TORONTO, ON – With three weeks of the U SPORTS men’s hockey season in the books, some of the contending teams are starting to become clear — while other heavy-winning programs might not entirely be the real deal just yet.
In Week 3 of 49 Sports’ updated column, we look at three AUS takeaways, two from the OUA and one from Canada West, as we zip around U SPORTS men’s hockey.
3 – The AUS
UNB Reds down StFX in U SPORTS GOTW
The UNB Reds and StFX X-Men played the undoubted Game of the Weekend and potential Game of the Year on Saturday, with UNB coming away as 5-4 overtime winners after a thrilling matinee clash.
The Reds have gotten off to a strong start this season, and on Friday night, grabbed their third shutout in a row, making the start one of the best in program history, with shutout wins against UPEI, Moncton and Dalhousie.
However, despite solid play from goaltenders Samuel Richard and Griffin Outhouse, the first test against StFX showed that UNB won’t have an easy time waltzing through the AUS despite potentially being even more potent than last season.
The StFX test gave them their first competitive opponent after steamrolling Moncton and Dalhousie 8-0. While UPEI held them to a 1-0 win, the Panthers looked a step behind in their second-week efforts, likely closer to their authentic level.
The Reds this season look more composed on the blueline than they did last year and have been able to limit shots against them, notably through the play of Adam McCormick and Kade Landry. However, first-years Colton Kammerer and Sam McGinley have seamlessly stepped into essential roles on the back end.
In Saturday’s OT win over StFX, the Reds saw improved play from Mike Petizian, who came in as a contributing forward last year but has emerged as part of the early-season core alongside veterans Brady Gilmour, Jason Wilms and Austen Keating.
Meanwhile, rookie Sean McGurn appeared to get up to speed, able to distribute passes to wingers while winning just under half of his faceoffs. However, the Reds were fine in the dot, with Wilms winning 14 of 18 draws and Camaryn Baber winning 12 of 17.
While a 5-4 overtime win might not be the most pleasing from a two-way perspective, the Reds ensured they did not surrender the lead more than once, only trailing at 2-1 at the end of the opening frame.
Heading into the third week of the season, head coach Gardiner MacDougall’s group faces a pair of tough away tests, taking on a highly motivated Acadia Axemen program and the potentially title-contending SMU Huskies.
Acadia Axemen improving significantly ahead of major weekend
The Acadia Axemen have had a couple of down seasons since hosting the 2022 U CUP, but have gotten right back on track and look to be a credible threat in the AUS this season.
Led by head coach Darren Burns, the Axemen had a tentative opening weekend with tight losses to StFX and Dalhousie. Yet, the second weekend showed their ability to challenge teams in various ways, while adapting to the qualities of their opponents.
Over the weekend, they defeated the UPEI Panthers in a 9-2 dismantling before a detail-focused 4-2 win over fellow AUS contenders SMU in Halifax, with one of the key players being first-year Brady Burns, who had four assists against UPEI and one against SMU.
At the same time, fellow freshmen Ethan Ernst, and Cameron Whynot have gotten into the AUSS rhythm quickly and are already invaluable pieces to Acadia’s puzzle.
Finishing off their strong weekend was the top-tier play of rookie goaltender Brayden Peters, who stopped a combined 56/60 shots through the two games, as he left his debut weekend with a .933 save percentage.
With Peters’ strong play, it leaves an intriguing decision for Acadia’s staff after Thomas Couture played the first two games of the season. Regardless, goaltending seems to be a strong suit for Acadia for the first time since they lost Logan Flodell to the pro game.
Coming off a strong weekend, Acadia’s young core will likely have to lean on the veterans such as Liam Kidney and Nick Deakin-Poot a little more this week, as they take on challenging programs from UNB and Moncton — as they also do the week following.
Moncton Aigles-Bleus proving to not be “also-rans”
The Monton Aigles-Bleus might not be a true contender in the AUS this season, but they indeed showed growth in their second set of games, with victories against a much-improved Dalhousie Tigers and the StFX X-Men.
In Derek Cormier’s second season as head coach, Moncton looked significantly more comfortable in their approach and appeared to learn the defensive mistakes in their 8-0 loss to UNB from the opening weekend.
Forwards Edouard St-Laurent and Nathael Roy have been heavily involved in most offensive actions for Moncton, putting up a combined 16 shots in their 4-3 victory over Dalhousie, helping lead the group after a few years each in the AUS.
Meanwhile, the composure on the backend is a significant improvement with Thomas Cusson and Alexis Arsenault.
While the penalty kill and special teams in general have struggled, Moncton has shown great progress at even strength and with slight improvement in other aspects of the game, could be primed to be a tough first-round playoff team come the spring.
