AUS HOCKEY PLAYOFFS: Huskies make statement in semifinal opener versus Acadia, while women’s teams play game twos

Halifax, N.S. – Well, we weren’t expecting that on night one of the AUS men’s hockey semifinals.

After the Acadia Axemen trounced the StFX X-Men in last week’s conference quarterfinals, they hit an absolute Saint Mary’s Huskies wall in Halifax Thursday night. From wire-to-wire, the home team tore up the ice, glass and net twine in Acadia’s end on the way to a 7-1 victory. 

While close early on, it was clear the Huskies — who have defeated the Axemen five times in the 2022-23 regular season — were in the driver’s seat. SMU’s best players Andrew Coxhead, Justin MacPherson, Nathan Dunkley and others were playing not only with dominance but comfort. Thanks to that, they struck first in a big way in the best-of-five conference semi.

Coxhead and Cedric Ralph led SMU’s scoring with three points apiece on Thursday. Both of Coxhead’s goals came on the power play, as part of a 4-for-7 night on the man advantage for his team.

“We’ve been practicing [the power play] quite a bit. That was a big thing for us: getting the confidence up on the power play,” said the recently-named second-team AUS all-star. “It’s good to have the confidence on the power play heading in, since we haven’t played in a while.”

It wasn’t just the scoring putting SMU over the top in game one but a rock in their net: Jeremy Helvig. The score discrepancy didn’t mean a quiet night for the 25-year-old and former ECHL stopper. He faced 35 Acadia shots and stopped them all — besides a late Keegan Stevenson power play marker that ruined the shutout bid. 

“I haven’t played a playoff game in a while and it’s good to get the win. The boys dominated this game,” he said following his first AUS playoff win. After playing just a handful of pro games in 2020-21, he took 2021-22 off from high-level competition. 

But as shown Thursday, he’s worked back a swagger this season like he’s never left at all. Even during big Axemen pushes — such as a feisty power play midway through the second — Helvig carried a Carey Price-esque swagger that kept Acadia off the board.

I asked if he was as calm in Thursday’s game as he made it look.

“Maybe a little nervous at the start,” he said. “But once I got into it I got more calm. That’s the way I played all season, so it worked out.”

The game began hard-nosed and physical, with SMU holding most of the possession shortly after puck drop. That led to a few Acadia mistakes, where Kidney was eventually penalized for a trip. The Huskies would make them pay, as Dawson Theede slid a backdoor tap-in home to open the scoring.

Most of the opening frame was controlled by the SMU offence, leading shots 9-2 at the period’s midway point. Acadia had the opportunity to turn that around with a pair of man advantages late in the first. But like much of the season, the seventh-ranked Axemen power play failed to shift the momentum. The Huskies kept the pressure on until the buzzer. MacPherson almost set up the 2-0 goal on a well-placed saucer pass to a driving Keith Getson at the goal mouth, but he just missed the pass.

The Huskies would have run up the score sooner in the second period — if not for Conor McCollum. After denying David Bérubé on a partial break, Liam Van Loon was left all alone in front, trying to outwait the Acadia netminder. But the opposite happened; McCollum slid over and lifted the pad to rob another SMU goal. 

But the Acadia resistance didn’t last long. Dunkley — left completely uncovered by a shaky Axemen defence — tipped a MacPherson point shot high off McCollum. The goalie lost the puck, which bounced right back to Dunkley for the backhand tap-in and a 2-0 lead. SMU was off to the races.

“After the first, we said we have to get back to playing more Husky-brand hockey and playing the style we’ve developed this year that’s made us successful,” said head coach Tyler Naugler. “As the period started to go, it felt like we were running downhill a little bit and the guys just built off the momentum.”

Soon after, SMU’s AUS second-ranked power play went to work. What ensued was an absolute swarm of Huskies at McCollum’s toes on top of the crease. Finally, FISU Winter Games gold medallist Coxhead slammed home the last of many rebounds. Moments later, Joel Bishop’s cross-ice feed to Cedric Ralph found the back of the net. Just like that, it was 4-0. MacPherson added another before the end of the frame to make it 5-0.

