Halifax, N.S. – On a physical Saint Mary’s Huskies team, Dawson Theede leads the charge.
Yes, he has drawn attention for the wrong reasons at times — such as for a couple of questionable hits on UNB Reds opponents during this AUS final.
But even so, that hasn’t changed the fact he’s been playing the best hockey of his life in this series.
That’s saying a lot for a player already gifted with imposing skill, size and strength. Not to mention he’s already accomplished a ton, not only as a Husky in the AUS but as a National Lacrosse League mainstay for the Halifax Thunderbirds — when he isn’t playing with SMU.
So as the Huskies found themselves on the brink of AUS playoffs elimination on Tuesday night, coach Tyler Naugler knew who to turn to. He rewarded Theede — coming off a strong game one — by putting him on the top line with Andrew Coxhead and Cedric Ralph.
Again on Tuesday, he ignited the Huskies’ confidence, throwing a Dauphinee Centre-shaking hit on one of his first few shifts. Then, of course, he scored the game’s opening goal just over nine minutes in.
That was the first of an 11-goal barnburner — surely one of the greatest games in recent AUS history. Featuring four goals in a 71-second span in the second period, this was nothing like the defensively-focused game one. No doubt that energy sparked emotions on both sides, coupled with some vicious collisions throughout the game — unfortunately making this matchup less fun than it could have been.
That’s Theede’s game: physical, emotional and hard. Game two was his game.
So of course, he was the one to score 20 seconds into double overtime to win it for SMU 6-5. That will send the best-of-three series to a deciding matchup on Thursday.
“It’s part of my role on this team. I gotta be banging bodies out there and leading the way,” Theede said.
Clearly, he wasn’t limited to that role in game two with his pair of goals and four shots. Playing with top-line talents and the top power-play unit seemed like a warmup for Theede’s late winner. He described how he read an ill-fated clearing attempt from UNB’s Connor Hall early in the overtime period.
“I got a stick on it and it took a good bounce. I got a little break there and made it count.”
For Naugler, Theede — the Huskies’ “big brother” — is a central part of his team that’s reached new heights in 2022-23. One of those traits, his scoring touch, took the spotlight in game two.
“UNB tried to break out of the zone [before the goal] and Dawson curled back and stabbed in. I saw complete anticipation from him, in his offensive instincts,” Naugler said, recalling the goal. “He finishes. He’s an offensive player in lacrosse and he’s offensive for us.
Reversing their game one fortune, SMU came out firing in the game’s first 10 minutes. Samuel Richard in UNB’s net kept up with some important early saves, but Theede finally tapped in a gimme rebound on the power play for the opening goal. UNB also converted on a chaotic goalmouth battle before the first 20 minutes were out.
The teams traded goals again early in the second, but those were only the beginning. Towards the period’s 15-minute mark, each team struck twice in 1:11 of play. UNB’s Michael Petizian and SMU’s Dennis Busby scored 11 seconds apart. Shortly after as UNB took a penalty, Jason Willms buried a partial breakaway chance shorthanded. But 28 seconds after that goal, Cedric Ralph tipped home a point shot to tie it again — now at four.
“It’s tremendous entertainment for the fans,” said UNB coach Gardiner MacDougall of the high-scoring game, even if it wasn’t ideal that his defence allowed six goals. “It’s uncharacteristic, but that’s playoff hockey sometimes. You have moments you’ve never experienced before. But now you have to move forward.”
The second frame ended on a bad note following the entertaining show of scoring, as Busby hit UNB’s Austen Keating hard in the head. Keating left hurt, while Busby was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct — setting up a potentially game-defining power play.
“It’s unfortunate, [especially] with the non-calls,” said MacDougall about both the dangerous hits that were called and others that weren’t.
Harsh hits continued into the third. At one point, SMU’s Jaxon Bellamy hit Camaryn Baber in the helmet, knocking him down for a moment. There was no call on that. A high-speed, awkward hit from Ross MacDougall on Ralph — five feet from the boards — in overtime was deemed just a boarding minor.
Compared to the rest of the playoff games to this point, one wonders if the AUS must discuss further discipline for some of the worst hits we’ve seen in this series so far.
The third period picked up with about four minutes left in the major penalty against Busby. The Reds held the puck in SMU’s end the entire time, but couldn’t pierce the Huskies’ killers. The sold-out Dauphinee Centre crowd — the first in the rink’s history — was buzzing as the penalty time winded down.
UNB’s Cole MacKay scored a couple of minutes later anyway — a wrister over a screened Jeremy Helvig’s blocker. But then, things started coming back SMU’s way. It began with, unsurprisingly, another goal: a Bellamy bomb off the faceoff past Richard.
To that point, it wasn’t a goalie’s game. But with UNB approaching 50 shots in the third, that familiar swagger started to return for Helvig in SMU’s goal. The Reds pumped the goalie with 16 difficult shots in the third — all but one were stopped.
His best stop came on a UNB man advantage with less than three minutes left in the period. The visitors, comfortably working the play around the zone, found Simon Pinard wide-open in the open-side circle. Pinard — already with three assists and four shots — blasted his dangerous slapper for the high corner. But Helvig pushed all the way across to snag the shot.
“After [Bellamy] tied it up, I felt I needed to stop every puck now for the boys to get the win,” Helvig said. He stopped an additional seven in overtime, for a total of 48 in game two. He’s used to getting peppered by the Reds scorers — they put 39 shots on him in game one.
It wasn’t anyone’s ideal game between the pipes — AUS rookie of the year Richard allowed six goals on 31 shots.
The Huskies only beat Richard twice 48 hours before — a 48-hour regroup window that Naugler said would define game two in Halifax. After the series-tying win, the longtime SMU bench boss said his team’s growth over that period showed itself.
“We faced adversity tonight but we found ways to win,” he said. “We’ve learned how to win all year. It’s about experience and it’s about confidence. Those are two things I thought we were better at tonight than we were on Sunday.”
As for Theede, game two was the culmination of his journey back to his hard-hitting, scoring self, much like he was in last year’s playoff run with SMU. He played just eight regular season games in 2022-23 as he battled injuries, returning in time for game one of SMU’s semifinal against the Acadia Axemen.
With just one goal in his first five playoff games, he didn’t exactly jump off the page statistically. He showed flashes of brilliance in finals game one. But the young Huskies squad’s win in game two was in the image of the senior forward.
“It’s a resilient game from our group, but we’ve got to take care of business on Thursday,” Theede said. Game three — the deciding one — gets underway at 7 p.m. at the Aitken Centre in Fredericton. “[This win] means nothing if we don’t do that Thursday.”
Cover photo: Dawson Theede slides home his first of two goals for the SMU Huskies, in their memorable 6-5 overtime win over the UNB Reds on Tuesday. Theede scored the game-winner 20 seconds into the second overtime period. (Mona Ghiz/SMU Huskies Athletics)