Fredericton, N.B. – It’s the best of the best in the conference final between the UNB Reds and the Saint Mary’s Huskies.
The Reds have been unstoppable over nearly the past five seasons in the conference. Winning every title since the 2017-18 season, coach Gardiner MacDougall’s troops are again the team to beat. They’ve lost just six games this season and are coming off a dominant semifinal series over the Moncton Aigles Bleus.
In classic UNB fashion, the swap of departing players for new ones has been a resounding success in 2022-23. The play of youngsters Simon Pinard and goalie Samuel Richard — combined with the brilliance of stars Austen Keating, Brady Gilmour and Ross MacDougall — makes the Reds extremely tough to beat.
So they face the perfect challenge in SMU — perhaps the only squad that can rival UNB’s depth. Under the guise of coach Tyler Naugler, the Huskies brought home 20 regular season wins — finishing just nine points behind powerhouse UNB — following that with a commanding effort against the Acadia Axemen in their semifinal.
It’s a no-brainer that this matchup is a duel between the best bluelines in the AUS. MacDougall and Adam McCormick of the Reds await Justin MacPherson and Dennis Busby of SMU. The forward groups are two of the deepest. Then in net, the Huskies have three starting goalies ready to go at any time, while Richard has been playing at prodigy levels in Fredericton.
So all in all, the teams — both nationals-bound — aren’t that different. But who wins in a best two-of-three series? Let’s look at their lineups.
Each team’s advantage is the same, something no other team in the conference has: four lines that can play at top-six calibres. The Reds and Huskies have the best, most consistent selection of forwards the AUS can offer.
Let’s start with UNB. They’re flush with first-year forwards but something is just clicking with them. Rookies Cody Morgan and Cole MacKay have been playing alongside Jason Willms recently, which is for sure a treat. Pinard, Keating and Michael Petizian are tearing it up. The newbies are everywhere, but doing just fine.
Aside from that, UNB’s forward corps is top-notch. Their leading scorer is Gilmour — scoring just five goals but registering 30 points in 2022-23, the best total outside of the StFX X-Men. Pinard led the team with 19 goals (Keating was not far behind with 16). Eight Reds forwards finished the season with beyond 15 points, five of the with 10-plus goals.
SMU’s not too bad in that department either, except they have a bit of a younger lineup overall. It’s the year of the second-years at forward, the charge being led by team leading scorer Nathan Dunkley and FISU Winter Games gold medallist Andrew Coxhead. Coxhead plays with fellow sophomores Bradey Johnson and Cedric Ralph, while Dunkley cycles with Joel Bishop and captain Keith Getson. Dawson Theede (pending a potential suspension) centres a very good line as well, featuring Sam King and Jonathan Hampton.
Dunkley leads everyone on the team with 28 points in 25 games. Five more Huskies cracked the 20-point plateau; Coxhead comes next at forward with a team-leading 14 goals. Eight SMU players have registered more than 15 points in 2022-23, all but two being forwards. They aren’t all concentrated in the top six either. With limited, fourth-line minutes, rookie Charlie Dafonseca is third of all SMU forwards with 22 points. The offensive group from the Huskies is tough for any team to predict.
This is going to be so much fun to watch because both D corps are just unbelievable. Compared to the rest of the conference, these defences were destined to be the only ones in the final. Although UNB has allowed 31 fewer goals than the Huskies in 2022-23, I don’t expect that gap to show.
UNB’s blueline is led by possibly the best one-two punch in the conference: MacDougall and McCormick. The AUS second-team all-stars often play together — especially at key points in close games — but have played on different pairings during the Moncton series. McCormick was with fifth-year rock Noah Carroll, while MacDougall was paired with UNB midseason pickup Kale McCallum. With a run of points late in the campaign, MacDougall actually beat out SMU’s MacPherson and the UPEI Panthers’ Matt Brassard in defence scoring this season, scoring 28 points in 30 games. Kade Landry and Connor Hall form perhaps the strongest third pairing in the conference.
