CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – Really, was there ever a doubt for the defending U CUP champions?
For the UQTR Patriotes, it’s not been a season where they’ve made things easy on themselves. Yet, they continue to push on, just as they did in an 4-1 win over the SMU Huskies in the U SPORTS Men’s Hockey Championship quarterfinal on Thursday.
From allowing the Concordia Stingers to push them to the brink in the OUA semifinal to needing three OT periods to get past the Windsor Lancers and capture the Queen’s Cup, it’s not been cruise control for the Patriotes in 2022-23.
Even in 2022, they needed a miracoulous comeback to defeat the Alberta Golden Bears in the U CUP Final. Even with that, there’s a unique unity about the Patriotes this season, the last for the majority of their players which began the current era of Pats hockey in 2018.
The U CUP opener was no different at PEI’s Eastlink Centre, as UQTR had to fight back from a deficit once again. Still, the character and team cohesion they’ve shown throughout the season proved them well, as they were able to push back against a slow start.
“There’s a resiliency in [our] group, they started together in 2018 and they’ve faced a lot of adversity since then, COVID and all that,” head coach Marc-Etienne Hubert told 49 Sports. “Last year’s championship taught us a lot. I think it’s a really tight group, and they believe in each other and they just play their heart, so it’s a special group.”
David Noël scored the winning goal in the second period on the powerplay, as Alexis Gravel made 25 saves in the victory. With the win, UQTR advanced to the semifinals to play the AUS Champion UNB Reds or their Québec foe, Concordia Stingers.
With thousands of school children wrapped around the stands, some sleeping, some bouncing off the rinkside glass, the Patriotes couldn’t quite channel that energy in the first period, falling victim to the Huskies’ hard and stead forecheck.
The Huskies played with pace from the first puckdrop and controlled offensive pressure. Less than five minutes into the game, defenceman Keith Getson had a shot deflected by Nathan Dunkley in front of the goal, tipping the shot past UQTR’s Alexis Gravel.
While initially called off, video review made its post-pandemic return to U SPORTS hockey, reversing the on-ice decision and giving the Huskies an early 1-0 lead.
In some ways, it seemed a tentative start, a nervous one at that, for a team that hasn’t played with many nerves over the last several seasons. Yet, whatever Patriotes head coach Marc-Ettiene Hubert uttered to his group, their drive flipped tenfold in the second period.
“In the first, we were waiting to see whats going on, whats happening on the ice and the time and space we have,” Hubert said. “The level of the game is higher here at the nationals, so we had to adjust to that in the first and I think the momentum started to change in the second part of the first period.”
Riding his top veteran players to start the second frame, Simon LaFrance, Julien Tessier and Justin Bergeron played the first three minutes of the period, tying the game through an Olivier Garneau tip, the forward cashing in after having a first-period breakaway stopped.
Maintaining their energy through the frame, UQTR added a second on a clicking powerplay with SMU’s Dawson Theede in the box, allowing Noël to pot his first of the tournament from an in-close one-time shot.
The powerplay didn’t just win the game for the Patriotes but proved that they had the pace against a skilled team like Huskies, and it buoyed them to a level they’ve not quite had to match since last year’s U CUP tournament.
In the third, Felix LaFrance, the younger brother of Simon, extended the lead to 3-1, redirecting a shot from Bergeron, as the blueliner picked up his second assist of the night on a critical tally for the OUA champions before Zach Lavigne scored a 4-1 empty net goal to ice the result.
For so often in 2021-22, Gravel led the Patriotes through games and to trophies. Although he’s still been solid, this season has been about improved depth, greater offensive punch, and the ability to fight for results as they did on Thursday against SMU.
Now, they move ahead with a chance to face the UNB Reds or Concordia Stingers in the national semifinal, they approach a tatalizing matchup to be sure, and one that would sharpen them for what could be a fourth final in the last 12 months.
“It will be the same thing, all the teams here are great,” Patriotes captain Zachary Lavigne said. “If it’s Concordia, we know it’s a great rivalry for us and we’ll be ready to face them.”
At the end of the day, the UQTR Patriotes are the hottest hockey program in Canada, and even in difficult situations, they find a way to win. It may not always look pretty for the boys in green, orange and white, but they’ve found a way, and a path that might lead to a golden end to an era.