Fredericton, N.B. – Kade Landry knew what to expect in his UNB Reds’ game one of the AUS final against the Saint Mary’s Huskies: a team a lot like them.
“They’re a great hockey team. They got four good lines, six good D and a good goalie,” the second-year blueliner said. “We expected a lot from them.”
Sounds a lot like the Reds’ formula for success over the years. Even with some of the best players in the league on both sides — like Adam McCormick and Austen Keating for UNB, or SMU’s Justin MacPherson and Andrew Coxhead — neither team’s game is flat-out dominated by a few stars.
Physicality, for one, has become a central portion of the Huskies game this year. That was obvious in their semifinal versus the Acadia Axemen. Players like Dawson Theede — who was in a fight in game four last series — must have shown up a lot in UNB’s video sessions as an example.
If that suspicion is true, then there was no doubt that the four-time defending AUS champs acted on that Sunday night. They were the ones putting the Huskies through the boards — or in Macauley Carson’s case, through the ice on a bone-crushing check on Dennis Busby — early in the game. They came out of that strong first period with two goals on the way to a 4-2 win in game one of the AUS final. They lead the best-of-three series one game to zero.
That win didn’t come without a strong response from SMU late — as Landry expected. And it was he and three of his fellow blueliners with the toughest workload, as the Reds faced adversity.
Two UNB blueliners went down late in the second period, both following bad-looking hits. Kale McCallum was the victim of a knee-on-knee collision that sent him off limping. Then before the second-period buzzer, top-pairing defenceman Ross MacDougall was thrown into the boards from a distance. He was still for nearly a minute following the hit, with teammates helping him to the dressing room.
The short shifts — 30 seconds being the target — helped Landry and the D survive the following period. After what felt like a thousand years.
“When two guys go down, we have to load a little bit more weight on us,” he said, gasping for a few seconds after one of his busiest periods of hockey this season. Then he grinned. “Whistles were our friend.”
Overall, the UNB blue line held in there. But some late pushes — sparked by a goal midway through the frame from SMU’s Connor Olson — put the Huskies on the precipice of a tie game.
They could not have come any closer with three minutes left in the third. The Aitken Centre faithful fell into a stunned silence — expecting the tying goal — as Theede held the puck at the edge of the net. Goaltender Samuel Richard was well outside of his crease, with four of the five red sweaters on the ice jumping for the net to block the incoming scoring chance.
The initial Theede shot, miraculously, hit a Reds shinpad. The follow-up shot hit someone else as Richard slid back doing the splits. It bounced away after that, the crowd responding with a mix of cheers and gasps of relief.
“It’s why you do conditioning,” said UNB coach Gardiner MacDougall about his defence’s play late, including that late goal-line stand. While he didn’t have an update on the health of MacDougall or McCallum, it was clear how upset he was about it following the hit on MacDougall the defenceman. SMU’s Cedric Ralph threw him hard into the glass almost five feet from the boards.
But coach MacDougall praised what he did have, to offer the sweetest response to a pair of likely no-calls.
“The group of four [on defence] did a great job. Sam [Richard] made a couple of big saves for us. But that’s why we have extra D men ready to play some playoff hockey.”
A hot UNB start — one with five shots and a goal post in the first three minutes — set the tone early that UNB was exerting physical control. Thanks to Landry, they got their reward at 7:16 of the first.
Initially, Landry had a chance in the slot but SMU’s Coxhead stole the puck just before he got the shot off. On the ensuing zone reentry, Landry passed it to Emmett Sproule, instantly one-touching it back to the blueliner. That gave Landry enough room to walk in alone on SMU’s Jeremy Helvig in goal, toe-dragging the shot over the blocker for the opening goal.
Along with the speed of the first period, UNB had that physicality to match the SMU game they’ve endured all year. That peaked midway through the first with Carson’s thunderous bodycheck over Busby.
That set the stage for Carson later in the period, at the end of a dominant UNB shift. In the middle of a goalmouth scramble, the sophomore forward found it and deked out a blinded Helvig for the tally. That capped off a textbook period of Reds hockey, one where they outshot the Huskies 15-6.
“That was nice,” said Carson. “It’s kind of get hit or be hit in the first couple of shifts. It got me going through the rest of the game.”
The Huskies fought back on the attack in the second period, both in shots and physical pushback. That’s what was missing early on as SMU couldn’t elbow off persistent Reds defenders to get chances in the slot. They finally got that positioning after a shot from the point with all three Huskies forwards crowding Richard in net. As chaos ensued, Keith Getson found the puck and beat the screened Richard to make it 2-1.
That shot of momentum was short-lived — lasting for 1:06, to be exact. For UNB, Simon Pinard had already been wheeling and dealing to this point. But finally, he got on the scoresheet, feeding Austen Keating from behind the net to restore the two-goal lead.
The Reds didn’t let up from therein out. Backed by a sizzling home atmosphere, every important play built UNB’s tower of confidence higher. Pinard continued to buzz with some flashy scoring chances. Others like Carson made their own statements. In a mid-period SMU power play, the crowd erupted as he forced three Huskies into their own corner — while in a headlock. That energy for sure became an important resource for UNB later on, as other resources ran scarce.
“Those faceoffs. They’re heavy, you’re slugging in the trenches of those faceoffs. But that’s what the AUS is all about,” MacDougall said, describing the toughest portions of his players’ fight to run out the final 20 minutes. Isaac Nurse buried the empty-net marker with 40 seconds left. “You just got to play those minutes, in those moments.”
SMU coach Tyler Naugler knows well those battles — whether through a period or a game in the AUS final — are long, hard ones. And they don’t end after one game.
“It’s a series,” he said, while impressed with how good the game was. Namely, SMU’s play in the third previewed what they might have in store at home on Tuesday night for game two.
“Our team has done a great job all year of playing with a lead or playing from behind. I’m proud of how even when we get down by one or two … our guys are pretty persistent.”
They did that on Sunday, in the face of perhaps SMU’s greatest obstacle between them and an AUS title over UNB: experience. Yes, the two teams match up well in many ways. But one side is also an ever-present U SPORTS powerhouse that can’t be ignored.
Naugler addressed that obstacle with his team, the journey of finding that key experience factor with what they do have. That includes last year’s hard-waged AUS semifinal series loss to the StFX X-Men, their series win over Acadia last week and now, one game of the AUS final against the class of the conference.
“We were in a similar situation against StFX and I thought our young team grew,” Naugler said. “So now, let’s see how much we can grow — maturity-wise and as a team — from now until Tuesday. Because we’re going to have to grow a little bit more to try and match that experience.”
MacDougall, on the other hand, said he doesn’t share the same stance on experience — despite his team having said experience. For him, that goes out the window at a time like the AUS final, which continues Tuesday night at the Dauphinee Centre in Halifax.
“It’s not so much the experience. It’s finding a way to win playoff games.”
COVER PHOTO: James West/UNB Athletics