After 40 minutes, it was clear for the visiting Axemen this would be a different team and series than those last week with StFX.

“Things went well for us in that [last] series and we were riding high on emotion. We’re a very hard-working team. But Saint Mary’s is a very hard-working team and they have a ton of polish,” said Acadia bench boss Darren Burns. As we saw with many of Helvig’s saves, Burns noted the difficulty of getting second chances off shots as the SMU stopper swallowed them up.

“[SMU] finished second [in the AUS] for a reason. Their tandem is probably the best in the country. They play a great game and they’re well-structured.”

SMU had two more in the final frame — both power play goals from Coxhead and rookie forward Charlie Dafonseca — while Stevenson struck for Acadia with 2:31 on the clock. 

“You never expect an outcome like that in playoffs, especially against a team with a great history [like Acadia],” Naugler — who earned his first AUS coach of the year honour this week — said. “They’re a good team. And we’re going to move past that [result] very quick.”

They’ll have to, as game two goes at the Dauphinee Centre Friday night at 7 p.m. It will be interesting to see whether lineups or starting goalies change — Naugler acknowledged “the good problem in net” that SMU has, with Matt Welsh forced to the backup role because of Helvig’s brilliance. The coaches haven’t yet decided on a game two starter.

One Huskies lineup change has been confirmed: forward Liam Van Loon will miss game two with a lower-body injury. He had to be helped to the dressing room after taking a knee-on-knee hit from Acadia’s Peyton Hoyt late in the game. The Axemen forward was assessed a match penalty for the hit. 

As for Acadia’s lineup following a dismal game one? There’s no panic to juggle things, Burns said. Zachary Paputsakis entered the game in relief of McCollum in the third, but there are no lineup changes as of yet — including for starting goalies.

AUS WHKY: UPEI Panthers 3 – 1 UNB Reds

As the UNB Reds threatened to send the series back to PEI up 2-0, the UPEI Panthers’ Taylor Gillis had other plans — and acted on them quickly.

Gillis beat UNB’s Kendra Woodland — coming off a shutout Wednesday night — not once, but twice in the game’s first 11:42. UPEI, after grabbing a third goal of the period from Kierra St. Peter, set the tone from there en route for a 3-1 victory. 

Down by an unfamiliarly large three-goal deficit, the Reds outshot UPEI 16-4 in the middle frame in a push to even up the game. But time after time, Sarah Forsythe said no in the Panthers’ net. As the Reds kept the pressure on, Forsythe stopped everything through the game — save for a Payton Hargreaves goal midway through the third period. Forsythe stopped 32 shots while Woodland turned aside 14.

With the series tied at one, the teams head to Cornwall, PEI this weekend for games three and four of the best-of-five AUS semifinal. Puck drops for those games are 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday night.

AUS WHKY: StFX X-Women 5 – 3 SMU Huskies

Nothing is stopping what the StFX X-Women do best: score. Thanks to a pair of goals just over a minute apart in the second period, the X-Women have held their hand at home with a 5-3 win and head to Halifax this weekend a win away from a sixth straight AUS final appearance.

After trading goals in the first frame, Kya Moss struck just under five minutes into the period. Then shortly after Abby Lewis — tied for StFX’s team scoring lead in last year’s postseason — increased the lead to two.

SMU’s Maddy McClearly cut the Huskies deficit to 3-2 before the second period ended, but Chloe Vukosa restored that margin for X early in the third. In the continuing trade of goals, Ashley Penny scored for SMU with under 10 minutes left. SMU blasted X goalie Jamie Johnson with lots of shots Thursday, as she came up with 31 saves. SMU’s Ridleigh Hansen turned aside 22 of 26. But as the period dragged on, Maggy Burbidge — after registering a hat trick on Wednesday night — buried the empty netter to seal the deal. 

StFX is one win from winning the best-of-five series, now up two games to zero. They can complete the sweep on Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Dauphinee Centre. If SMU wins, they’ll play at the same time the following day.

Cover photo: The Saint Mary’s Huskies celebrate after their third goal, scored by Andrew Coxhead, on the way to a 7-1 victory in game one of their conference semifinal matchup versus the Acadia Axemen. (Luke Dyment)

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