2022-23 (StFX 54, SMU 55). They have the conference’s two best power plays (X is ahead by a good margin at 22.4 per cent, SMU at 19.4 per cent) and shot totals (StFX at 1082, SMU 933). With StFX at 88.5 per cent and SMU at 87.4, they have identical penalty kills. To make things closer, they tied the season series at two wins apiece; the Huskies took their last meeting by a 3-2 score. 

The glaring difference is scoring. With 110 tallies, the Antigonish-based club outscored the next closest teams (SMU and UNB) by 29 goals. Looking at the AUS scoring leaders this year, it’s obvious X has a knack for filling the net — four of the conference’s top five scorers are X-Women. The other (Demale) plays for their semifinal opponent. 

Even with that, this is going to be the closest series of the playoffs so far. At the very least, it’s a matchup poised to go five games. But for me, two things give StFX the edge: depth and playoff track records. 

It’s close in net; Ridleigh Hansen (SMU) and Jamie Johnson (StFX) will be a good matchup. Then things start to spread out. While SMU’s forwards are very good and have come through at big moments, the sheer firepower of X’s attack speaks for itself and cannot be overlooked. Dabrowski alone makes the difference in the battle of the blueliners, reinforced in a big way by teammate Josie Chisholm. 

Those talents, plus more, were key in X’s playoff run last season. Burbidge and MacLeod tore up for X — Burbidge even had the series-winning goal against SMU. While Dabrowski and Chisholm stepped up on defence, others such as Abby Lewis had big postseasons. Lewis, while still with X, has missed much of the season and has an uncertain status for game one. As for SMU, X stops them cold in their tracks. Even Demale — as good as she’s been the past two seasons — has only ever managed two points in six career playoff games against the X-Women. This is the Huskies’ best shot at beating StFX in a long time, but I think the blue-and-white will hang on.

Prediction: StFX defeats SMU three games to two, advance to AUS final and U SPORTS championships

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