CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – The first two days of the 2023 U SPORTS U CUP Men’s Hockey Championship came with all we bargained for and more.
Day one of the tournament saw two bona fide title contenders — the UQTR Patriotes and UNB Reds — survive scares to advance to Saturday’s semifinals. After a hot Saint Mary’s Huskies start, UQTR took over from the second period onwards to win 4-1. Meanwhile, the Concordia Stingers kept the game tied with UNB up until the third period, when Simon Pinard buried the eventual game-winner to win it for the Reds.
Day two was all over the seismic chart. First, thanks to an early Alberta Golden Bears power play, the Canada West finalists clipped the Windsor Lancers 7-0. Then, the highlight of the quarterfinals: the UPEI Panthers’ wire-to-wire effort to stun the top-seeded Calgary Dinos on home ice.
Ahead of Saturday’s semifinals — UQTR versus UNB, then UPEI versus Alberta — let’s revisit some of the quarterfinals’ highlights and storylines.
Last year’s U SPORTS finalists living up to expectations
Not only have the UQTR Patriotes and Alberta Golden Bears returned to the national stage following their finals clash last April, but they’ve proven they are again contenders to win U SPORTS.
With dominant quarterfinal performances, the two best teams in Canada last year are showing nothing has changed, starting with the defending champs from UQTR. Faced with a strong start from the SMU Huskies, the Patriotes took over from the first intermission onward. In their 4-1 victory, they hardly let the Huskies breathe in their own zone, blasting 21 shots on net in the final 40 minutes.
In last year’s U CUP, it was evident UQTR was a team with an involved defence and whenever their defence could outperform their opponent’s, the Patriotes would do well. That’s definitely the case again after one game of the U CUP, highlighted by returnees Justin Bergeron and Felix Boivin. They thrived in last year’s tournament as rookies, continuing to drive the play — with other returnees David Noël and Jordan Lepage rounding out another scary duo right behind them. Bergeron, Boivin and Noël all found the scoresheet in game one and were crucial in killing SMU’s comeback hopes.
What does look different now, however, is some new faces putting up the points. It’s a small sample size — the team is still very much led by scorers such as Felix Lauzon and Simon Lefrance, the national MVP and scorer of the 2022 U CUP’s golden goal. But it’s reassuring for UQTR to see contributions from the likes of Zachary Lavigne, Conor Frenette and Felix Lafrance (Simon’s younger brother) in game one. Perhaps more magic from the stars later on?
Alberta may not be very different at all from last year’s team that dominated last year’s tournament. They had the exact same result in this year’s quarterfinals as last year’s — 7-0 wins. Many of their stars return such as Eric Florchuk and Josh Prokop returning. But even with key talents like Noah Philip and Clayton Kirichenko, Alberta has filled those gaps. The prime example is Tyler Preziuso, who went off for a hat trick and five points against Windsor. Preziuso was a rookie on that team who fell short last year in Wolfville. Now, he has stepped up to drive an offence that may be more deadly than that of last year’s team.
Maybe the AUS-inclined fans in Charlottetown won’t be big on it, but a rematch of these two powerhouses in the gold medal game would be unforgettable.
The AUS is back
Noticeably, the 2022 U CUP final was absent of two teams that have always found their way to the gold medal game: the UNB Reds and StFX X-Men. Both made the tournament. However, UNB was upset in the quarterfinals by the Ryerson Rams (now TMU Bold) while X fell in the semis to mighty Alberta. With neither team — nor the host Acadia Axemen — making the final, it was the first time in five complete tournaments that an east coast representative didn’t grab gold or silver (although X took bronze).
Neither of those are guaranteed yet for UPEI or UNB, but the AUS makes up the majority of teams in the U CUP semis on Saturday The successes of OUA teams in last year’s tournament (UQTR and Ryerson) raised questions of how much the country’s biggest conference had caught up to the historically-dominant AUS and Canada West competitions.
Even with the success of OUA teams this year — Windsor coming within a triple-overtime goal of defeating UQTR in the Queen’s Cup, or Concordia losing by just one to UNB — the AUS bracket too was super competitive. SMU, who fell to UQTR in the quarters, took UNB to the deciding game of the AUS final. Teams such as Acadia and the Moncton Aigles Bleus went on tears in the conference playoffs, with the latter eliminating the U CUP hosts in the AUS postseason.
That parity has seemed to be paying off for the Atlantic competitors in the tournament, especially in the example of the host team downing the top-ranked team in the country from Calgary. UPEI at points this year played like the best team in the conference, despite injury troubles souring the end of their season. The Panthers won the season series over Saint Mary’s and even took a game from the Reds.
The Panthers have a knack for finding magic against the strongest teams. Could they find that again against Alberta?
Clearly, UNB has a formula for winning at this level (last year being a rare exception). Particularly, coach Gardiner MacDougall is the master of short tournaments — he’s proved that time and time again with UNB’s five national championships in the last 10 completed seasons and, more recently, behind the bench of the Memorial Cup-winning Saint John Sea Dogs.
The Reds have the pieces to do that again, winning in ways that have launched them to national stardom before. While Concordia holding them to just a one-goal difference may have been a small surprise, it’s not a reason to worry for this team. They’ve won their last four national gold medals by scores of two goals or less in the final game. While it’s true the Reds have no players who have won a U CUP before (which is odd for them), they have little to worry about in close games.
A UPEI-UNB matchup in the U CUP on Sunday would be phenomenal — not to mention a treat for the home fans. Will they meet in the final?
Welcome reception in Charlottetown
I’ve only been at the event for a day, but the setup here at the Eastlink Centre is an interesting and fun one. You walk into the rink with horses trotting on the track behind you. In the media area, you can hear local bands playing classic Atlantic Canadian tunes such as “The Night Pat Murphy Died” and “Wild Rover” — which you can sometimes hear during certain post-game interview clips. In the convention centre attached to the arena, a mini beer garden is set up with live music going most of the day, explaining the always-jolly atmosphere around.
That doesn’t let up inside the rink. We all know how raucous the crowd was when UPEI was usurping one of the country’s best teams. But each quarterfinal saw generous turnouts.
Particularly, the matinee games were a treat with several buses of schoolchildren dropping in for games. Some even brought signs and dressed in the colours of teams halfway across the country. Even though a lot of Canadian media excludes university sports in their coverage, it’s inspiring that the teachers are encouraging students to go all-out in support of the country’s best this weekend.
I haven’t expected any less this weekend from Charlottetown. Going to Charlottetown Islanders games as a child, I saw how much the hometown team means to the small but mighty community when they go on a run — like UPEI is now. That’s the funny thing; whether it’s U SPORTS, the QMJHL team or many other leagues, PEI more often than not just has the one team to get behind.
But they make it count. They’re making it count by putting on a great event so far.