Tuesday Morning Skate: Week 19, U Cup Preview

Here we are once again. The twilight of the season is upon us. We started off in October with 35 teams, all hopeful to reach their goals and take steps forward as a program. But just like every year, they begin to fall down one by one. Now we’re left with eight teams, five of which enter the tournament as winners, three of which will need to summon up all the potential they have to forget the disappointment they ran into at the end of their conference playoff runs. It all comes to a head on Thursday when all eyes from the university hockey community zero in on Fredericton. The reigning, defending champs at UNB come in as the favourites. But there’s seven other teams which all give us reason to believe they’ve got what it takes to stop the big red machine from taking home the three-peat. A naturally unpredictable tournament with a propensity for drama and overtime, the U Cup is truly one of the toughest tournaments to win.

#8 Concordia Stingers: Playoff Finish (OUA 3rd Place)

Back in 2015-16, the Stingers were littered with some top-end QMJHL scorers. They were a team with potential to outgun anyone, but lacked the glue to put the pieces together. Later that season they met McGill in the first round of the playoffs as the seventh seed. The first game was laughable. A 9-2 trouncing of Concordia saw McGill run the Stingers right out of town and eventually swept them 2-0. A year later things looked far more promising for Concordia with Olivier Hinse back in the fold, rookie sensation Anthony DeLuca tearing up the league like nobody’s business, and finally a proven goaltender in Philippe Cadorette. But here they are at nationals without a single one of those players. In what’s been a lightning fast three seasons, the Stingers have acquired, then lost, some of the best players in the OUA, yet they’ve persevered to not just survive, but thrive in the ultra-competitive OUA East. Led by Phil Hudon, whose off-ice battles far out-weight the ones he’s fought this season, this is a team as offensively capable as they were three seasons ago. But with goaltending, better defence, and a new culture, these aren’t your 2016 Concordia Stingers.

#7 Acadia Axemen: Playoff Finish (AUS 3rd Place)

A track record of excellence in the AUS regular season has been met with untimely demises in the playoffs for the Acadia Axemen. They haven’t had a losing season since 2008, but they only have one title in that time span in an eight team (now seven team) conference. In recent years especially, the Axemen have fallen short in the semi-finals to StFX twice, and before that were upset by UPEI in the quarter-finals of the 2016 playoffs. The bronze medal game certainly isn’t where any team at the U Cup wants to be playing, but Acadia’s win on Sunday morning last year was a big one for a program searching for any source of confidence in the playoffs. Now they’re in a similar situation, with Alberta on deck in the quarter-finals. An upset will need to be in the cards for Acadia to move on, but the Golden Bears will be the first to tell you the seedings mean nothing in the U Cup. The Axemen are a very good hockey team, one that had the capability to oust both StFX and/or UNB prior to the AUS final. But now that objective has come and gone, the focus turns to winning their first national title since 1996 when they beat Waterloo 3-2 inside Maple Leaf Gardens.

#6 Saskatchewan Huskies: Playoff Finish (Canada West Runner-up)

So close, yet so far. Time and time again the Huskies have had their shot to hoist the U Cup, seven times to be exact. But they’ve walked away as champions once, losers six times. Yet in their own conference, they’re 10 time champions since 1980. Their lone national championship team back in 1983 featured a blueline bolstered with Robin Bartel who played a year with Saskatchewan before becoming one of the few players to carve a path to the NHL post-university days. That team also had a younger version of Dave Adolph on defence. In his final year of eligibility as a player, Adolph went out on top. Now captain Kendall McFaull finds himself in the same situation. A fifth year vet who’s appearing in his fourth University Cup, he leads a cast of Huskies who need to find the aggression, confidence, and tenacity that’s made them one of the finest university programs in the country. After years of Jordon Cooke putting Saskatchewan on his back when they were down, the Huskies have a chance to return the favour to the country’s best goalie who sits on the sideline with injury. A disappointment in the Canada West final a year ago never prevented them from getting to the U Cup final, but this year they’ll have to do it with a different face between the pipes.

#5 StFX X-Men: Playoff Finish (AUS Runner-up)

A team that’s nearly an identical replication of the squad they sent to the U Cup last year, the X-Men come into this tournament totally backwards from the way they did in 2017. Following a perfect postseason, the X-Men charged into Fredericton with all the confidence in the world. But a shocking 8-0 blowout loss at the hands of Saskatchewan sucked all the wind out of their sails immediately, never to be regained in time for the bronze medal game. Now brandished with a brand new captain in Craig Duininck, they have some demons to exorcise from last year. They’ll look to do so in the same fashion they did in 2004. A year after losing to UQTR in the final, StFX took UNB to OT in Fredericton in one of the greatest games in U Cup history. It took double overtime to get it done, but Blake Robson, fresh from the penalty box, scored the OT winner. Years later, the Varsity Reds would return the favour when they beat StFX for a national title in 2016 in Halifax. Now the opportunity exists for StFX to spoil the party in Fredericton again. The history of the X-Men program runs deep, yet they’ve only claimed a national title once. They’re in a tough spot this season after dropping the AUS finals, but it’s not like that ever stopped a certain team from winning back-to-back national championships before.

