CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – We all recall the shock of last year’s U CUP at Acadia: the upset of the UNB Reds.
Going into last year’s tournament, they’ve looked as they always have — a machine. They had won all three playoff games in 2021-22 to win the AUS and won 21 of 24 games in the regular season. But the TMU Bold stunned UNB right off the hop of the national quarterfinal, hanging on for a 2-1 win and sending the number-two seed home.
U SPORTS has seemed to take more caution as a result, ranking the eight-time national champions in the third seed for the 2023 U CUP in Charlottetown. But teams must be anything but cautious if they match up against the beast of the east this weekend.
The Reds come into this tournament deeper and more experienced than last year. Many of their stars — such as Brady Gilmour, Ross MacDougall and captain Jason Willms — sat in that McCain Arena dressing room after the loss. They’re the ones leading the charge this time around.
But they have a great infusion of young faces as well, led by AUS playoff MVP Simon Pinard and newly-minted U SPORTS rookie of the year Samuel Richard in net. Even for the first-years, the expectation in the UNB locker room is clear: national championship or bust. After taking game three of the AUS final over the Saint Mary’s Huskies, the team even refused to partake in the traditional tossing of the helmets and gloves into the air.
“My main goal was to win the AUS, but we’re still hungry and we want to win the nationals, so we just getting started here,” said Pinard to UNB Athletics after the conference final.
UNB has four devastating lines that have a little bit of everything. Elite shooting from Pinard. A premier playmaker in Gilmour. Mind-bending foot speed from Isaac Nurse and a heavy physical edge from Macauley Carson.
Five UNB forwards finished the season with more than 25 points in 2022-23: Gilmour, Pinard, Willms, Austen Keating and Cody Morgan. So although Keating was injured in game two of the AUS final and doubtful for a U CUP return, the Reds have more than enough options up front to outcompete other teams.
MacDougall and Adam McCormick lead the way on the Reds’ blue line. The former won the conference scoring race on defence this season and stepped up his game in a lot of ways in the conference final — capping it off with a nifty goal in game three.
Kade Landry had an amazing playoffs with seven points in six games. As MacDougall and Kale McCallum left game one of the final injured, Landry was also one of the four blueliners tasked with holding off a pesky SMU team for more than a period of play to hold onto the lead. UNB went on to win the game.
Richard should be the undisputed pick between the pipes in game one of the U CUP. He had a lacklustre game two in the AUS final, but he responded big in the elimination game three, allowing just one goal on 21 shots at home to clinch the championship. Despite a rocky start to the playoffs, Richard looks to have finally found his groove this postseason. But after an 18-4 (win-loss) regular season where he posted a .933 save percentage, no one will be underestimating him.
Although UNB won the second most recent complete U CUP — the 2019 tournament in Lethbridge — this is the longest the Reds have been without a championship since early 2007, just before UNB won their second national championship in Moncton. Since then, coach Gardiner MacDougall’s troops have won at least every three seasons.
Yes, they were a favourite in the forgone 2020 tournament. It also technically has been within the last three seasons since their last U CUP, once we account for COVID-19 breaks and all.
But taking everything into account, it’s been a long wait for UNB. Taking the national championship in their coach’s home province — making up for both the wait from 2019 and last year’s disappointment — would be the sweetest solution for the U SPORTS powerhouse.
Cover photo: James West/UNB Athletics