Charlottetown, P.E.I – Off an inspiring AUS playoffs performance that brought them within a win of the championship, the Saint Mary’s Huskies will return to the U SPORTS U CUP for the first time since the cancelled 2020 tournament.
SMU came alive in 2022-23. They barely squeaked into the 2020 nationals through a play-in series with the Moncton Aigles Blues. They would go on to win their quarterfinal versus the Guelph Gryphons, before COVID-19 brought everything to a halt. Two years later, SMU looked strong in a shortened playoff competition but ran into the eventual national bronze medalists, the StFX X-Men, in the conference semis.
This time, the Huskies downed semifinal opponent Acadia Axemen — last year’s U CUP host — in four games before falling to the UNB Reds in the three-game final. In a conference that’s been tight all year long, SMU has been the undisputed second-best team in the AUS since the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games in January.
It’s a conference where deep teams win championships (as evident by UNB’s sustained success). The Huskies fit that description with an impressive assortment of talent at every position — especially in net where they have three starting goalies on the roster.
Coming into the U CUP as the seventh-seeded team, SMU will look to use that depth to show how the AUS stacks up against the rest of U SPORTS. With UNB and StFX’s recent successes on the national stage, the conference has been considered one of the nation’s best. But the burner under that debate heated up last year following the impressive performances of OUA (UQTR Patriotes and Ryerson Rams) and Canada West (Alberta Golden Bears) teams in Wolfville. It’s the Patriotes — the defending U CUP champs — that SMU draws in game one of the tournament on Thursday afternoon.
The Huskies have gotten impressive contributions from many of their forwards this season. Nathan Dunkley and FISU gold-medal winner Andrew Coxhead led the way on the attack this season. Charlie Dafonseca and Keith Getson also passed the 20-point mark for the maroon-and-white.
In the playoffs, Getson and Dawson Theede — who missed most of the regular season injured — shined, especially in the UNB series. Theede’s double-overtime winner in game two wrapped up one of the best AUS hockey games in recent memory. With the big centre’s physical playoff play, he earned a promotion to the top line alongside Coxhead and Cedric Ralph.
It doesn’t get any easier for opponents when it comes to SMU’s defence. They’re led by AUS first-team all-star and FISU star Justin MacPherson. He came second in both team scoring and conference blueline scoring this season, while potting six points in seven playoff games. Rookie Jaxon Bellamy registered seven from the point, while each of rookie Connor Olson and Dennis Busby found the back of the net twice. Not only can the four score but they can play heavy minutes too. MacPherson played close to 30 minutes in each AUS final game.
The SMU crease has been the envy of U SPORTS goaltending this year. It features the likes of early-season starter Matt Welsh — another Canadian FISU pick — and Justin Sumarah, who took the starting job in the late season and playoffs of 2021-22. However, the Huskies have settled on Jeremy Helvig to lead the way in net. Stealing the starting gig with a strong second half of the season, he led all AUS goalies with a playoff save percentage of .947 — despite UNB pumping him with around 40 shots in each game of the final.
The shots will be one issue coach Tyler Naugler will have to address come their battle with UQTR. This will be Naugler’s first U CUP in charge behind SMU’s bench, but he’s no stranger to the stage. On former head coach Trevor Stienburg’s staff, Naugler helped lead SMU to three national medals, including a CIS championship in 2010.
This quarterfinal against UQTR will be one of his biggest tests yet. It will also be a good measurement of how the AUS stacks up against other conferences such as the OUA, which UQTR won in a triple-overtime nailbiter last week. The Patriotes are heavily-favoured, but SMU shouldn’t be severely overlooked. After all, they did take UNB pretty deep in the AUS final. Even with their rough-headed style, SMU has stayed healthy and energized each night.
A consistent effort through the game — with perhaps a strong start — and control over the shots would put SMU in a great spot versus UQTR. Will we see another heroic late winning goal from someone? Will Helvig stop everything? With the season on the line, SMU is where they are most comfortable: somewhere uncomfortable.
Cover Photo: Mona Ghiz/SMU Huskies Athletics