#4 Brock Badgers: Playoff Finish (OUA Runner-up)

The team that isn’t supposed to be here, but they are here. Against all the odds, all the numbers, the Badgers have persisted onward, and have earned the right to be amongst the country’s best eight programs. Given, they’re coming off a Queen’s Cup where they were visibly outplayed by McGill. To find the last time an OUA West team has captured the national banner, you’ll have to venture back to 2002 when the Western Mustangs took out the UQTR Patriotes 4-3 in triple OT. That year the Mustangs entered the tournament after losing the Queen’s Cup, not all that dissimilar to Brock. But that was also a Western team which never lost during the regular season. On the positive side, the Guelph Gryphons weren’t supposed to be at the U Cup either in 2015 after a 3-12 start to their season, but came away with national bronze. Brock are here for the first time since 2008, when they lost games to both UNB and Saskatchewan. For the Badgers to do the seemingly impossible, they’ll need to give us some of the biggest upsets in U Cup history. But they deserve that chance. They got to this point the right way, and they should have the respect of any opponent they encounter.

#3 McGill Redmen: Playoff Finish (OUA Champion)

This is familiar ground for the McGill Redmen. The last time they were crowned national champions was in Fredericton for the 2012 University Cup. That year the Redmen had a 22-4-2 record in the regular season, identical to the one they had this year. Armed with one of the countries’ best goal-scorers in Francis Verreault-Paul, led on the backend by Marc-AndréDorion, and anchored between the pipes by Hubert Morin, the Redmen actually lost one game in the round-robin to Saskatchewan, but advanced to the final by way of goal differential and defeated Western 4-3 in OT, which was the last time the U Cup was decided past regulation. The only OUA team to win a U Cup since 2003, the Redmen have a real shot to do it again this year. They’ve showed they can battle back when on the ropes, something they didn’t do a year ago when StFX snuffed them out in the quarter-finals. The Redmen might be one of the oldest hockey teams in the world, but they’re finding the best success they’ve ever had in the last decade. A U Cup this year in Fredericton would truly cement this program as one of the greatest to come out of the OUA in the 21st century thus far.

#2 Alberta Golden Bears: Playoff Finish (Canada West Champion)

The Golden Bears are the team with the golden standard. They’ve been champions at the national level 15 times, have a head coach in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and have dominated their conference for half a century. Anything short of playing on Sunday at the U Cup is a disappointment for them, but we no longer live in an era where Alberta’s top contenders are Tom Watt’s U of T Varsity Blues. In the last two years we’ve seen Alberta send two completely different teams to the U Cup. The 2016 version presented a veteran team led by Jordan HickmottLevko KoperJordan Rowley, and Kruise Reddick. In 2017, they iced the youngest team at the tournament with rookies Luke Philp Tyson BaillieJason Fram, and Brendan Burke heavily relied upon. Both times, those teams had their U Cup dreams dashed in the first round by an AUS program. Now many of those faces from 2017 return again looking for vengeance on Acadia. In a season which has seen few, if any, road bumps along the way, you’d be hard pressed to find another Alberta team in recent memory as stacked to the brim with talent than this one. But the only way we can consider this one of the best Alberta teams of all-time is if they come away from Fredericton with U Cup glory just as they last did in 2015.

#1 UNB Varsity Reds: Playoff Finish (AUS Champion)

To successfully pull off the three-peat, the Varsity Reds will need to have gone 9-0 in a single game elimination tournament pitting the best programs in the country against each other. In today’s day and age where the level of competition continues to rise by the year in all three conferences, a UNB three-peat would undoubtedly go down as one of the most impressive feats in university hockey history. The story all year has been pressure and expectation. How could the Varsity Reds do it without Jordan MurrayPhilippe HalleyEtienne MarcouxCam Braes, Matt PetgraveCam Critchlow, and Philippe Maillet? A lot of it starts with the man behind the bench, Gardiner MacDougall. Year after year, the Varsity Reds are prepared for just about anything the U SPORTS level has thrown at them. This wasn’t a rebuild year for the V-Reds, they simply just took a moment to reload. Now entering as AUS champs, they have all the confidence in the world. They have goal scorers, playmakers, shutdown defencemen, and a red hot goaltender. All the pieces are there, but the hunger and desire to be relentless in a tournament where you cannot afford to sit back at any point needs to be apparent for UNB to pull it off yet again.

X-Factor Players to Watch:

Jayden Hart, F | Alberta Golden Bears

Jayden Hart played in only seven regular season contests for Alberta this year, and saw playoff action just twice. Three assists on the whole year may not be a lot to show, but it wasn’t long ago that Hart was leading the Canada West conference in scoring halfway through 2016-17. Although he hasn’t found that form this year, and Alberta’s line combos are all but set for the U Cup, should he be in the right place at the right time, there’s no reason Hart can’t turn out as one of the biggest breakout players at this year’s U Cup. Similar to how Taylor Cooper exploded for the Golden Bears a year ago down the stretch, Hart still has the potential for big goals off his stick.

