AUS MHKY Semifinals Preview: Two hot underdogs and two colossal favourites

Halifax, N.S. – It’s Hockey Night in the Maritimes. Not only do the two AUS women’s hockey series play their game twos tonight, but the men’s hockey semis begin in Halifax.

The Acadia Axemen, after stunning the StFX X-Men in last week’s quarterfinals, face their next challenge in the Saint Mary’s Huskies — ranked seventh in U SPORTS. Tomorrow night, the Moncton Aigles Bleus head down the Trans-Canada Highway to Fredericton where the country’s number-two-ranked UNB Reds open their playoffs. The Reds also begin their national title redemption bid, after their U CUP was cut short by the Ryerson Rams (now the TMU Bold) last season at Acadia. UNB/Moncton will begin Friday as the women’s Reds host the UPEI Panthers in their semifinal series at the Aitken Centre tonight.

The semifinals will be in a best-of-five format, with the winners booking tickets to the 2023 U CUP in Charlottetown next month. While both UNB and Acadia played in the tournament last season, the Huskies will look to return for the first time since March 2020 — the tournament cancelled amid COVID-19’s rise. Meanwhile, Moncton will contend for its first U CUP appearance since 2012.

UNB Reds (1) vs Moncton Aigles Bleus (6)

(Universite de Moncton Athletics)

Year after year, the Moncton Aigles Bleus never fail to surprise us, do they? Remember when they finished dead last in the standings last year with six wins, only to catch fire with two series wins? There are a lot of similarities this time around — the Aigles Bleus were by far the worst team of the second half, going nearly winless and missing two of their best players in scorer Mika Cyr and key defenceman Vincent Lanoue.

How did they respond against the UPEI Panthers ​​— the U CUP host and a nationally-ranked team at points of the year? A full-team effort, not to mention those elimination games Moncton loves to play in. Backed by 2021-22 playoff hero Étienne Montpetit in goal, players such as Remy Anglehart, all-rookie teamer Jacob Dion and Olivier-Luc Hache — who had that beauty of a series clincher in Cornwall — seriously came to play. 

Now, they draw the beasts of the U SPORTS east who ended Moncton’s season last year: the UNB Reds. Not unlike past years, UNB is the scariest group of university hockey players east of Quebec and possibly all of Canada. The gaps left by departed stars Sam Dove-McFalls and Rylan Parenteau were quickly filled by the likes of rookie stud Simon Pinard and — the winner of the closely-contested AUS rookie of the year title over players like Pinard — goalie Samuel Richard. He led the conference with a 1.59 goals-against average and .933 save percentage through a busy 22 regular season appearances. Brady Gilmour, Austen Keating and UNB’s other big guns continue to deliver as well.

Name it and UNB has done it (except lose). They scored the most goals in the conference with 134. They allowed the fewest with 55 — the next-best defence (UPEI) conceded 85. UNB’s not always known as the team with all the offensive stars of the AUS, but five of the conference’s top 10 scorers are Reds — including Ross MacDougall, the AUS’s highest-scoring defender. The conference’s top power play (27.6 per cent) and penalty kill (90.8 per cent) belong to UNB — compared to Moncton’s 16.8 per cent man advantage (sixth in AUS) and 71.2 per cent kill (last place). UNB has it all. 

The Battle of New Brunswick isn’t uncommon in the AUS playoffs, with the teams meeting in the last two postseasons. However, the Reds came out with sweeps in both affairs. Montpetit, however, gave them a good scare last season; UNB won both games by mere 2-1 scores. They met five times this year. Moncton stunned UNB on Oct. 8 by a 4-1 score, but the Reds took care of business in the ensuing four matchups. Their last meeting on Feb. 11 saw UNB prevail 7-1. 

I expect nothing different from this series. Moncton is coming in with momentum, a hot playoff goalie and all that fun stuff. I’d say they can get a win out of that, maybe two in the best case. But UNB is UNB — they have the best of everything, up and down the lineup and behind the bench with coach Gardiner MacDougall, hockey’s master of short tournaments and playoffs. It will be a really fun series still, as every game is with this scrappy Aigles Bleus team. But UNB — losers of just six games in 2022-23 — is just too darn good.

Prediction: UNB defeats Moncton three games to one, advances to AUS final and U CUP

Saint Mary’s Huskies (2) vs Acadia Axemen (5)

(Mona Ghiz/SMU Huskies)

Through the second half of the AUS season, the Acadia Axemen have taken the ball and ran with it. Going on a roll through their regular season’s final 10 games, they exposed every hole in a shaky StFX X-Men team last week and sent them home from Wolfville in a quarterfinal sweep. 

As the Axemen have refined late this season, it was a by-committee effort leading them to success. Acadia’s regular season leading scorer, Liam Kidney, has two goals and four points in the two playoff games so far, while core players Peyton Hoyt, Nick Deakin-Poot and captain Jack Flaman are all out to play. Best of all, Conor McCollum — a new face in net on the AUS playoff scene — came up huge, leading all goalies in the quarterfinals with a .927 save percentage and coming up with huge stops against the X-Men to lead Acadia to the next round.

Waiting for them are the Saint Mary’s Huskies. A tremendously deep team at every position, SMU hasn’t exactly stood out in one way or another but has done every little thing well. Head coach Tyler Naugler was recently recognized for this balanced approach as AUS coach of the year — during his first full season as head coach (officially, as he worked under the interim tag last year). 

Andrew Coxhead leads a physical and quick group of forwards, including team leading scorer Nathan Dunkley, Bradey Johnson and pleasantly surprising rookie Charlie Dafonseca. The back end features Justin MacPherson — arguably the conference’s best d-man — and blueline gems Sam Dunn, Dennis Busby and AUS all-rookie pick Jaxon Bellamy. However, the most intriguing situation is in goal. The power in the crease between FISU Winter Games stopper Matt Welsh and first-year Husky Jeremy Helvig is so strong that 2021-22 playoff hero Justin Sumarah has been squeezed into the third-string spot. With Helvig’s monster second half, expect him to tend the twine in game one. 

Statistically, SMU is well ahead. They’ve scored 32 more goals and allowed 13 fewer than Acadia this year, even as the Huskies were short three FISU players for much of the post-Christmas schedule. Only UNB has a better power play than SMU’s 24.4 per cent extra-man unit. The Huskies also have the upper hand in recent history; they swept the season series five games to zip by a combined 23-6 score. However, Acadia knocked off SMU the last time they met in the postseason: the 2019-20 AUS semifinals. Acadia — then the U CUP hosts — defeated SMU in four games. 

While the Huskies have the advantage in the metrics this year, this is going to be a tough series for both sides. Acadia is a different team now than the one SMU kicked around all season long. Now the Axemen are balancing the momentum of last week’s series win and decent rest against a team coming off a nearly two-week break. I wouldn’t be surprised if Acadia jumped on a possible slow SMU start, even over the series’ first few games.  

The biggest obstacle for the Axemen is they’re now facing a team much more defensively responsible and willing to push back than StFX last week. I believe the Axemen have enough to pull out the series win and an appearance in a third straight U CUP tournament. But SMU has a similar approach to Acadia’s scrappy, everyone-has-everyone’s-backs game — then amped up with their extraordinary depth across the lineup. 

Acadia started these playoffs on fire but the question becomes: how long can they keep that rolling? Keep in mind that the second they let up, SMU is the type of team to burn them for it. This series will be a battle to the bitter end. But the Huskies come into this one in better shape and will come out of it that way.

Prediction: SMU defeats Acadia three games to two, advance to AUS final and U CUP

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