The Huskies also aren’t a team to put all their eggs in one basket, opting to balance out the play of their top defenders. Lately, MacPherson has been playing with second-year Walter Flower III, with AUS all-rookie Jaxon Bellamy and the sneaky-talented Busby on another pairing. Bellamy leads the team in playoff scoring following the Acadia series, with five assists and points. The bottom pairing, typically, has comprised third-year Sam Dunn and rookie Connor Olson. But the Huskies have opted to include a seventh defenceman — Cameron Pound — on two occasions last round. Olson also missed one of those games.
While the tandems in the net for each team look completely different, there’s no question we’re about to watch two bona fide stars in the league square off. Both are in their first years in the AUS but in their own ways, vastly different.
In UNB’s net is the smaller, diligent Richard. The conference rookie of the year, Richard has not only dominated the in-house competition of three other Reds goalies, but everyone else in the conference statistically. His .933 save percentage and 1.59 goals-against average were sizeable margins above everyone else. And with 22 games played — one of the busier workloads in the conference — MacDougall behind the bench has placed his full trust in the 21-year-old to handle any size workload. After all, he keeps winning, obvious in his 18-4 (win-loss) record.
Just behind Richard in the major AUS categories is perhaps his polar opposite, Jeremy Helvig. Unlike the smaller, younger Richard, Helvig is a six-foot-four 25-year-old who came to SMU after three seasons of ECHL and AHL action. Despite his size, his movement rivals that of any backstop in the country. Paired with his calmness and size, Helvig’s play is reminiscent of Carey Price. That’s helped him take the top job in the most stacked goaltending tandem in the country, beating out FISU Winter Games goalie Matt Welsh and Justin Sumarah — a playoff star for the Huskies last season — for the starting job.
Of the two, Helvig’s had the upper hand so far these playoffs with a mind-boggling .980 playoff save percentage in four games — including 32 and 40-save shutouts. He seems unbeatable right now. Richard’s been getting the wins for UNB but isn’t quite at that statistical level. He comes out of the Moncton series with a .887 playoff save percentage, despite facing half as many shots as Helvig.
Battle of the best
The season series — which lasted five games — was dead even. Remember how UNB has lost just six times (seven including playoffs) this season? Well, three of them came at the hands (the paws?) of the Huskies. The teams alternated wins, with UNB pulling out two of the largest margins of victory (5-2 and 6-1 scores). But SMU won their last meeting by a 4-2 score on Feb. 4. In each of Helvig’s three appearances versus the Reds, UNB put 40-plus shots on him. In UNB’s 6-1 win on Jan. 20, Helvig stopped 56 of 62 Reds shots.
Unsurprisingly, which offence manages to break through will be key, as each team has the ability to pepper goalies with insane shot levels. Each team’s power play — the two best in the conference — has contributed to that. UNB’s regular season power play was ridiculous, bordering on 30 per cent, with SMU at an amazing 24.4 per cent. The Reds are in a good place to stop the Huskies with their 90.8 per cent penalty kill, while SMU’s kill is a lower 77.4 per cent. In the playoffs, the teams are at equal 21 per cent power play efficiencies and 87.5 per cent penalty kills. Dead even.
In many ways, we’re comparing apples to apples. As mentioned, both sides rely on their depth and top-of-the-league talent between the pipes. Those are what has got them to this stage and will help them in a couple of weeks at the U CUP in Charlottetown. But recently, only one side has really “been there,” winning the AUS final and playing U CUP hockey consistently the past few years: the Reds.
Sure, last year was a disappointment after falling to the Ryerson Rams (now TMU Bold) in the national quarters. That’s playoffs. But a team like UNB isn’t a squad to let that happen again. Their lineup — especially the leaders MacDougall, Willms and Gilmour — is out to prove UNB is still the class of the nation. About half of the UNB team now was in that McCain Arena dressing room following the U CUP loss. Now, with the younger group mixed in, they’re back.
But it won’t be easy. After all, SMU did win the season series. I see this as a 1980s New York Islanders/Edmonton Oilers situation, when Wayne Gretzky and the youthful Oilers experienced what it took to win a championship from the beaten and battered Isles. The Huskies are riding an unbelievable season as a team of almost entirely first and second-year players. They’re going to make this interesting and have the potential to go on a U CUP run. But most of all this AUS final, they’re going to take some lessons from the powerhouse Reds who have been there before.
Prediction: UNB defeats Saint Mary’s two games to one