2 – THE OUA
Brock Badgers making the most of the OUA West
After two weeks, three men’s hockey teams in the U SPORTS OUA conference still hold undefeated records, but few have looked more consistent and composed than the Brock Badgers.
Having opened the season with a pair of wins against reigning OUA Queen’s Cup semifinalists Lakehead, the Badgers beat two lower-ranked teams this weekend but did so confidently and with immense structure.
On Friday, they downed the Guelph Gryphons 4-2 before picking apart the Western Mustangs to the tune of a 5-1 victory — with both victories coming on away ice.
While other top teams often have players that stand out above the rest scoring-wise, the Badgers have impressed with their depth, as 12 players posted points on the weekend, including three-point games from Justin Brack and Jared Marino in the Western victory.
What’s stood out is the Badgers’ fluidity in neutral zone transitions, something that hasn’t always been there for the Brock program over the last several years. Early in 2023-24, they are showing an ability to maneuver the puck into offensive spaces quickly, and when they do, they create crowded shooting lanes to get shots on goal.
Heading into the year, some doubts surrounded head coach TJ Manastersky’s goaltending. Now, two weeks into the season, it looks as though Connor Ungar will continue to be the starter, riding a hot start with four wins, and a .940 save percentage on 116 shots.
Brock’s upcoming weekend will provide them with their toughest test yet, a challenging trip to Kingston to take on the also-perfect Queen’s Gaels, and a clash against the bruising RMC Paladins.
Queen’s continues strong early season start with Duhart
The Queen’s Gaels just missed the Queen’s Cup playoffs last season, and if their start to the new season is any indication, they have no plans of missing them again. After blowout wins on the road against the York Lions and Ontario Tech Ridgebacks to open the campaign, the Gaels returned to the Kingston Memorial Centre to take down the Carleton Ravens and the Queen’s Gaels.
The key reason for the Gaels’ strong run of play has to be the absolute meteoric start for sophomore forward Dalton Duhart. After a respectable four goals and nine points in 26 games in his rookie campaign, Duhart already has bagged seven goals and 14 points through his first four games. On Friday, he picked up a hat trick and an assist in Queen’s 5-3 win over the Gee-Gees and a night later, he added two goals and two assists in their 4-2 win over the Carleton Ravens.
After potting just 66 goals in 26 games a year ago, the Gaels are already up to 24 goals in their first four games. Along with a strong start from freshman goalie Aidan Spooner, who sits 3-0-0 with a .940 save percentage through his first three OUA starts, the Gaels find themselves in a strong early position.
Head coach Brett Gibson will hope for his team to continue their hot start this weekend when they make a pair of cross-divisional road trip stops. On Friday, Queen’s heads to Guelph for the first time since January 2020, while on Saturday, they take on the also undefeated Brock Badgers for the first time since October 2018 and head to Brock for the first time since January 2017.
1 – Canada West
Atkinson return lifts already soaring Thunderbirds
The UBC Thunderbirds are doing whatever they can to be considered a contender in Canada West this season, a year which, at the start, appears to be more open than ever. After pairs of wins against the Alberta Golden Bears and Regina Cougars to open the campaign, UBC added two wins against the Manitoba Bisons.
Playing at their former home of Father Bauer Rink, the Thunderbirds welcomed forward Scott Atkinson back into the lineup for the first time this season after he recovered from an injury, and the third-year scored the overtime winner in the opening game.
While the unusual rink may have played a factor, the Thunderbirds had difficulties in the first two-game set with the Bisons, despite coming away with the 4-3 overtime win. UBC to
The young Bisons team hemmed UBC into their own end for extended periods of time and forced the Thunderbirds to focus on their defensive tactics, limiting the high-percentage scoring chances for Manitoba to take on goaltender Kaeden Lane.
Still, UBC’s Jonathan Smart was able to help work the puck into areas for wingers to attack, allowing UBC to score off breaks courtesy, primarily of Connor MacDonald and Liam Kindree.
Head coach Sven Butenschon and the Thunderbirds had a swifter effort in the second matchup, downing Manitoba 5-2, while holding them to just 13 shots on backup netmider Cole Schweibus.
At the end of week three, the Thunderbirds ranked third in U SPORTS while leading Canada West with a 6-0-0 record. At the same time, Kindree, Smart and Sam Huo lead U SPORTS Canada West with 11 points each.
So far, it’s been a youth-driven effort for UBC, but once the more senior players begin contributing in more significant areas, UBC could be a real force for the rest of the season. And given the strength of their upcoming schedule, the 6-0-0 T-Birds can see the favourable road towards 10-0-0.
Still, they can’t look too far ahead, with weekend matchups against the TWU Spartans looming.
With Queen’s section from Richard Coffey