Kohl Bauml, F | Saskatchewan Huskies

When the Saskatchewan Huskies came to Halifax for the 2016 University Cup, they brought one of the youngest teams in the country with them. Starring front and centre was the first line of Levi CableAndrew Johnson, and Kohl Bauml. Together they posted terrific numbers in their rookie seasons, and were dangerous every time they had the puck at the U Cup. In recent years, they’ve all seen their production drop, especially Johnson and Bauml. But Bauml should have an opportunity to make something happen on the ice this year. He’s still got untapped potential which could be a giant difference maker if it comes out in Fredericton.

Nathan Pancel, F | StFX X-Men

An ex-40+ goal scorer in the OHL, Nathan Pancel brought his production over to StFX where he posted 11 goals during his rookie season. But the sophomore campaign turned out to be a real rough one offensively for Pancel, who needed 15 games to finally find the back of the net, and finished his season with only three goals. This year saw his production rebound to an extent with nine goals, four of which were game-winners tying him for the AUS conference lead. A trigger man who can be hot and cold, but very effective when hot, Pancel has the ability to be a hero at anytime, just like Michael Clarke was back in 2016.

Geoff Schemitsch, D | Acadia Axemen

The 2017-18 season got off to a real rough start for the Acadia Axemen defensively, who were down to just two healthy defenders at one point. This was expected to be a big fifth year for Geoff Schemitsch who was supposed to lead the way for the Axemen blueline. But after an injury incurred during the preseason, he was held to just five games in the regular season, joining the lineup again on Jan. 24th. For a player of Schemitsch’s calibre to be thrown right into the fire late in the year in a key role is one of the toughest assignments to ask of a player. One of the conference’s best puck-moving and intelligent defenders, Schemitsch will be taking on a high-leverage role this weekend for a team that missed him desperately at times in the regular season.

Cameron Brace, F | UNB Varsity Reds

A two-time 30+ goal scorer in the OHL, Cameron Brace has seen his production fluctuate during his time with UNB. His sophomore season yielded 15 goals, only to be countered by a year which saw him score only five goals and pitted him in the stands for the U Cup. Now a year later, Brace doubled his goal output in the regular season, and exploded for a four point effort against StFX in the first game of the AUS final. No longer just a spectator and with some confidence back in his scoring touch, Brace is more ready than he’s ever been to make a splash at the U Cup.

Matt MacLeod, F | Brock Badgers

Formerly of Fredericton’s very own STU Tommies, Matt MacLeod was displaced from his initial commitment after the Tommies folded in the offseason of 2016. Without a place to play, MacLeod opted to return home and suit up for the Brock Badgers. His first year with Brock saw him post 13 goals, second most on the team, as a dominant OUA power forward. This year was less fruitful, with just five goals, but the same can be said for nearly everybody on the Badgers in a year where their offensive production has taken a step back. Even with the lower numbers in the regular season, MacLeod is still the same player he was for Brock last year, and will play a bigger role than AUS fans will remember him having with Saint Thomas just a few years ago.

Marc-Antoine Turcotte, G | Concordia Stingers

Of all the areas of improvement the Concordia Stingers desperately needed to fix, goaltending was atop the list for a number of seasons. Since Marc-André Élément took the program over, Concordia suddenly went from having shallow goaltending, to a crease nearly as deep as the Mariana Trench. Miguel Sullivan, Philippe Cadorette, and Julio Billia were all former QMJHL starters brought into the program, and now they’re riding another with former Saint John Sea Dog Marc-Antoine Turcotte. With a quarter-final showdown against UNB upcoming, he’s going to be a busy man. Turcotte has been up to the task all year for Concordia, posting numbers better than he did as a starter in the QMJHL. He needs to be great again for Concordia to have a shot a winning in Fredericton.

Nikolas Brouillard, D | McGill Redmen

Nikolas Brouillard was rumoured to be heading to McGill for the longest time, but a late season injury a year ago finally led to Brouillard making the jump from the pro ranks to the OUA. Forced to sit out the first 25 games of the season, Brouillard was an exceptionally late addition to the Redmen this year. Rarely do teams like to mess with chemistry late in a university season right before playoffs, but Brouillard is well worth the risk. He in himself has the ability to be a game-breaker every single night. Brouillard’s OUA career is just getting started, and what better place to have the coming out party than the U Cup?

Final Thoughts:

The time has finally come for the biggest test in U SPORTS hockey to get underway; the U Cup. It’s a tournament which leaves zero room for error. One bad period, one bad shift, even one bad turnover can be all it takes to bring a sudden death to any championship dreams you may have had. Single game elimination allows for anybody to win, and just as easily for anybody to lose. As a result, the U Cup games are among the most difficult to predict. Who could have seen Carleton and Saskatchewan’s quadruple overtime marathon coming a few years back? And who would’ve predicted the Huskies to clobber StFX 8-0 in the semi-final last year? One way or another, the U Cup presents us with one surprise after another. Lucky for us, we don’t have to wait much longer to see what it has in store for us this time.